A Story of Survival
After the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966, which depicts the account of an apparently motiveless murder of four family members in Kansas) daubed as a ‘non-fiction novel,’ it has been a standard to retell a real life story in garb of a fictional narrative. Indeed, fact is stranger than fiction.
This slight book by Gabriel García Márquez, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor is a non-fiction novel, if we can call the book a novel at all. García Márquez writes: “This book is a journalistic reconstruction of what he (the sailor) told me, as it was published (…) in the Bogotá daily, El Espectador.”
In February 28, 1955, eight crewmembers of the destroyer Caldas, of the Colombian navy fell overboard in the middle of the sea, and disappeared in storm. A week later, one of them however turned up, half dead on a deserted beach, having survived 10 days without food and water on a drifting life raft. The book retells the story of his survival where he says, “My heroism consisted of not letting myself to die.”
But the book is more than a story of survival. It is a tribute to a greathearted man who dared to face and tell the truth even at the expense of losing his own heroism.
His name was Luis Alejandro Velasco. Once rescued, he was immediately proclaimed a national hero, in the regime of military and social dictatorship of General Gustavo Rajas Pinilla, in a state where each news item was censored, he told his story in newspapers favoured by the government, appeared in several ads and accrued a small fortune.
It was then he came to meet García Márquez, then a staff reporter with El Espectador to tell his real story.
His tale was full of explosives, not only his odyssey of survival at sea, but the very fact that there was no storm at sea when he fell overboard, the real reason being that the destroyer was overloaded with illegal cargo. As Velasco’s story appeared for 14 consecutive weeks in the newspaper breaking all records of popularity, the dictatorship countered the blow by shutting down the newspaper and by stripping Velasco of all his heroic honours, including his job in the navy, making the hero disappear into oblivion for telling his real story.
The book is a reprint of the original newspaper story divided into 14 segments. The story is told in first person. As the story unfolds the thin line between Velasco the narrator and García Márquez the scribe disappears and we see the wonderful rendering of 10 days of loneliness and strife at sea, where nothing much happens, except for heat of the day and chill of the night, and sharks to give company.
Of the narrator, García Márquez writers: “My surprise was that this solidly built 20-year old, who looked more like a trumpet player than a national hero had an surprising instinct for the art of narrative, an astonishing memory and ability to synthesize and enough uncultivated dignity to be able to laugh at his own heroism.”
Luis Alejandro Velasco’s story begins at Mobile, Alabama in the USA from where the destroyer starts its journey. Once aboard, he tells us about his shipmates whom he was to see drowning at sea very soon. He tells us how the experience of watching the film The Cain Mutiny (1954) gave him a sense of premonition. He informs his readers in minutest details his last minutes at the ship, his shipmates, how the overloaded vessel struggled with the wave a few hours before reaching its destination, and how he suddenly fell overboard.
When Velasco could realise what had happened, the destroyer was already miles away. He was fortunate to find a solitary raft. As he settled himself on the raft, he witnessed his mates devoured by the sea. Soon everything was calm; he was alone drifting on a raft in the vast blue sea and the voice of his shipmate Luis Rengifo’s cry of help ringing on his ears.
He calculated that as soon as the ship reached its destination, a rescue mission would be sent for him. This hope helped him to endure the first few hours of solitude at sea. Soon, though it felt like ages for him, afternoon turned into night. No help arrived. He spent the night watching the stars, still hoping for a rescue. Next day a few airplanes did appear in the sky, but they missed the raft. No more rescue followed.
Thus begins Velasco’s 10 days of sojourn at sea without food and water, flaunting the very depth of human instinct for survival. Nothing dramatic happened, but the way Velasco retells his story of loneliness at sea is no less dramatic. He tells us how he kept seeing his watch every five seconds, how he tried his best to save his lungs from being exposed to sun, the heat of the day, the chill of the night, the fishes under water which he was unable to catch, the sharks which always visited him at five in the evening, the flying seagulls who brought him the hope of land. He turns into Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner when to appease his hunger he kills a small seagull and fails to eat it. He also demonstrates the very core of human instinct. Every time he loses hope, the fear of death will grip him and he will again struggle to stay alive with renewed fervour.
