De viaje por Europa del Este. Gabriel García Márquez. Bogotá: Literatura Random House. 2015. 160 pages.
Well before receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature and becoming an unconditional friend of Fidel Castro, Gabriel García Márquez was content and unknown; he visited several countries with a scrutinizing eye and cultivated literary journalism with valor and grace. One of the books he wrote during this period, before becoming a star figure of the “Boom,” is De viaje por los países socialistas: 90 días en la “Cortina de hierro” [Journey through the Socialist Countries: 90 Days Behind the “Iron Curtain”], originally published in 1957 and which the publishing company Penguin Random House just reprinted under the title De viaje por Europa del Este [Journey through Eastern Europe], a landmark work discerning the true political, economic, and human landscape of the countries that made up the USSR four decades after the triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution.
One of the distinctive features of the eleven chronicles that comprise this book is the fact that they were not the result of a predetermined plan, but rather the fruits of the risky combination of an unexpected proposal and a restless desire to answer the question: what is life like in the Soviet bloc? One morning in June, a wandering Italian man, “a on-again, off-again correspondent for Milanese magazines,” purchased a French car. Since he had nothing else to do, he suggested to García Márquez and a French woman of Indochinese origin, who used to work as a layout editor for a Parisian magazine, that they go see what was behind the Iron Curtain. In complying with the procedures that would allow them to journey into Eastern Europe, the travelers had the opportunity to confront a reality that began to challenge their capacity for understanding.
When García Márquez and his travel companions arrived in Berlin, the city had not yet been divided by the wall. The contrast between the capitalist side and the communist side was drastic. While West Berlin was made up of streets that seemed like they were “uprooted en bloc from New York” and which presented “an appearance of fabulous wealth,” in East Berlin the people were crammed in the bottom floors of buildings, without sanitation or running water, and the shops were filthy, “with items of low quality and questional taste.” The exception on the eastern side was “the colossal eyesore that was Stalin Avenue.” There were people that lived on one side and worked on the other. In certain areas, one sidewalk was socialist and the other capitalist. In theory, someone couldn’t work on one side and cross the street to shop on the other; in practice, appearances were all that mattered. At the official rate of exchange, East German banks charged two marks for one dollar, but any bank in the western world charged 17 eastern marks for one dollar. García Márquez and his friends had enough to travel through the entire German Democratic Republic from top to bottom, staying in the best hotels and eating in the best restaurants, with 20 dollars.
For the travelers that had crossed the Iron Curtain intending to see the face of the socialist Utopia, it was incomprehensible “that the people of East Germany themselves had seized power, the means of production, commerce, banks, communication and, yet, they were… the saddest people” they had ever seen. The reasons for this collective sadness were many: crowds stuffed into trams, dusty shop windows displaying trashy goods at outrageous prices, half-hour long lines to buy bread, train tickets or movie passes. “It was like having gone to the movies to kill time and finding yourself in a film of madmen, without feet or a head, and with an intentionally disconcerting plot. Because it is at least disconcerting that in the new world, at the height of the revolution, everything seems outdated, stale, and decrepit” (p. 27).
With the exception of Czechoslovakia, the “only socialist country where the people [did] not seem to suffer from nervous tension and where you did not [have] the impression— true or false— of being controlled by the secret police” (p. 54), each country they visited from the former Eastern Europe challenged their capacity for understanding magical realism at its best. In Moscow, the epicenter of the Utopia, the number of contrasts were baffling. While a Soviet projectile landed on the moon, workers were stuffed in rooms and were only allowed to buy new clothing twice a year. It was incredible that this nation in which shoes were excessively ordinary and the style of clothing was horrendous was capable of producing thermonuclear weapons. Apparently, in 40 years of revolution the Soviet Union had dedicated all of its labor force to the development of heavy industry, to the detriment of more fundamental everyday needs. García Márquez classified this abysmal imbalance of production as “a process of backwards development” and offered a few examples to illustrate it fully: the powerful TU-104, considered in its time to be a masterpiece of aeronautical engineering, was equipped with “the most primitive of pull-chain toilets”; the sanitary services in an establishment in the suburbs of Moscow “was a long wooden platform, with a half-dozen openings on which a half-dozen respectable citizens did what they had to do (…) in a physiological collectivization not anticipated in the doctrine” (p. 135).
