JULIO VILLANUEVA CHANG

GARCíA MáRQUEZ GOES TO THE DENTIST

WHAT DOES A NOBEL PRIZE–WINNER WITH CAVITIES WANT WITH A SMALL-TOWN ODONTOLOGIST?

DISCUSSED: Pain, Fame, Friendship, Gums, Chance, God, Loss, Waiting Rooms, Family, Periodontal Disease, Luck, Unlikely Compadres, The Social Implications of Good Dental Hygiene, Big Celebrities in Small Towns, Colombia, Famous Godfathers

I.

On February 11, 1991, Doctor Jaime Gazabón opened the office door of his dental clinic in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, to find Gabriel García Márquez in the waiting room. It was two thirty in the afternoon; the patient, he recalled, was punctual for his first visit, arriving by chauffeur to the neighborhood aptly named Bocagrande (“Bigmouth”).

When the dentist came out to greet him, the writer had just finished filling out his dental history form: “Patient’s name: Gabriel García Márquez. Ocupation: Lifetime patient. Telephone number: Disconnected for nonpayment. If married, occupation of spouse: Yes, she doesn’t do anything. Company employing spouse: Wouldn’t you like to know. Name of the person responsible for the payment of treatment: Gabo, the telegraphist’s son. Is anything bothering you? Do you have any pain? Bothers I have, the pain will come later. Can you tell us who recommended you to the doctor? His universal fame.

As John Cheever once said, a story is “what you tell yourself in a dentist’s office while you’re waiting for an appointment.”

For the first seven years of consultation, the dentist referred to García Márquez respectfully as maestro. He later began to call him compadre (“good friend” or “godfather”). When García Márquez found out that the doctor’s wife was pregnant with her sixth child, the couple’s first son, he asked: “And when are you going to baptize him?” A friend explained to the dentist that in Mexico, where García Márquez had lived for decades, the honor of being a godfather is sometimes asked of the parents and not the other way around. The day of the baptism, García Márquez and his wife, Mercedes Barcha, were the first to arrive at the church.

“I don’t think anything is chance,” Doctor Gazabón later told me. It was a Macondian[1] baptism.

That ceremony wasn’t the first time the families had coincided. Both had once lived in Cartagena de Indias’ Pie de la Popa neighborhood; García Márquez’s sister often went to the Gazabón house to play with the dentist’s sister. The dentist was a year-old baby when the writer was already a twenty-something suckling rooster (from a young age, he exhibited a penchant for teasing others in an attempt to immunize them against solemnity). The writer and the dentist were from different generations: when García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Gazabón was completing postgraduate study in Oral Rehabilitation at Ohio State University.

The first time the novelist visited the home of his new dentist, he entered through the main door and left through the kitchen so he could say hello to the maids.

García Márquez enjoyed telling Doctor Gazabón, time and again, that when he arrived at Cartagena de Indias, Gazabón was the first person he called. Doctor Gazabón was invited to read a fragment of One Hundred Years of Solitude at the Naval Museum in Cartagena. His friends sent him books with the hopes that García Márquez would inscribe something in them. An autograph. A doodle. Please. The ladies begged to have their pictures taken with him. Just once. A minute. Please. The patients that arrived at the office saw, in front of the black armchair in which they were seated, a framed picture of the illustrious patient and his envied dentist.

  1. Macondo is a fictional town in Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Julio Villanueva Chang is the founding editor of Etiqueta Negra. He is the author of Criminal Praises, a book of profiles, and the winner of the Interamerican Press Association Award in feature writing. His profile of the blind mayor of Cali (Colombia) was published in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Translated by Samuel Bauer, Ph.D.

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