Book review: Gabriel GarcÍa Marquez: A Life
Gabriel GarcÍa MÁrquez: A Life By Gerald Martin Bloomsbury, 688pp, £25
GABRIEL GARCA MRQUEZ, OR "Gabo" as he is known, has a strong claim to being the world's most famous writer. Despite birth in an obscure backwater of Colombia, his sense of destiny has been there from the very beginning. "I was always famous, from the time I was born," he later remarked. "It's just that I was the only one who knew it." But others must have shared this sense of fate. One day he informed Mercedes Barcha, aged just nine, and five years his junior, that she would be his wife. She duly waited, though she hardly knew him. Sixteen years later he made good on his promise, just like in a fairytale.
It is one of the many virtues of Martin's immensely long, but always readable biography, that he brings an affectionate but sceptical eye to many of the stories of Mrquez's life, of which this is one. Enlivened by Mrquez's own mischievous sense of fun, the line between absolute truth, fairytale and myth is uncertain. This is slippery territory for a biographer, especially when one's subject is also formidably reticent on his private life, but Martin deals with it with aplomb. Seventeen years in the making, his "officially tolerated" biography sensitively uncovers the facts of the life.
Most importantly, it reminds us that however extravagant the mythmaking may seem, in the writer's life and work, it is deeply rooted in the real. Despite its association with the fabulous, "magic realism" as defined by Mrquez, grew inexorably out of the social and political circumstances of his family and cultural background. "There's not a line in any of my books," he once declared, "which I can't connect to a real experience." Set against Martin's easy guidance through the labyrinths of South American politics and culture, Mrquez emerges as a man of his time and place, every inch a political being. "For me," he has said, "there is no act in my life which is not a political act."
In this sense, Mrquez's childhood, difficult as it was, was a gift to the future author. Born in 1927, in the provincial town of Aracataca, he was brought up by his maternal grandparents for the first eight years of his life, his feckless father having taken his mother off to live elsewhere in a vain attempt to earn a living as a quack.
Lying near Colombia's coast, the province was awash with banana plantations, and a heady mix of races and influences – Caribbean, African, Native Indian and Spanish – all of which gave rise to an immensely rich oral culture infused by Catholicism, superstition, ancient ritual, machismo and a very bloody sense of personal honour, politics and imperialism.
Essentially, it was bandit country, riven by political violence and family feuding on the one hand, gripped by the malign economic neo-imperialism of the United Fruit Company on the other. While the early years of the century had seen a boom in banana sales and hence local prosperity, it was to end shortly after Mrquez's birth in a workers' revolt countered by a company-sponsored massacre backed by the Colombian state.
But murder was also in the family. Mrquez's beloved grandfather, Colonel Nicolas, a veteran of the Thousand Day War – a conflict which defined 20th-century Colombian politics – had himself been caught up in feuding. Having bragged about seducing the sister of an old friend, he had killed her son, who had been sent by his mother to exact retribution with the unanswerable phrase, "If you won't see to him I'll have to put on your trousers and you can put on my skirts!" Later, Mrquez would turn yet another such killing, one which caused his family to flee town lest they be caught up in the retribution, into the basis of his novel, A Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
It was out of this mix of violence, passion and magic that the writer sprung, fed by the stories and superstitions of his grandparents. One Hundred Years of Solitude tapped into the DNA of the Latin American experience itself. But his other titles have drawn on the inexhaustible well of his beginnings, and his continent's tortured history. Whether in the simplicity of Love in the Time of Cholera, the complexity of Autumn of the Patriarch, or the tragedy of Simon Bolivar, Latin America's saviour, in The General in His Labyrinth, Mrquez's guts, as he has put it, were always in the books.
But before these achievements lay many years of struggle and obscurity. Reclaimed by his family when he was eight, he joined an extended household which grew to ten siblings and at least four half-sisters and brothers sired by his father's serial adultery. Despite the poverty and chaos, he received a reasonable education, soon distinguishing himself enough to gain a scholarship to a school near the capital, Bogota. Precocious both intellectually and sexually, he revealed himself as a restless, dissatisfied character, a skinny kid "with an Arab's face", who had a taste for loud Hawaiian shirts and too many cigarettes. Abandoning his law studies, he became a journalist, finding a metier that, along with fiction, was to obsess and occupy him. Though he hated Bogota as a dull and gloomy mountain city, it was here that he made some of his most important friendships, not least with the poet Alvaro Mutis, who recalled him then as "an old man in a young man's body". By the time he was 28, he had established himself as a brilliant investigative reporter amid the danger of coup and counter-coup that characterised the chronic instability of Colombian politics.
But he was looking for escape from the endgame of Colombian society. Years later he would reflect fatalistically that "the country will always be the same. There has always been civil war, there have always been guerrillas, and there always will be." His chance came in 1955, when he was sent by his paper to cover events in Europe. The three years he spent there were formative, both politically and as a writer. Horrified by his travels behind the Iron Curtain, he nevertheless became a "fellow traveller" of the communist movement, a commitment which would later lead to his enduring friendship with Fidel Castro, and much controversy.
Meanwhile, his paper had been closed by the Colombian authorities, leaving him destitute in Paris, where he struggled to complete his third novel No One Writes to the Colonel, his first two having sunk without trace. From this point on, he would live a peripatetic life, moving between Paris, Caracas, Havana, Barcelona, New York, London, and Mexico City, where finally, at the age of 40, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel that would define an era, a continent and a new literary style, made his name. He was penniless at the time; so poor that he could hardly find the money to post the manuscript to his publisher. "Hey, Gabo," his wife is reported to have said, when they had finally scraped the money together, "all we need now is for the book to be no good."
The book was a phenomenon. Thereafter he would pursue a twin career off the back of his enormous earnings, as both celebrated novelist and political animal. Founding and funding various politically inspired organisations and magazines, supporting the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions, denouncing Pinochet, he crisscrossed the world, hobnobbing with heads of state and other political figures. In 1982, he won the Nobel prize. Such was his reputation that Castro quipped: "Yes, of course Garca Mrquez is like a head of state. The only question is, which state?"
Now 81, and battling cancer for the second time, Mrquez, as Martin's fine biography shows, can look back on an extraordinary life. When they first met, many years ago, Mrquez asked Martin: "Why do you want to write a biography? Biographies mean death." And, one should add in this case, immortality.
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