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THE STORY OF A SHIPWRECKED SAILOR by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; translated by Randolph Hogan (Knopf: $13.95; 104 pp.)

April 27, 1986|RICHARD EDER

"The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor," as the author left-handedly suggests in his preface, is not so much a book as a publishing event.

Seeing that the author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a man of brilliance and of masquerades, the message is not to be taken straight. To him, a publishing event seems to be a subject for opprobrium; yet who knows?

The story itself is a reissue of a series of newspaper articles he wrote 30 years ago for El Espectador of Bogota. It recounts the ordeal of a Colombian sailor who came ashore in a life raft after surviving 10 days without food or water.

As the newspaper later discovered, and as Garcia Marquez tells us in the preface, this was more than a matter of heroism. It was a matter of corruption. The naval vessel was overloaded with contraband, badly secured to the deck; and this allowed a heavy swell to wash overboard not only the man who survived, but seven of his companions, who did not.

Garcia Marquez's original series, as reproduced here, does not mention the corruption but only the ordeal. It is plainly, even roughly told, with little apparent art of the magical realist to come. It is the realism that shows; the magic must have been brewing.

Why reissue it? the reader may wonder; but before he gets a chance to, here is the author: "It seems worthy of publication, but I have never quite understood the usefulness of publishing it. I find it depressing that the publishers are not so much interested in the merit of the story as in the name of the author, which, much to my sorrow, is also that of a fashionable writer."

Take that! Tusquets Editores of Barcelona, which did the original reissuing in 1970. Take that! Alfred A. Knopf Inc., which is bringing it out now. Take that! fashionable writer that the young Garcia Marquez has become. Take that! celebrity-beguiled reader.

So what is he up to? Is the older Garcia Marquez, full of spells and byways, taking a crack at the young Garcia Marquez, full of journalism? Or is the old man of the Left doing mild penance for the elaborate distance he has come since the days when he set down in a newspaper the story of an ordinary man victimized by greed--his own, as we shall see, as well as others'?

Whichever, or neither; this plain tale harnessed to its decidedly baroque preface does not add a great deal to the author's work. It has some compelling things in it, though.

If the misadventure of Luis Alejandro Velasco is told unremarkably, for the most part, the ordeal itself was extraordinary. Washed off the deck of the destroyer Caldas--it was returning to Cartagena after two months' repairs in Mobile--he managed to climb onto a raft. His companions were nearby; one swam as close as six or seven feet. Yet a current bore them away, and he was unable to save them.

The raft was unprovisioned; and all Velasco had was his watch, his keys and three business cards from appliance stores in Mobile. There is plenty of irony in that. The contraband that overloaded the ship--refrigerators, television sets, vacuum cleaners--came from these stores. Every member of the crew, Velasco included, had bought great quantities to resell at home.

So the cards were a mockery. On the other hand, they provided reading material for Velasco's endless blank days. And finally, he ate them. He also ate part of a fish that flopped aboard, fleeing the sharks that circled about. He ate a root that floated by; and he tried to eat a sea gull but found it too repulsive. He drank sea water in small quantities. Twice the raft capsized; fortunately, no sharks were near.

On the 10th day, Velasco spotted the Colombian coast, but the current kept the raft a mile and a half off shore. More remarkable, perhaps, than anything else, he was able to swim the distance and struggle up the beach. It was near a remote hamlet, where he was taken in and cared for. When he was moved to a larger town, all 600 villagers went with him. He was their miracle.

The authorities flew him to Bogota and a hero's welcome. It puzzled him and prompts the second most eloquent thing he says: "In my case, heroism consisted solely of not allowing myself to die of hunger and thirst for ten days."

His most eloquent remark adds a note, I think, to the literature of survival. Velasco lay on the beach, and eventually a man approached, leading a mule. "When I heard him speak, I realized that, more than thirst, hunger and despair, what tormented me most was the need to tell someone what had happened to me."

Beside this, the author's magical-realist preface seems forced. For a while after his return, we are told, Velasco made a modest fortune doing commercials for his watch, which had kept time, and his shoes, which had proved too sturdy to be eaten. After the newspaper reported the contraband, the hero found himself displaced, and went to work for a bus company.

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