Gerald Martin's Gabriel García Márquez: A Life.

Reading between the lines.
May 18 2009 6:35 AM

The Myth of Gabriel García Márquez

How the Colombian writer really changed literature.

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The term "mythomania" certainly covers García Márquez's stories about his life and plenty of his journalism. He can also, of course, write like a highly professional, old-fashioned newsman. But his fiction is different. It takes pieces of already thoroughly mythified reality—there is scarcely an extravagant incident in his novels and stories that doesn't have some sort of basis in specific, local fact or legend—and finds the perfect, unforgettable literary home for them.

The defeated colonel waiting for a pension; the man who dies as a result of trying to get a parrot out of a tree; the man murdered at his front door by his neighbors; the killing that haunts a decent man all his life; a wasteful, pointless civil war; a massacre of striking workers; a tide of turbulence desperately, simply known as La Violencia—all of these instances and events occur in history and in the fiction. But García Márquez neither copies them nor mythifies them. He honors them, to borrow a well-placed word from Martin:

[O]ver the dark story of conquest and violence, tragedy and failure, he laid the other side of the continent, the carnival spirit, the music and the art of the Latin American people, the ability to honor life even in its darkest corners.

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To honor life, I take Martin as saying, is to celebrate dignity, courage, and style wherever they are found and in whatever forms they take. It is not to deny darkness or even to believe it has its compensations.

Martin's biography is itself rather a dark affair—appropriately, since he is telling the life of a man who has confessed almost nothing and whose autobiography, Living To Tell the Tale, is an elaborate historical myth, borrowing frequently from his fiction to support his facts. In García Márquez's own accounts, his early life is both hard and magical, and his later life is both public and mysterious. But it's never sad, and Martin evokes the sorrow that must lurk in such a life and gives us the plausible grounds of such sorrow. As a child, García Márquez feels abandoned by his mother, who has left him in Aracataca with his grandparents. As a reluctant law student, he hates the cold and mist of the high-altitude Bogotá, Colombia, and yearns for his native tropics. Once back in the tropics, he is always scrambling from one job to another.

Even when he is famous, he scuttles from country to country, in and out of politics, defending the freedom of the press everywhere except in Cuba, as Martin says; remaining a man of the left but increasingly isolated by his loyalty to Castro's regime and his reluctance to criticize his other friend Torrijos of Panama; getting little credit even for his successes—in having political prisoners freed, for example. "I've always wanted," he said at one point, "to be what I no longer am." He was joking but not only joking, and it's easy to miss the multiple levels of such a remark. There is perhaps a slight imbalance in Martin's insistence on the writer's sadness, an excess of melancholy; but it's a good corrective to the writer's own joking cheerfulness and elaborate ironies, and we can return to the master if we get too depressed.

Michael Wood, who teaches at Princeton, is the author, most recently, of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.