The torches lining the brick path into the Virgilio Barco Library clashed with the building's sleek, futuristic décor, so much so that the hundreds of Bogotá residents making their way inside could almost have missed the stone-faced police officers standing guard in the shadows.
Almost, but not quite. This is still Colombia, after all, and security was tight last Tuesday evening for the social and cultural ticket of the year: the release party of "Live to Tell," the long-anticipated memoir of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, known here as Gabo.
All the city's elites turned out cabinet ministers, business executives, leading national journalists, even the vice-president. Yet, one individual was notably absent: Gabo himself.
Oh, you could see him everywhere. Life-size cutouts of the novelist dotted the main lobby, providing a kitschy backdrop for the suitably statuesque television broadcaster covering the event. A grinning Gabo peered at partygoers from posters on the walls. An elegant photo display offered scenes of the writer's life, including his 1982 Nobel Prize ceremony.
All quite nice but it just wasn't Gabo.
And so it has been in Colombia for the 40-plus years and counting that García Márquez has lived in New York, Barcelona, Paris, and now Mexico City. Indeed, the world's most famous Colombian spends relatively little time in his native land. Nevertheless, the 75-year-old Gabo remains the nation's undisputed icon, its favorite son, a hero in absentia for a country sorely in need of reasons to feel proud.
"He's the greatest," exulted Harold Velandia, a 32-year-old waiter pouring drinks by the photo display. "He's our Nobel! He makes us look good to the world. Gabo covers up all the bad things that people thinks about Colombia: the violence, the drugs."
Aside from the national pride Gabo's global appeal induces, many Colombians revere him because they see themselves in his novels. "He writes what this country is and what it has been," explained Lucía Pérez, a librarian who landed an invitation to the release party when her boss couldn't attend. "He feels the country ... and his books show the world much of what this nation is: our people, our way of living."
In remarks delivered by a spokesperson, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe echoed the sentiment. "Our history our triumphs and our failures, our greatness and our misery achieve eternity through the quill of the master."
García Márquez's new memoir accounts for the first 28 years of the master's life, spanning his childhood along the Caribbean coast, his erratic education, and his early journalistic forays. This installment reveals that "despite the years and the absence, the [essence] of his being remains in Colombia," writes poet and essayist William Ospina in the Bogotá weekly Cambio. "This is the world from which he draws all the themes of his literature and all the obsessions of his imagination. It had to be Gabo ... the most visible of Colombians, who offered this new testimony of how passionate and legendary he considers the reality of his homeland."
Inside the Virgilio Barco Library, this passion materialized briefly during an inspired speech by Esteban García, the babyfaced son of Gabo's younger brother.
"We laugh with the happiness of knowing that he remains here with us," said Esteban. "And here we are, especially those who love him ... even at a distance."
The audience surged to its feet, and for a moment the ovation seemed like it might last forever, or at least for 59 months, equal to the rainstorm that flooded the town of Macondo in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," sending animal corpses floating through courtyards and leaving the air so damp that "fish could have come in through the door and swum out the windows."
But it didn't. Magic surrendered to reality. The speech was quite nice but it just wasn't Gabo.
And the applause it may have been wistful as well as joyful, a realization that on this night, a well-spoken nephew was as close as this audience would get to the real thing.
"I had hoped Gabo would be here," admitted Ms. Pérez, as the crowd began to file out, past torches that had ceased to burn. "It would have made everything complete."