Shipwrecked Sailor Leads to Literary Treasure

10:33 AM 24 APRIL 2020

Mark Twain once wrote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” It’s an adage exemplified in this poignant account of survival at sea. The tale was originally related to a young reporter at the Bogota daily, ‘El Espectador’ in 1955. The young sailor, Luis Alejandro Velasco, was just twenty years old and would go on to experience a brief, but lucrative, period in the Columbian media spotlight, before sinking without trace. The reporter, belatedly attributed with writing the piece, one Gabriel Garcia Marquez, would subsequently experience a “nomadic and somewhat nostalgic exile that in certain ways also resembles a drifting raft”, before going on to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. That the original serialised newspaper story was republished in the form of a book, as a retrospective homage to Marquez’ early work, was dismissed by the author as more about an exploitation of a fashionable writer’s name, than the merits of the story. Still, I think Penguin deserves some credit for having reproduced this short work (just 106 pages) for posterity.

The Columbian navy destroyer, ‘Caldas’, had been in dock in Mobile, Alabama to undergo repairs for eight months and in February 1955 was on its homeward journey to the port of Cartagena. It should have been an unremarkable routine voyage, but when eight members of the crew were swept overboard, just hours from home, the story instantly became a national calamity. A search for survivors began immediately, but after four days the effort was abandoned and the lost sailors were declared dead. After a further week, Luis Velasco washed up on a beach in Northern Columbia, barely alive. Somehow he had managed to survive for ten days without food or fresh water, adrift on an open life raft. In essence, this book is a journalistic reconstruction of this implausible feat, derived from painstaking hours of interview, deliberately written in the first person to accentuate the emotional drama of a firsthand account. It’s certainly a gripping and compelling read. Almost as intriguing is “The Story of this Story”, written by the author in 1970 and included as a prologue, with Marquez’ reflections some fifteen years later.

What ‘El Espectador’ hadn’t foreseen was the seismic impact for the nation of such an unsuspecting hero, nor the reaction of the incumbent dictatorship. Yet, thankfully, rather like his subject, Marquez popped up later, albeit on a foreign shore. Content to vanish into obscurity, Velasco, the reader understands, remained in Columbia. By contrast, the author became a literary treasure of the world.

Rating: 4 out of 5.