Telling the tale

Lead Review


The single most thrilling event in Gabriel García Márquez’s life, judging from the biography by Gerald Martin, took place in February 1950, when the novelist, who was 22 and not yet a novelist, though he was already trying to be, accompanied his mother to the backwoods town where he had spent his early childhood. This was a place called Aracataca, in the “banana zone” of northern Colombia. His grandfather’s house was there, and his mother had decided to sell it.

García Márquez himself has described this trip in his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale. But Martin supplies, as it were, the fact-checked version — a product of the 17 years of research that went into Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, together with the benedictions of the novelist himself, who has loftily observed, “Oh well, I suppose every self-respecting writer should have an English biographer.” In Living to Tell the Tale, García Márquez says that, upon arriving at Aracataca, he entered the house and inspected the rooms. The English biographer, by contrast, observes that García Márquez has also said he never entered. Either way, he saw the house. Childhood vistas presented themselves, and vistas prompted thoughts.

García Márquez was engrossed just then in a study of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner and Proust, in Spanish translation. He was learning to appreciate what Martin calls “the multiple dimensions of time itself.” And with a pensive gaze at the old house, he realised — here was the epiphany — he could invent himself anew. There was a way to become a member of the sleek novel-writing avant-garde, and this was to be the boy from Aracataca. And so he had his grand theme; and he had his writer’s persona, who was himself, as adult and child both; and he had his method of inquiry, which was to gaze back on his own most powerful childhood experiences.

The opening sections of Martin’s biography are clogged with genealogical chronicles of the Garcías (the father’s family) and the Márquezes (the mother’s), snaking into the 19th century — a preposterously tangled story of cousins and noncousins united in wedlock, nonwedlock, near-incest, vendetta-mania and frontier trailblazing in the Colombian wilds, such that, after a few pages, you can hardly remember who is who, and where the murder took place, and what the civil war was about, or the next civil war, or the next.

You could even suspect that Martin, having set out to describe García Márquez, has ended up competing with him: where the novelist ornamented some versions of One Hundred Years of Solitude with a one-page genealogical table, the biographer has ornamented “Gabriel García Márquez” with seven pages of them.

But what else was a biographer to do? A kind of sea breeze of atmospheric moods blows across García Márquez’s work — a saline mood of unexplained and understated pathos, moods of delicate solidarity and even complicity with everything frail and cracked, a slightly morbid mood. And all of those moody currents seem to converge, in the end, on a single lush and regal emotion, which is nostalgia — García Márquez’s never-exhausted and always tender search for what he is not going to find: his own past, and his family’s, and the universe at his grandfather’s knee.

His childhood touched on one other experience, though, and this had nothing to do with family lore. Martin tells us that, as a child, García Márquez read Alexandre Dumas and A Thousand and One Nights. He was a normal boy. Mostly he was a normal Latin American.
He read the poets of Spanish literature’s ‘Golden Age’, the 16th and 17th centuries. And, in this fashion, he appears to have spent whole portions of his childhood dwelling not just in northern Colombia but also in the hyper-elegant universe of Luis de Góngora and the syllable-counting poets of imperial Spain, long ago — whose own memories reached spectrally back into the shadows of Roman myth and esoteric philosophy.

The lucky break in García Márquez’s life was to win a scholarship to an excellent college outside Bogotá, where his studies concentrated on still another of the early modernist writers, the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío.

The book is 642 pages long, and the first half of it, after completing the genealogical survey of northern Colombia, records the dreadful poverty that García Márquez and his wife and two sons endured before 1967, when One Hundred Years of Solitude finally lifted him into the comforts of multiple-home ownership and, in 1982, the Nobel Prize.

But the second half mostly recounts the novelist’s subsequent career as hobnobber among the powerful — a man who, according to his biographer, has laboured hard and long to get himself invited to the dinner tables of presidents, dictators and tycoons around the world. And among those many table companions, no one has mattered more to him than the maximum leader of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, with whom García Márquez has conceived a genuine friendship.

 

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