Gabriel Garcia Marquez was brought up by his
grandparents in Northern Columbia because his
parents were poor and struggling. A novelist, short-
story writer and journalist, he is widely considered
the greatest living Latin American master of narrative.
Marquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.
His two masterpieces are One Hundred Years in
Solitude (1967, tr. 1970) and Love in The Time of
Cholera (1985, tr. 1988). His themes are violence,
solitude and the overwhelming human need for love.
This story reflects, like most of his works, a high
point in Latin American magical realism; it is rich
and lucid, mixing reality with fantasy.
End Author's Brief
One morning at nine o’clock, while we were having breakfast
on the terrace of the Havana Riviera Hotel under a bright
sun, a huge wave picked up several cars that were driving
down the avenue along the seawall or parked on the
pavement, and embedded one of them in the side of the
hotel. It was like an explosion of dynamite that sowed panic
on all twenty floors of the building and turned the great
entrance window to dust. The many tourists in the lobby
were thrown into the air along with the furniture, and
some were cut by the hailstorm of glass. The wave must
have been immense, because it leaped over the wide two-
way street between the seawall and the hotel and still had
enough force to shatter the window.
The cheerful Cuban volunteers, with the help of the
fire department, picked up the debris in less than six hours,
and sealed off the gate to the sea and installed another,
and everything returned to normal. During the morning
nobody worried about the car encrusted in the wall, for
people assumed it was one of those that had been parked
on the pavement. But when the crane lifted it out of its
setting, the body of a woman was found secured behind
the steering wheel by a seat belt. The blow had been so
brutal that not a single one of her bones was left whole.
Her face was destroyed, her boots had been ripped apart,
and her clothes were in shreds. She wore a gold ring shaped
like a serpent, with emerald eyes. The police established
that she was the housekeeper for the new Portuguese
ambassador and his wife. She had come to Havana with
them two weeks before and had left that morning for the
market, driving a new car. Her name meant nothing to me
when I read it in the newspaper, but I was intrigued by the
snake ring and its emerald eyes. I could not find out,
however, on which finger she wore it.
This was a crucial piece of information, because I feared
she was an unforgettable woman whose real name I never
knew, and who wore a similar ring on her right forefinger
which, in those days, was even more unusual than it is
now. I had met her thirty-four years earlier in Vienna,
eating sausage with boiled potatoes and drinking draft beer
in a tavern frequented by Latin American students. I had
come from Rome that morning, and I still remember my
immediate response to her splendid soprano’s bosom, the
languid foxtails on her coat collar, and that Egyptian ring
in the shape of a serpent. She spoke an elementary Spanish
in a metallic accent without pausing for breath, and I
thought she was the only Austrian at the long wooden
table. But no, she had been born in Colombia and had
come to Austria between the wars, when she was little
more than a child, to study music and voice. She was
about thirty, and did not carry her years well, for she had
never been pretty and had begun to age before her time.
But she was a charming human being. And one of the
Vienna was still an old imperial city, whose
geographical position between the two irreconcilable worlds
left behind by the Second World War had turned it into a
paradise of black marketeering and international espionage.
I could not have imagined a more suitable spot for my
fugitive compatriot, who still ate in the students’ tavern
on the corner only out of loyalty to her origins, since she
had more than enough money to buy meals for all her
table companions. She never told her real name, and we
always knew her by the Germanic tongue twister that we
Latin American students in Vienna invented for her: Frau
Frieda. I had just been introduced to her when I committed
the happy impertinence of asking how she had come to be
in a world so distant and different from the windy cliffs of
Quindio, and she answered with a devastating:
‘I sell my dreams.’
In reality, that was her only trade. She had been the
third of eleven children born to a prosperous shopkeeper
in old Caldas, and as soon as she learned to speak she
instituted the fine custom in her family of telling dreams
before breakfast, the time when their oracular qualities
are preserved in their purest form. When she was seven
she dreamed that one of her brothers was carried off by a
flood. Her mother, out of sheer religious superstition,
forbade the boy to swim in the ravine, which was his
favourite pastime. But Frau Frieda already had her own
system of prophecy.
