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Márquez begins 'one hundred years of popularity'

The master of magic realism revisits his childhood to embroider a personal myth

By Christopher Carduff / December 2, 2003

In 1982, Gabriel García Márquez, Latin America's premier conjurer of tales, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy called their new laureate "a rare storyteller, richly endowed with a material, from both imagination and experience, that seems inexhaustible," and praised him for creating, in the fictional Colombian coastal town of Macondo, "a world of his own," a densely populated, rainforest-lush landscape in which Faulkner and folk tale, high art and low comedy, and the miraculous and the mundane combine.

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The academy went on to congratulate themselves for making (for once) a "popular" choice. Even without the boost of a Nobel, Márquez was already an international literary celebrity. His masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (1967), was the best selling Spanish-language novel since "Don Quixote," and it still is, with more than 20 million copies in print in some 35 languages.

Márquez's latest book, first published in Spanish last year, is an autobiography called "Vivir para contarla." It, too, is an international bestseller. According to Publishers Weekly, it has broken all sales records throughout the Spanish-speaking world. In Barcelona, for example, the 300,000 first printing disappeared in 10 days.

Even in the United States, where the market for Spanish-language books is limited, "Vivir" has sold a phenomenal 65,000 hardcover copies. Last Christmas, it rubbed elbows with the English-language titles on the L.A. Times bestseller list - an unprecedented event in U.S. bookselling. And now the book has appeared in English, in a crystal-clear translation by Edith Grossman, under the title "Living to Tell the Tale."

The first volume of a planned trilogy, this is very self-consciously (and at times self-mockingly) the Early Years of a World- Famous Writer, one who, at age 75, expects his readers to be on intimate terms with his works and to catch his allusions to them. It is the opening chapters of a real-life fairy tale: the story of how "Gabito," a poor boy from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, a "sandaled hick" who "did not care about glory, or money, or old age, because [he] was sure [he] was going to die very young, and in the street," discovered his vocation as a storyteller, mastered the art of fiction, and by doing so won not only glory and wealth but also literary immortality.

Márquez begins his story not with his birth, in 1928, but with his "real" birth - his "birth as a writer" - at age 22. It was then that he accompanied his mother on a two-day trip from Baranquilla, where he was barely scraping by as a cub reporter, to his childhood home in Aracataca, a ghost town near the Caribbean coast surrounded by swamps and deserted banana plantations.

The purpose of the trip was to sell the house where he was born; the result, however, was the electrification of his imagination.

"With the first step I took onto the burning sands of the town," he writes, Aracataca instantly became Macondo, "an earthly paradise of desolation and nostalgia," and his one great subject became his family, "which was never the protagonist of anything, but only a witness to and victim of everything."