Radio sets were very cheap in the Soviet Union, but they were designed to tune in to only one station: Radio Moscow. All of the news publications were owned by the state. Foreign magazines and newspapers for the general public were edited by the European communist parties. It became impossible to refer to Marylin (sic) Monroe: no Soviet knew who she was. The journalists considered the principle of advertising incomprehensible, which makes freedom of the press possible in the West.
Hungary was the country in which García Márquez was able to see the more sinister side of the Soviet regime. The writer was part of the first western delegation to visit that country following the events of 1956. The delegation was comprised of 18 members. García Márquez and the Belgian Maurice Mayer were the only journalists and wanted to get a feel for Hungary’s situation “without doubt or without political mystifications;” nevertheless, during their entire stay they were guarded by a group of 11 ‘interpreters’, the majority of whom spoke only Hungarian, were armed, did not let them leave the hotel alone and prevented them from speaking to ordinary citizens. They put the delegates up in one of the best hotels in Budapest, advising them not to go out on the streets and to always carry their passports and reminding them that the city was under martial law, for which reason taking photographs was prohibited. García Márquez managed to get around the barrier that prevented him from making contact with the sad, poorly dressed crowd that made never-ending lines to buy everyday necessities, but his efforts were fruitless: the crowd looked at the foreigners with an impervious suspicion, and nobody dared to speak of what had happened just months before, when Soviet troops occupied the city under orders to suppress a popular revolt. At that moment, García Márquez refused to believe in the “bustling publicity that the western journalists gave to the events;” but being at the scene of the events, seeing before him the façades where the people of Budapest took refuge during a fight with the Soviet soldiers, told him that the number of victims surely exceeded the official count of 5,000 dead and 20,000 injured.
The pages of this book of chronicles are marked by the attitude of someone aware of the possibility that “the socialist countries do what’s necessary so that the delegates encounter a nation dressed in their Sunday finest during a massive two-week carnival” (p. 43). Faced with this possibility, García Márquez crossed the Iron Curtain with his senses on high alert. And such was his dedication to the truth that not only was he capable of offering clear snapshots of the Utopia, but rather managed to create a picture of the prevailing atmosphere in many of those places, as can be seen in the following lines, from the chapter titled “Con los ojos abiertos sobre Polonia en ebullición” [With eyes opened to Poland at the boiling point]:
For some time, I kept the memory of the crowd in Warsaw, which walks one right behind the other, dragging kitchen containers, empty cans, and all kinds of metal junk that makes dissonant noises on the pavement. Later I objectively made sense of that nightmarish vision. In Warsaw there are very few automobiles. When the old remodeled trams don’t run, limping along for the excess of passengers, the narrow and wooded Marszalkowa Avenue belongs completely to the pedestrians. But the dense, ragged crowd, which dedicates more time to looking in the shop windows than to buying from the markets, keeps the custom of walking on the sidewalks. The impression is that they are walking together in line, because they don’t scatter into the empty street. There are no horns or combustion engines or the sounds of street hawkers. The only noise that can be heard is the low buzz of the crowd; a continuous noise of kitchen containers, empty cans and all kinds of metal junk.
(…) One can tell from the first moment that life is hard, that they have suffered greatly from numerous catastrophes and that there is a national drama about miniscule domestic problems (pp. 65-66).
As it can be seen in the preceding excerpts, De viaje por Europa del Este is an essential book to help form a concrete idea of the common living conditions in the middle of the previous century in the countries ruled by the hammer and sickle, the symbol triumphantly brandished by the Bolsheviks in 1917. As if that weren’t enough, it is also a fundamental book in measuring the remarkable capacity for observation which distinguished Gabriel García Márquez before he began to sympathize with Fidel.
Arnaldo E. Valero
Instituto de Investigaciones Literarias “Gonzalo Picón Febres”
Translated by Logan Cates