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.
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."
By "everything" he means what he called, in his Nobel address, the "outsized reality" of South America: its history of "immeasurable violence and pain"; its oppression, rape, and abandonment by the West; and, above all, its solitude - its inability to find the stories, and the native forms of thought and expression, that would articulate this reality and so connect the continent to the outside world.
Márquez was not the only writer to have found a means of ending this solitude, of course, but none of his South American contemporaries, not even Borges or Neruda, has reached a wider audience. The title "Living to Tell the Tale" is perfect, because it sums up two aspects of Márquez's personal mythology, both of which figure into nearly every page of this autobiography: first, that like Scheherezade, he escaped the daily threat of extinction only through his cunning as a storyteller, and second, that he is a kind of chosen one, a Jonah coughed up by the South American Leviathan and elected by fate to be the mouthpiece of his people.
The tone of the book is mellow, a look back, not in anger, but in bottomless gratitude. Indeed, despite poverty and Colombia's ceaseless political turmoil, the world of Márquez's childhood and youth unfolds here as a giant, joyful conspiracy to make him into a writer.
His admiring parents and talented teachers recognize his brilliance and encourage his early efforts. The right books (Joyce, Sophocles, the "Arabian Nights") fall into his lap at the right times. When, as a teenager, he travels to Bogotá in search of an government scholarship, a stranger on the train, a fellow-booklover impressed with his reading, turns out to be the head of the government's scholarship program.
His mistresses and favorite whores are uniformly kind and instructive. His cafe society is the best Colombia has to offer. His friends and newspaper colleagues are all good critics and generous beyond their small means. And everywhere, especially in the mouths of the women in his family, is a story, a verbal butterfly just waiting for his ear to catch it and his genius to preserve it.
Again and again he gives us fresh tellings of the stories that inspired his novels - not the facts, but the stories, because as he says in the book's epigraph, "Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it."
With these words we're put on notice that "Living to Tell the Tale" is in no way a conventional literary memoir, and in no way a mere "factual gloss" on the fiction. It is, instead, for Márquez what the prefaces to the New York Edition were to Henry James: a way for an elderly master to revisit the monuments of his life's work and to view them from a different angle, to exhibit them in a different light, and to at once elucidate them and deepen their mystery.
It is, in its always engaging, often inspired conflation of memoir and national history, a final mining of what the Swedish Academy called Márquez's seemingly inexhaustible material: the personal mythology of the artist who gave the magically real Macondo, and by extension the tragicomedy of the whole South American continent, to world literature.
• Christopher Carduff is a freelance critic and an editor with David R. Godine Publisher in Boston.