The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor
First edition cover 1986. Note the size of raft, shape and material (cork covered in canvas with an open webbed bottom).The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (original Spanish-language title: Relato de un náufrago) is a work of non-fiction by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. The full title is The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor: Who Drifted on a Liferaft for Ten Days Without Food or Water, Was Proclaimed a National Hero, Kissed by Beauty Queens, Made Rich Through Publicity, and Then Spurned by the Government and Forgotten for All Time.
It was originally published as a fourteen consecutive day series of installments in El Espectador newspaper in 1955; it was later published as a book in 1970, and then translated into English by Randolf Hogan in 1986. The story is written in the first-person from the perspective of the sailor, 20 year-old Luis Alejandro Velasco, and was in fact signed by Velasco as author when it was first published in 1955. Not until 1970 when it was published as a book was García Márquez’s name first publicly associated with the story.
Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez began his literary career as a newspaper writer. In 1955, he wrote a series of newspaper stories about a shipwrecked sailor who nearly died on account of negligence by the Colombian Navy; several of his colleagues drowned shortly before arriving at the port of Cartagena de Indias due to the existence of overweight contraband aboard the vessel. This resulted in public controversy, as it discredited the official account of the events, which had blamed the storm for the shipwreck and glorified the surviving sailor. As García Márquez subsequently became a sort of persona non grata for the government of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, he then worked for several years as a foreign correspondent.
The book’s theme is the possible, but not necessary, moral reversion to a primitive, instinctual existence in the face of a sea catastrophe and consequent shipwreck and solitude. This theme had been explored previously in fiction by Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe and the robinsonade genre) and Voltaire (Candide), and more recently by William Golding (Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin), Umberto Eco (The Island of the Day Before), J.M. Coetzee (Foe), José Saramago (The Stone Raft and The Tale of the Unknown Island). A later non-fiction treatment of a similar theme can be found in The Last Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Ron Hall and Nicolas Tomalin.
Seaman Luis Alejandro Velasco of the destroyer Caldas is eager to return to Colombia after a long stay in the United States. When the ship sets sail, however, it is overloaded — in part with contraband. When the vessel is caught in heavy waves in the Caribbean, eight of the crew are washed overboard, together with much of the cargo. After four days the search ends, with the missing declared dead. However, Velasco found a raft and remained on the open sea without food and without hope. After drifting with sea currents for ten days, he arrives with his raft on a coast that he later discovers to be Colombia. He is received first with affection and later with military honors and much money from publicity agencies.