‘What that dream means,’ she said, ‘isn’t that he’s
going to drown, but that he shouldn’t eat sweets.’
Her interpretation seemed an infamy to a five-year-old
boy who could not live without his Sunday treats. Their
mother, convinced of her daughter’s oracular talents,
enforced the warning with an iron hand. But in her first
careless moment the boy choked on a piece of caramel that
he was eating in secret, and there was no way to save him.
Frau Frieda did not think she could earn a living with
her talent until life caught her by the throat during the
cruel Viennese winters. Then she looked for work at the
first house where she would have liked to live, and when
she was asked what she could do, she told only the truth:
‘I dream.’ A brief explanation to the lady of the house was
all she needed, and she was hired at a salary that just
covered her minor expenses, but she had a nice room and
three meals a day—breakfast in particular, when the family
sat down to learn the immediate future of each of its
members: the father, a refined financier; the mother, a
joyful woman passionate about Romantic chamber music;
and two children, eleven and nine years old. They were all
religious and therefore inclined to archaic superstitions,
and they were delighted to take in Frau Frieda, whose
only obligation was to decipher the family’s daily fate
through her dreams.
She did her job well, and for a long time, above all
during the war years, when reality was more sinister than
nightmares. Only she could decide at breakfast what each
should do that day, and how it should be done, until her
predictions became the sole authority in the house. Her
control over the family was absolute: even the faintest sigh
was breathed by her order. The master of the house died
at about the time I was in Vienna, and had the elegance to
leave her a part of his estate on the condition that she
continue dreaming for the family until her dreams came
to an end.
I stayed in Vienna for more than a month, sharing the
straitened circumstances of the other students while I
waited for money that never arrived. Frau Frieda’s
unexpected and generous visits to the tavern were like
fiestas in our poverty-stricken regime. One night, in a beery
euphoria, she whispered in my ear with a conviction that
permitted no delay.
‘I only came to tell you that I dreamed about you last
night,’ she said. ‘You must leave right away and not come
back to Vienna for five years.’
Her conviction was so real that I boarded the last train
to Rome that same night. As for me, I was so influenced by
what she said that from then on I considered myself a
survivor of some catastrophe I never experienced. I still
have not returned to Vienna.
Before the disaster in Havana, I had seen Frau Frieda
in Barcelona in so unexpected and fortuitous a way that it
seemed a mystery to me. It happened on the day Pablo
Neruda stepped on Spanish soil for the first time since the
Civil War, on a stopover during a long sea voyage to
Valparaiso. He spent a morning with us hunting big game
in the second-hand bookstores, and at Porter he bought
an old, dried-out volume with a torn binding for which he
paid what would have been his salary for two months at
the consulate in Rangoon. He moved through the crowd
like an invalid elephant, with a child’s curiosity in the
inner workings of each thing he saw, for the world appeared
to him as an immense wind-up toy with which life invented
I have never known anyone closer to the idea one has
of a Renaissance pope: He was gluttonous and refined.
Even against his will, he always presided at the table.
Matilde, his wife, would put a bib around his neck that
belonged in a barbershop rather than a dining room, but it
was the only way to keep him from taking a bath in sauce.
That day at Carvalleiras was typical. He ate three whole
lobsters, dissecting them with a surgeon’s skill, and at the
same time devoured everyone else’s plate with his eyes
and tasted a little from each with a delight that made the
desire to eat contagious: clams from Galicia, mussels from
Cantabria, prawns from Alicante, sea cucumbers from the
Costa Brava. In the meantime, like the French, he spoke
of nothing but other culinary delicacies, in particular the
prehistoric shellfish of Chile, which he carried in his heart.
