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.

Gerald Martin's Gabriel García Márquez: A Life.

Many years later, and many times over, the famous writer was to remember the day he discovered how to set about writing his great novel. He was driving from Mexico City to Acapulco when the illumination hit him. He turned the car around, went home, and locked himself away for 18 months. When he reappeared, he had the manuscript of One Hundred Years of Solitude in his hands. In her hands, his wife had 18 months' worth of unpaid bills.

When Gerald Martin, around the middle of his rich and resourceful biography, starts to tell this story, the reader may be a little surprised, even disappointed. "He had not been driving long that day when ... García Márquez, as if in a trance, turned the Opel around, and drove back in the direction of Mexico City. And then ..." Up to this point, Martin has not been challenging what he calls his subject's "mythomania"—how could he, since it's the basis of the writer's art and fame—but he has not been retelling the myths, either. He has been grounding them, laying out the pieces of what became the puzzles. And that's what he's doing here, too, it turns out. He is playing with us for a moment, precisely because the magic of this moment has to be acknowledged in some way.

After "and then," Martin writes in mock apology, "It seems a pity to intervene in the story at this point but the biographer feels constrained to point out that there have been many versions of this story ... and that the one just related cannot be true." The truth was no doubt more mundane, less "miraculous," to use Martin's word. The writer probably continued to Acapulco on that day in 1965 and made some notes there. He didn't immediately quit his job at the advertising agency where he'd been writing copy while trying to break into the Mexican movie industry and acquire money and fame by writing scripts. He didn't live in total seclusion for 18 months, and, in fact, the book took only a year to a write or a little more. And García Márquez wasn't starting a new book; he was reviving an old one into which he had put years of work already.

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What he found, to state the obvious, was a way of telling it. He would combine, as he frequently said, the narrative tone of his grandmother with that of Franz Kafka. She told fantastic stories as if they were true, because for her, they were true. Kafka told them that way because he was Kafka. After his moment of illumination García Márquez came more and more to look for (and often to find) the truth in the fantastic, to pursue whatever truth was lurking in the nonliteral reading of literally presented events.

In its way, of course, the story of the conversion on the road to Acapulco is true, and one of the finest qualities of Martin's biography is his understanding of this double effect. Just because the miracle didn't happen as the nifty story says it did doesn't mean there wasn't a miracle. One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was published in 1967, changed García Márquez's life entirely, and it changed literature. After some uncertain years as a journalist in Colombia, two really hard years in Paris with no job at all, and a brief spell with a Cuban press agency in New York, he had settled in Mexico in 1960. When he got into the car to set out for Acapulco, he was a gifted and hardworking writer, certainly. He had written some remarkable short stories, the novels Leaf Storm (1955) and In Evil Hour (1962), and the wonderful novella No One Writes to the Colonel (1961). But these works had not changed his life or anyone else's, and his was not a name to conjure with as those of Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa were. When he got out of the car, he was on his way to the Nobel Prize, which he won in 1982.

García Márquez made many jokes about his fame over the years, often claiming he always knew it was going to come. He is supposed to have told his wife as soon as they were married (in 1958, when he was 31 and she was 26) that he would write "the masterpiece of his life" when he was 40; and he once said he was famous even at birth, except that he was the only person to be aware of it. We could take these jokes as signs of a Joycean or even Shakespearean confidence: He knew. I think, rather, they are witty and complicated acts of gratitude for a destiny the writer was sure could have been quite different. One of his finest sentences, written in an article in 1983, concerns a dream of the life he might have led if he had stayed in his isolated birthplace of Aracataca, Colombia, a dying town once the United Fruit Company abandoned it in the 1930s. "I would not perhaps be the same person I am now but maybe I would have been something better: just a character in one of the novels I would never have written."

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.

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.

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