For more than a week he did not eat anything except for a piece of fish he obtained by fluke and which he finally lost to the sharks and a few drops of sea water. By the end of 9th day he was worn out. He began to see visions, his childhood, his girlfriend, and his days at the ship; he could no longer distinguish his current state with his hallucinations.
He was on the verge of losing all his senses when on the morning of the 10th day he spotted land. He thought it was another of his visions. When he finally realised that the land just 2 miles ahead of him was real, he took his final decision. Ignoring his emaciated body full of blisters due to sun and salt of the sea, he leap into water, first swam and then crawled ashore.
He tells us: “Ten minutes later, all the suffering and hunger and thirst of ten days took their toll on my body. I lay exhausted on the warm, hard beach, not thinking about anything, not thinking anyone, not even rejoicing that, by force of will, hope and an indefatigable desire to live I had found this stretch of silent, unknown beach.”
He was finally rescued and was proclaimed as a national hero, kissed by beauty queens, and made rich through publicity, before he blew everything up only to reveal the real cause of his shipwreck.
Velasco is an ordinary man and his story is an ordinary story. He says, “It never occurred to me that a man could become a hero for being on a raft for ten days enduring hunger and thirst (…) I did nothing. All my efforts went towards saving myself.” Isn’t this humility itself heroic? The heroic about Velasco is his instinct for survival and his composure to face adversity as it is and fight it. His heroism lies in his exhibition of extreme human endurance.
Introducing the book, Marquez writes about Velasco’s story after 15 years: “It seemed worthy of publication, but I have never quite understood the usefulness of publishing it.” The usefulness of the story lies in the fact that it tells us about the epic possibilities of men, that, when all hope is lost, there is still hope.
From the Blurb:
[A] truly inspiring storyteller… García Márquez stands closest to Conrad, who also elaborated a world, or found a corner of the world, where regularities are perpetually under pressure… written with utmost simplicity, utmost clarity.
— Justin Wintle, New Statesmen & Society
The story of Velasco on his raft, his battle with sharks over a succulent fish, his hallucinations, his capture of a sea gull which he was unable to eat, his subsequent droll rescue, has all the grip of archetypal myth… reads like an epic, lit from within by Velasco’s greatheartedness… an example of survival instinct in full flame…
— Jill Neville, The Independence
This bottled piece of journalism has developed a significance of its own while adrift on the waves… as Márquez shows in manipulating the narrative for his own ends, truth can emerge only through the honest lies of fiction… (a) gripping tale of survival.
— Nicholas Shakespeare, The Times
A clean, salty journey of a perilous moment in a man’s life… powerful bony book…
— Roger Clarke, The Literary Review
García Márquez is the Colombian short story writer and novelist, initially trained in journalism. Marquez was a liberal thinker whose left-wing politics angered Colombian conservative dictators Laureano Gomez and his successor General Gustavo Rajas Pinilla. To escape persecution, he spent the 1060s and 70s in voluntary exile in Mexico and Spain.
His best known novels are Cien anos de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970), the epic story of a Colombian family, which shows the stylistic influence of the American novelist William Faulkner, and El Otono de patrirca (1975; The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1976) about political power and corruption. Cronica de una muerte anunciada (1981; Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1983) is a story of a murder in a Latin American town. El amor en los tiempos del cólera (1985; Love in the Time of Cholera, 1988), a story of romantic love. El general en su laberinto (1989; The General in His Labyrinth, 1990) is a fictional account of the last days of South American revolutionary and statesman Simón Bolívar. His latest novel was Of Love and Other Demons (1995). García Márquez is admired for his weaving of realism with fantasy in narratives that take place in a fictional Colombian village.
García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. He now resides in Madrid.
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor
Gabriel García Márquez
Originally published in Spanish under the title of Relato de un naufiago by Tusquets Editores, Barcelona, 1970
Translated by Randolph Hogan
First published in the USA by Alfred A. Knoff Inc., 1986
First published in India by Penguin Books, 1996