Mercedes Barcha, muse, 'crisis manager' and wife of Gabriel García Márquez, dies at 87

As the Nobel laureate's wife and muse Mercedes Barcha dies, looking at the couple's love and relationship.

The New York Times August 24, 2020 14:30:05 IST
Mercedes Barcha, muse, 'crisis manager' and wife of Gabriel García Márquez, dies at 87

Mercedes Barcha, the widow, muse and gatekeeper of Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who played a crucial role in the publication of his breakthrough novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, died 15 August at her home in Mexico City. She was 87.

Her death was confirmed by her son Rodrigo García, who said she had suffered from respiratory problems for many years.

Mercedes and Gabo, as the couple were known, were living in Mexico City in 1965 when García Márquez began work on One Hundred Years of Solitude, the hypnotic, time-bending tale of the mythical village of Macondo, based on the area of Colombia where both had grown up.

For more than a decade, García Márquez had been eking out a living as a journalist — a passionate leftist, he spent a year at the New York office of Prensa Latina, the Cuban press agency — while banging out short stories and novellas. For 18 months, he had holed up in his office at their home while Barcha kept the landlord and the world at bay. When he emerged in late 1966, he later recalled, she asked, “Did you really finish it? We owe $12,000.”

She then pawned her hair dryer and the couple’s blender so she could pay the postage to send the manuscript to his Argentine editor. The book — a South American Genesis, as many would call it, or “an intricate stew of truths and mirages,” as García Márquez wrote, in which priests levitated and flowers rained from the sky — would go on to sell nearly 50 million copies.

One Hundred Years of Solitude and many of the other novels and collections García Márquez published in the decades to follow would be among the rare literary works to enjoy both popular and critical success.

Its themes and characters swirled throughout all his books: savage political violence, passions romantic and otherwise, ghosts, family secrets, idealistic questing madmen and, always, the practical yet mystical women who grounded them — female avatars inspired in one way or another by Barcha, a sharp-witted beauty he had fallen for when they were children.

Toward the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, as the history of Macondo begins to unravel, García Márquez wrote, “The old woman who opened the door with a lamp in her hand took pity on his delirium, and insisted that no, there had never been a pharmacy there, nor had she ever known a woman with a slender neck and sleepy eyes named Mercedes.”

“Mercedes permeates all my books,” he once said. “There’s traces of her everywhere.”

“He called her the manager of the crisis department,” García said, “sometimes without him even knowing what the crisis was.”

Mercedes Barcha Pardo was born 6 November, 1932, in Magangué, Colombia. Her father, Demetrio Barcha, was a pharmacist; her mother, Rachel Pardo, was a homemaker. The oldest of seven children, Mercedes grew up in Sucre and then Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where her family moved to avoid the political violence that convulsed the region at midcentury.

There, home on holiday from convent school, she re-met García Márquez, who was writing for a local newspaper. As the story goes, he had proposed marriage the moment he saw her back in Sucre, when she was nine and he was 14. From the start he found her beautiful and enigmatic, “with an illusionist’s talent for evading questions,” as he wrote in his 2003 memoir, Living to Tell the Tale.

When García Márquez was sent to Europe as a foreign correspondent, he wrote to Barcha regularly. After his newspaper was shut down, he found himself broke in Paris, living in a hotel room and working on a manuscript. Her photo on the wall and a red Olivetti typewriter were among his only belongings.

Upon his return to South America in 1957, he paid Barcha 500 pesos (the equivalent of about $130, or about $1,200 today) to return his letters — she wouldn’t give them up without a prize — and promptly destroyed them. “He was years away from being famous,” García said, “but he was always very particular about their lives being private. He didn’t want the paper trail.”

The two married in 1958. On the day of the wedding, Barcha waited to put on her wedding dress until he had driven up. “It’s not that she doubted him,” García said, “but she had the superstition and the pragmatism of people from a certain world that said, ‘There’s a one-in-a-million chance that a bridegroom might not appear for his wedding.’ So it was just in case.”

Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982, and as his fame increased, with the attendant demands on his time, so did his wife's role as crisis manager and chief of staff.

Their friend Jorge Eduardo Ritter, who had been Panama’s ambassador to Colombia, described Barcha as akin to a president’s adviser. “She let him know what he needed to know,” he said. “She was more informed than he was, having read all the newspapers while he worked each morning.”

If she had neglected to give him money for lunch, Ritter continued, “He would say, ‘Mercedes didn’t give me cash, so you will have to pay.’”

When his novel Love in the Time of Cholera was published in English in 1988, García Márquez told Pete Hamill, who wrote about him for Vanity Fair, “You write better with all your problems resolved. You write better in good health. You write better without preoccupations. You write better when you have love in your life. There is a romantic idea that suffering and adversity are very good, very useful for the writer. I don’t agree at all.”

The couple had homes in Mexico City and Cuernavaca, Mexico; in Barcelona, Spain; in Paris; in Cartagena and Barranquilla, Colombia; and, rather problematically, in Havana, a so-called protocol house lent to them by Fidel Castro, to whom García Márquez remained a loyal friend, confounding almost everyone. Because of their friendship, the US government denied García Márquez a visa until President Bill Clinton, a fan, invited him to Martha’s Vineyard in 1995.

Even in that friendship, apparently, Barcha had the upper hand. As García Márquez told Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, who profiled him in 1999, “Fidel trusts Mercedes even more than he does me.”

“It was one of those epic marriages,” Anderson said in a phone interview. “Mercedes ran the practical side. She unmoored him from the quotidian exigencies of everyday life.”

Each of their homes, he recalled, was identically decorated, with white furniture and carpets, modern art, the same clothes in the closet and the same Apple computer.

“There’s a Spanish phrase: ‘polo a tierra,’ the thing you ground a house with,” Anderson said. “She was his grounding, his connection to the earth.

“She was also insatiably curious about the world and its goings-on; they both were,” he added, “and they were wise-eyed in this very intrinsic way. They came from a similar part of Colombia, from these little backwater river towns where violence was a fact of everyday life.”

García said his parents “had this idea of marriage that was also a kind of complicity. It wasn’t just the love; it was the things that were just between the two of you.

“People say she was the gatekeeper,” he continued. “I think that’s a little facile. There is a gatekeeper when there is a gate to be kept. She was comfortable playing the bad guy, but if my father wasn’t picking up the phone, it wasn’t because she was keeping him away from it. It was because he was not going to take your call today.”

In addition to García, a film and television writer and director, Barcha is survived by another son, Gonzalo García Barcha, an artist and graphic designer; and a brother, Eduardo Barcha.

García Márquez, who died in 2014, often said, “If Mercedes dies first, I’m going to move to a hotel.”

The couple known as Mercedes and Gabo, García said, “were a funny combination of private and gregarious,” with friends from all generations and social strata, and throughout the decades they remained socially indefatigable. For her 80th birthday, Barcha gave herself a pair of blue suede shoes and danced all night.

“I left the party at 2 am,” García recalled, “and she kept going.”

— Featured image: Mercedes Barcha and Gabriel García Márquez. Photo via Twitter.

Penelope Green c.2020 The New York Times Company

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