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García Márquez Goes to the Dentist

Julio Villanueva Chang
9 Snaps

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 Macondian1 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.

II.

Five years after I met him in his Cartagena de Indias office, Doctor Gazabón showed me a black briefcase that he kept locked with a key. The year was 2004. He had just moved with his family to Tampa, Florida, after being forced to leave Colombia where he and his wife were militant evangelists in a Christian community; both preached in working-class neighborhoods where they were not welcomed by the local guerrillas. It was an autumn night and the dentist wore a black shirt decorated with images of trees. His move to the United States was never-ending. Unopened boxes were still in the apartment. The walls were hung with paintings by his wife. For the first few months after his arrival, Doctor Gazabón could not practice odontology in Florida. In the meantime he worked as a dental ceramicist in a prosthetic molar laboratory. He had become a sculptor of porcelain teeth.

It was already midnight and the dentist removed a tiny velvet pouch—similar to the ones jewelers keep precious metals in to protect them from scratches and wear—from his briefcase. In one of the rooms, Jaime Enrique de Jesús, his youngest son and the godson of García Márquez, had fallen asleep. The boy had seen a photograph of his baptism, in which García Márquez and his wife appeared with him before a priest. Now he was a seven-year-old. If you asked him about his god­father he did not remember anything but what his parents had told him.

III.

This is how García Márquez ended up in Doctor Gazabón’s office. An odontologist from Bogotá who had performed a corrective operation on the writer’s teeth had recommended an orthodontist named Botero for his continued treatment in Cartagena de Indias. Doctor Botero straightened the writer’s poorly aligned teeth but diagnosed him with periodontal disease, which was Doctor Gazabón’s specialty. This was how Gazabón came to find the “telegraphist’s son” in his waiting room at the Bocagrande office that afternoon in February 1991. 

“It was like a godsend,” Gazabónhis told me.

During the consultations, García Márquez became more down-to-earth when he discussed politics. One day the dentist dared to make a comment to him about God.

“Gabo did what anyone would have done,” Gazabón recalled. “He deftly changed the subject.”

Gazabón recorded in García Márquez’s dental history the last time he saw the writer: January 20, 1999. It was a Wednesday.

Gabriel García Márquez left Cartagena de Indias with the new millennium. At around that time, he had been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. According to the dentist, there was a rumor that the singer Julio Iglesias wanted to buy the writer’s newly abandoned house. Before moving to the United States, Doctor Gazabón left a letter with one of the writer’s brothers with the explicit request that García Márquez read it. And with the letter, a  box of cookies prepared by the dentist’s mother-in-law. Doctor Gazabón told me that he still hadn’t received a response.

IV.

There weren’t any obvious reasons why García Márquez chose him to be his compadre. Doctor Gazabón was a small-town dentist. There were no novels on the shelves of his office in Cartagena de Indias, only Anglo-Saxon dental classics like Periodontal Disease. Doctor Gazabón had not read the novel Local Anaesthetic by Günter Grass, nor the story “The Dentist” by Alfred Polgar. Nor had he read the episode from Notes from Underground in which Dostoevsky describes the voluptuousness of a toothache. “Desiderata,” an inspirational poem written by Max Ehr­mann, a lawyer from Indiana, hung above a stand that held mouthwash and dentures. On his desk there was a skull that had nothing to do with Hamlet.

Doctor Gazabón had an elementary theory: García Márquez had befriended him to break with his routine as a celebrity. He spoke of the writer with familiarity, admiration, and without false reverence. “People,” he told me, “forget that Gabo is a human being.” But people also forgot that a dentist is a human being.

“Can you tell us who recommended you to the doctor? His universal fame.

V.

The odontologist shared anecdotes about the Nobel Prize winner while he looked through the briefcase where he kept his most personal keepsakes. The clinical history of the patient García Márquez, portraits of the García Márquez family, press releases about García Márquez, García Márquez’s molar. This was Gazabón’s big secret, his treasure in the ­velvet pouch. Somehow just knowing that the molar had belonged to the novelist gave the tooth a fictional appearance and a more horrendous shine.

In his work, García Márquez exhibited a certain predilection for the subject of dentistry. He wrote about how defenseless one can be before a toothache and the fascination dentures can illicit. In the short story “One of These Days,” an unlicensed dentist, Aurelio Escovar, extracts, without the aid of anesthesia, the molar that for five days had tortured his opponent in the race for mayor of a nameless town. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novelist wrote that the inhabitants of Macondo “saw a young Melquíades, reposed, kempt, and with new radiant teeth. Those who remembered his gums destroyed by scurvy, his flaccid cheeks and withered lips, trembled with fear before that final proof of the gypsy’s supernatural powers. The fear became panic when Melquíades took out his teeth, intact, set into his gums, and showed them to the public for a moment—a fleeting moment in which he became the same decrepit man from years before—and put them back in again and smiled anew with a full command of his restored youth.”

That afternoon of his first appointment, the dentist discovered that García Márquez had cavities, and decided to operate. He injected the writer with a local anesthetic, removed a molar, sutured the cut, and later gave him an implant. According to the dentist, the writer never complained. From the first appointment, however, there existed between them a shared sense of loss. In the practice of literature, a bodily price is extracted: Homer was blind, Cervantes lost the use of an arm. García Márquez lost, to his faithful compadre, a tooth.

Translated from Spanish by Samuel Bauer

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