Gabriel García Márquez
Feb 13th 2003 | From The Economist print edition
GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ, now 75 and suffering from cancer, made the most important decision of his life as a writer when he was 22—to accompany his mother on a journey, by steamer and rickety train, to Aracataca, a small town surrounded by swamps and banana plantations in the heart of Colombia's northern coastal plain. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to sell his grandparents' house, where the author was born and had spent most of his first eight years.
As Mr García Márquez observes in the opening pages of “Vivir para contarla” (Living to tell it), the memoir of his life to early manhood, “until adolescence, the memory is more interested in the future than the past, so my memories of the town were not yet idealised by nostalgia.” The family did not sell the house, which was both tenanted and in disrepair. But his visit to Aracataca was decisive in creating in his imagination the idealised world that so many of his readers have come to love.
Aracataca was to mutate into Macondo—the name plucked from a railside banana plantation—and his grandfather provided the model for Colonel Aureliano Buendía in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, published in 1967. In its creation of a tropical world where the absurd and improbable becomes routine, its colourful exaggeration, its joyful jumbling of humour and tragedy, and its celebration of the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, the novel came to epitomise Latin American magical realism. It won its author a Nobel prize, and established him as the most successful, if not necessarily the greatest, of a gifted generation of novelists.
That success was based on his talent as a storyteller, which he marries to a poetic style and a sharp descriptive sense. Unlike many writers of Spanish, he prefers short and simple sentences, which give his writing a limpid intensity. His broadly leftish views and his friendships with the likes of Fidel Castro have made him the darling of Latin America's chattering classes.
This first volume of his memoirs has been eagerly awaited; now here, it is lording it over the Spanish-speaking world's bestseller lists, including that for the Hispanic market in the United States. Mr García Márquez's fans will not be disappointed. Once again, he mines the rich seam of his memories of Colombia's Caribbean coast from the 1920s to the 1950s that provide the material for his novels.
The book is suffused with a warm-hearted nostalgia for that world, in which the main preoccupations were love, sex, music, death, honour and the family. It is a world of unrepentant machismo. His mother's family was “a vast sisterhood of single women and unzipped men with numerous street children”. The writer describes his own deflowering by an eager and generous prostitute when he went, aged 14, to the local brothel to collect a bill for his father, a self-taught homeopathic chemist. Years of carousing in brothels with literary boon companions followed.
Even today, the Caribbean coast is markedly different from Andean Colombia, its people noisier and more outgoing. Back then, before it was troubled by drug traffickers, it was an easygoing tropical outpost. Bogotá, the capital, was a week or more away, up the Magdalena river. This was a journey the young García Márquez would make himself when he won a government scholarship to a secondary school near Bogotá. He then spent a year studying law and watching at close quarters the riots of 1948, which foreshadowed a decade of civil violence.
Interestingly, his memoir reveals its author to be a man of few deep convictions, for whom friendship is far more important than politics. He jokes of “a reputation as a communist that I had not won for my ideology but rather for my manner of dress”. The riots gave him a pretext for dropping out of university and returning to the coast. Already noticed as a budding writer, he scratched an impecunious living from journalism, which he saw as a form of literature. That took him back to Bogotá; the book ends with its author, aged 28, leaving for Europe.
Though the predominant tone is self-indulgent, Mr García Márquez does give glimpses of private torment. His family often struggled in respectable poverty. We learn that he lived with his parents for a total of only three years: their place was taken by his grandparents, books, friends and drinking. He reveals little of what he thought about this. But a picture emerges of a shy, determined, precocious youth, who would yell out in his troubled sleep. The eldest of 11 children, he was clearly both stimulated and troubled by the high hopes that his parents had for him.
This memoir may not win over those who have resisted being persuaded that Mr García Márquez is a great, rather than a very good, writer. His style is one of much poetry but sometimes less meaning than meets the eye: in a typical sentence, he says of his grandfather that “I knew what he was thinking by the changes in his silence.” And fecund though it was, magical realism has much to answer for: Mr García Márquez has rarely let historical fact get in the way of a good story, and Latin American journalism has suffered much from the blurring of its boundaries with fiction. But most readers will not mind. They will simply enjoy the anecdotes and the prose of a master of the narrative art and of the Spanish language.
Vivir para contarla
By Gabriel García Márquez