Gabriel García Márquez: A Life

Gerald Martin’s comprehensive biography of Gabriel García Márquez is so complete that we may never need another.

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It would be intimidating under any circumstances to attempt a biography of Gabriel García Márquez. After all, this is a Nobel Prize winner credited with writing the world’s first truly global novel. That’s rather exalted ground upon which to tread.

But you have to extend particular sympathy to anyone who attempts the job from now on. After reading Gerald Martin’s Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, it’s not clear that there’s anything left to say.

For one thing, Martin has had extraordinary access. For years Martin insisted that he was only the “tolerated” biographer of García Márquez. But in 2006 the celebrated author publicly anointed Martin as his “official” biographer. Over the course of 17 years, says Martin, he has spent the total of at least one full month with his subject, in various public and private settings. García Márquez’s family have come to think of Martin as “el tío Yeral.”

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And the massive list of interviews acknowledged in Martin’s book includes everyone from family members to famed translators Edith Grossman and Gregory Rabassa to peers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes.

If Martin has left any stone unturned it’s hard to imagine what that might be.

The result is a doorstopper biography (672 pages) that shifts through a mountain of evidence to track García Márquez from infancy through his current status as a living literary legend. The book takes readers around the globe with García Márquez, through the creation of his seven novels, 10 nonfiction works, and various novellas and short stories. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.

But for those eager to get at the essence of García Márquez and his works, it will not be too much. Few authors’ lives are more closely linked to their books as is that of García Márquez, particularly in the case of his masterpiece, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

It all started in the small Colombian city of Aracataca. García Márquez was born there in 1927. When he was only a baby his parents moved away, leaving him and his sister with their maternal grandparents. Aracataca was a “Wild West boom town” and his grandparents’ house was full of people – “his grandparents, aunts, transient guests, servants, Indians” – and their stories.

His grandfather was a colonel and a crusty veteran of Colombia’s Thousand Days War. His grandmother was steeped in local lore and superstition. Young Gabito would carry their influence for the rest of his days.

When he was 8 his grandfather died, and to his discomfiture García Márquez rejoined his parents and younger siblings. His father was a struggling pharmacist (or “quack doctor,” according to some) and the family moved frequently. The adolescent Gabo was an excellent student but also an insecure being who yearned for the world he left behind in Aracataca. Even as a teenager a friend recalled him as a skinny boy, “circumspect, almost a bit sad, and in any case lonely and unknown.” He moved to Bogotá to study law but later gladly quit to become a journalist.

Journalism suited García Márquez – not only because he could write but because it gave him a chance to see the world. He lived in Paris, toured behind the Iron Curtain, and briefly moved to New York to cover news for Fidel Castro’s new Cuban regime. (García Márquez was an early and “informed defender of the Cuban revolution.”)

But it was while he was living in Mexico City that lightning struck. By then García Márquez had published a couple of novellas, although at that moment he seemed lost as a writer. However, tradition has it (and Martin is frank about the fact that there are so many versions of this story that we don’t really know which one to believe) that he was driving his family on a vacation to Acapulco when the first line of a novel (“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad....”) suddenly came to him. García Márquez turned the car around, canceled the vacation, and drove back to Mexico City where he spent the next 18 months writing “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

He and his wife supported the family by pawning possessions as he wrote, finally selling a few small appliances to raise the postage to mail the final chapters to the publisher.

The book’s success was stunning. García Márquez became a global celebrity almost overnight and was so overwhelmed by attention that at one party he had to put up a sign saying “Forbidden to speak of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.’”

Everything in García Márquez’s life, it seems, came together in this book – his nostalgia for Aracataca (which he renamed “Macondo”), the milieu of his grandparents, the political observations made during his travels, and the loneliness and alienation he felt as a boy and young man. “Power and love, the love of power, the power of love,” points out Martin, are as central to the works of García Márquez as they are to Latin American history.

Martin’s biography continues its meticulous voyage through the rest of García Márquez’s life. He went on, of course, to write classics like “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (1975), “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” (1981), “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1985), and “The General in His Labyrinth” (1989), and in each case Martin is able to link the work closely to the life.

“Gabriel García Márquez: A Life” finishes with a ceremony Martin attended at which García Márquez was honored by everyone from the king of Spain to Bill Clinton. “Good thing you were there,” García Márquez told him, “so you can tell people we didn’t make up the story.”

The same could be said of this entire book.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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