Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor

For all the times I go looking for a specific book it's always more interesting when a book finds me instead.  I don't know how it's going to work for the generations coming up who will be more accustomed to finding their reading on the Internet, but I don't think I'll ever get over the meditative pleasure of trolling the shelves of used bookstores, flea markets, and library sales for a title or author or book cover that quietly whispers "Psst! Over here!"

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was one of those books who caught my attention on a twenty-five cent shelf and turned out to be infinitely more rewarding than it's modest price.

In February of 1958 a destroyer from the Colombian Navy lost eight crew members overboard during a storm while traveling through the Caribbean. When the ship arrived at its home port two days after the incident a search party was sent out and, after four days, concluded there were no survivors among the eight lost men. Four days later – a full ten days after going overboard, a man named Luis Alejandro Velasco turned up half dead on a deserted beach in northern Columbia. Quickly he became a celebrity, a hero, and was telling (and selling) his stories to newspapers and advertisers. After over a month of notoriety he showed up at the offices of El Spectador offering to tell his story again, for a price. Among the three young men who ran that paper was a budding journalist named Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Originally, not wanting to trade in sloppy seconds, they rejected the sailor's offer but then changed their mind and very quickly learned that what Velasco was offering was a chance to tell the whole story, one that wasn't sanitized or authorized by the Colombian government.

After having been in a Mobile, Alabama port for repairs for eight months, the destroyer Caldas weighs anchor for home. Behind them Velasco and his shipmates leave behind American girlfriends, American movies, and months worth of drinking and brawling in port bars. With them, the sailors are bringing home the spoils of idle time and pay in a capitalist port town: refrigerators, television sets, and washing machines.

In truth, it is difficult to understand today how the Colombian government of 1955 needed to cover up what Marquez calls "the moral and political cargo" the full story includes. Velasco's account relates details casually and were it not for the fact that the introduction explains the contraband on deck was partially to blame for the incident, and that it was illegal for the military to carry such cargo, it would be difficult to understand why this serialized news story was such a journalistic coup. (It was the last thing Garcia Marquez wrote for the paper, and it was shut down by the government shortly thereafter). If we had been told the story as the country first heard it, that a storm blew the men overboard at sea, it would be more of a shock when we learned that there was no storm and the reason the ship pitched and rolled in the windy sea had to do with the cargo on deck making the ship unbalanced. It would be understandable that the officers of the Caldas might want to cover up their irresponsibility in the tragedy, but once the government heard the truth from Velasco they insisted he keep his version of events true to what had already been reported. After a month of this he could no longer carry the lies and that was when he approached El Spectador.

Originally told in a serialized format over two weeks, what becomes clear is how vividly the seaman remembers details for each day he was adrift. Clearly, when those ten days threaten to be your last the details may become more firmly etched than other days. It is not impossible to imagine that he sat there thinking about his old girlfriend that he left behind, or his success at catching a seagul and then disgust at trying to eat it, or even his daily visits from the sharks always at the same time of day, five o'clock, as if answering a dinner bell for a meal that is never served. But in hearing his tale people had accused him of fantasy and Velasco's respones was "If it is, than what did I do during my ten days at sea?"

In thinking about accusing a man who, no one argues, was lost at sea for ten day of being a liar I suddenly remembered (or vaguely did) Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea which had been published only three years earlier. In the oft-assigned classic, an old fisherman named Santiago goes out on a boat alone and after an 84 day dry spell comes back the an 18 foot marlin strapped to his little boat. Well, he comes back with part of that marlin, the head and tail and a long stretch of spine, as the rest has been eaten away by sharks on his way home. In these two stories sharks threaten the men in their small boats, but in Hemingway they are kind enough not to capsize Santiago's boat, or leap into it as they do in Velasco's, and they gingerly pull away at the marlin in such a way as to leave the spine in tact so the old man can at least prove he did indeed catch a fish that big. After reading Velasco's account of the vicious nature of sharks, images more in keeping with a lifetime of documentaries, it is clear that the truth in this case is not stranger but stronger than fiction.

So I end up thinking about the cannon of western literature, and how we teach Hemingway for his use of language and his images of rugged individualism and his dedicated symbolism; and then I read Garcia Marquez and his reportage whith is nothing like his magical realism, with its direct language and its vivid details and his ability to shape a first-person narrative from a person's real life experience, and I can't help but think that we're studying the wrong book. 

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor is a short book, just over 100 pages, and a compelling tale of a man lost at sea. It puts us readers in that cork lifeboat in the Caribbean with Velasco and asks us to imagine each of those ten days with no food, no fresh water, no tools but a set of keys, and asks: would you have done any different? Throw this book into the back seat of a long drive, or on an end table in a summer rental, or secretly tuck it into the bottom of a bag packed for camp and see what happens.

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Knopf 1986 / Vintage 1987

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