All at once he stopped eating, tuned his lobster’s antennae,
and said to me in a very quiet voice:
‘There’s someone behind me who won’t stop looking at
I glanced over his shoulder, and it was true. Three
tables away sat an intrepid woman in an old-fashioned
felt hat and a purple scarf, eating without haste and staring
at him. I recognised her right away. She had grown old
and fat, but it was Frau Frieda, with the snake ring on her
She was travelling from Naples on the same ship as
Neruda and his wife, but they had not seen each other on
board. We invited her to have coffee at our table, and I
encouraged her to talk about her dreams in order to astound
the poet. He paid no attention, for from the very beginning
he had announced that he did not believe in prophetic
‘Only poetry is clairvoyant,’ he said.
After lunch, during the inevitable stroll along the
Ramblas, I lagged behind with Frau Frieda so that we could
renew our memories with no other ears listening. She told
me she had sold her properties in Austria and retired to
Oporto, in Portugal, where she lived in a house that she
described as a fake castle on a hill, from which one could
see all the way across the ocean to the Americas. Although
she did not say so, her conversation made it clear that,
dream by dream, she had taken over the entire fortune of
her ineffable patrons in Vienna. That did not surprise me,
however, because I had always thought her dreams were
no more than a stratagem for surviving. And I told her so.
She laughed her irresistible laugh. ‘You’re as impudent
as ever,’ she said. And said no more, because the rest of
the group had stopped to wait for Neruda to finish talking
in Chilean slang to the parrots along the Rambla de los
Pájaros. When we resumed our conversation, Frau Frieda
changed the subject.
‘By the way,’ she said, ‘you can go back to Vienna
Only then did I realise that thirteen years had gone by
since our first meeting.
‘Even if your dreams are false, I’ll never go back,’ I told
her. ‘Just in case.’
At three o’clock we left her to accompany Neruda to his
sacred siesta, which he took in our house after solemn
preparations that in some way recalled the Japanese tea
ceremony. Some windows had to be opened and others closed
to achieve the perfect degree of warmth, and there had to
be a certain kind of light from a certain direction, and
absolute silence. Neruda fell asleep right away, and woke
ten minutes later, as children do, when we least expected
it. He appeared in the living room refreshed, and with the
monogram of the pillowcase imprinted on his cheek.
‘I dreamed about that woman who dreams,’ he said.
Matilde wanted him to tell her his dream.
‘I dreamed she was dreaming about me,’ he said.
‘That’s right out of Borges,’ I said.
He looked at me in disappointment.
‘Has he written it already?’
‘If he hasn’t he’ll write it sometime,’ I said. ‘It will be
one of his labyrinths.’
As soon as he boarded the ship at six that evening, Neruda
took his leave of us, sat down at an isolated table, and began
to write fluid verses in the green ink he used for drawing
flowers and fish and birds when he dedicated his books. At
the first ‘All ashore’ we looked for Frau Frieda, and found her
at last on the tourist deck, just as we were about to leave
without saying good-bye. She too had taken a siesta.
‘I dreamed about the poet,’ she said.
In astonishment I asked her to tell me her dream.
‘I dreamed he was dreaming about me,’ she said, and
my look of amazement disconcerted her. ‘What did you
expect? Sometimes, with all my dreams, one slips in that
has nothing to do with real life.’
I never saw her again or even wondered about her
until I heard about the snake ring on the woman who
died in the Havana Riviera disaster. And I could not resist
the temptation of questioning the Portuguese
ambassador when we happened to meet some months
later at a diplomatic reception. The ambassador spoke
about her with great enthusiasm and enormous
admiration. ‘You cannot imagine how extraordinary she
was,’ he said. ‘You would have been obliged to write a
story about her.’ And he went on in the same tone, with
surprising details, but without the clue that would have
allowed me to come to a final conclusion.
‘In concrete terms,’ I asked at last, ‘what did she do?’
‘Nothing,’ he said, with a certain disenchantment. ‘She