Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote an astonishing true-story tale of a sailor lost at sea for ten days. So what if he had only one source?
By Jacob Shamsian
When Luis Alejandro Velasco came to Gabriel Garcia Marquez — a well-respected journalist at El Espectador at the time — with a story about how he was shipwrecked for ten days before finding land, he was almost turned down. At the time, the story was stale. Velasco had already spoken to other reporters, and taken advantage of monetary opportunities that arose after his ordeal, advertising for the companies that made his watch and shoes, which had remained intact while at sea.
But Velasco convinced Marquez to take the story, and the result was a series of articles that were later collected into The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor. As astonishing as the story is, its telling raises a few journalistic issues. For one, the story is narrated in the first person, from Velasco’s perspective, instead of being a third person account or a first person one from Marquez. Second, Velasco was the only survivor of the shipwreck, so he is the only source for the story.
The stories, when they appeared in El Espectador, were given Velasco’s byline. It wasn’t until 1970, when the book was published, that Marquez’s name was affixed to it. In reality, Marquez fashioned the words from a series of interviews he held with Velasco. The structure, then, is artificial. The book runs for fourteen chapters, each an article that ran in El Espectador, and almost all end in a cliffhanger.
Marquez used the same strategy of telling the story from the subject’s first person perspective in his book Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littin, about the eponymous Chilean film director. Littin fled Chile under Allende’s rule in 1973, and returned in 1985, when the country was under Pinochet’s control, in secret, while organizing three film crews to film a documentary about life in Chile, a project that eventually became in the 1986 film Acta General de Chile (which, for whatever reason, remains obscure). In both books, Marquez apparently relied exclusively on interviews with the subject.
In his introduction to Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, Marquez wrote that he ensured the narrative’s fidelity by the way he conducted his interviews. “In twenty daily sessions, each lasting six hours, during which I took notes and sprang trick questions on him to expose contradictions, we put together an accurate and concise account of his ten days at sea.” But he probably doesn’t keep any of Velasco’s phrasing, because he never recorded him. He told The Paris Review in 1981 that he didn’t care for using tape recorders. “As a journalist, I never use it. I have a very good tape recorder, but I just use it to listen to music.” The words are Marquez’s, not Velasco’s.
Marquez also told The Paris Review about his process of writing the articles:
It wasn’t questions and answers. The sailor would just tell me his adventures and I would rewrite them trying to use his own words and in the first person, as if he were the one who was writing. When the work was published as a serial in a newspaper, one part each day for two weeks, it was signed by the sailor, not by me. It wasn’t until twenty years later that it was re-published and people found out I had written it. No editor realized that it was good until after I had written One Hundred Years of Solitude.
— Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In another interview, Marquez expressed distaste for using his subjects’ words:
The majority of journalists let the tape recorder do the work, and they think that they are respecting the wishes of the person they are interviewing by retranscribing word for word what he says. They do not realize that this work method is really quite disrespectful: whenever someone speaks, he hesitates, goes off on tangents, does not finish his sentences, and he makes trifling remarks. For me the tape recorder must only be used to record material that the journalist will decide to use later on, that he will interpret and will choose to present in his own way. In this sense it is possible to interview someone in the same way that you write a novel or poetry.
It should also be noted that there isn’t necessarily some other side to the story that begs to be heard — it’s a survival story. Likewise, in Clandestine in Chile, the book is politically motivated, a way of showing how the Pinochet dictatorship was evil, and one way where it was thwarted. There isn’t necessarily a reason to get quotes from Pinochet defending himself. Marquez uses his writing skills as a tool for the subjects who can’t necessarily express their stories on their own in the way they want to, but since both signed on to their respective stories as Marquez told them, they endorse that form of retelling. For Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, the strategy was a boon for El Espectador. As Miles Corwin wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review,
By the time the series ended, El Espectador’s circulation had almost doubled. The public always likes an exposé, but what made the stories so popular was not simply the explosive revelations of military incompetence. García Márquez had managed to transform Velasco’s account into a narrative so dramatic and compelling that readers lined up in front of the newspaper’s offices, waiting to buy copies.
Marquez didn’t bother going through any great pains to verify Velasco’s story with any other sources. At the beginning of the story, Velasco is in Mobile, Alabama, and gives his girlfriend a farewell before his expected journey back to Colombia. She never shows up in the story again; we aren’t told what happens to her. Marquez doesn’t confirm any details with the villagers who took Velasco in when he finally came ashore, nor anyone else he interacted with when he reached land.
However, the story is told believably. Velasco gives minute details in many scenes, and during the middle part of his journey, when he begins to lose a sense of time and lays adrift at sea with nothing but water to look at, details are appropriately hazy. Furthermore, the story doesn’t have any hokey spirituality or finding-oneself subnarrative often associated with fictional survival stories, like Life of Pi. It’s all about how he survived, with little analysis or reflection.
Within The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, both Marquez and Velasco give reasons for why there’s no reason to not believe in the narrative. Mainly, it’s because of the political situation surrounding the story. The reason Marquez decided to take the story is because he had a political motivation to do so, just as Clandestine in Chile was an act of rebellion against the government. Before Marquez took it, the public narrative was that a storm destroyed Velasco’s ship and sent him and his crew overboard. The reality is, Velasco was a naval officer on a Colombian government ship carrying contraband cargo on a destroyer, where it’s illegal to carry cargo. The ship was tossed by heavy winds, and the cargo made the boat sink. The Colombian government apparently worked with Velasco to fashion an alternative narrative, but Velasco came clean with Marquez, and even while the government put pressure on El Espectador that led to its shutdown, Velasco never recanted the story. He was, in Marquez’s words, “a hero who had the courage to dynamite his own statue.” The book ends with asking the reader, “Some people tell me this story is a fantasy. And I ask them: If it is, then what did I do during my ten days at sea?”