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An Extraordinary Memoir - Myth & History, Magic & Fact!
on 22 February 2005
"Living to Tell the Tale," ("Vivir Para Contarla"), is the first book in a planned trilogy that will make up the memoirs of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the renown Colombian writer who initially won public acclaim in the mid-1960s for his novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude." At that time, Garcia Marquez, a journalist and writer, had never sold more than 700 copies of a book. While driving his family through Mexico, he had a veritable brainstorm. He remembered his grandmother's storytelling technique - to recall fantastic, improbable events as if they had actually happened - literally. That was the key to recounting the life of the imaginary village of Macondo and her inhabitants. He turned the car around and drove back home to begin "One Hundred Years of Solitude" anew. To my mind it is one of the 20th century's best works of fiction, and was highlighted in the citation awarding Garcia Marquez the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature.
"Living to Tell The Tale" relates the early years of the author's life, although some of the book's most important incidents predate Garcia Marquez's birth. The impact of these experiences, the people and their stories, were to have a powerful effect on him, as a man and as a writer. This is the tale of his parents' courtship, marriage and the birth of their children, Garcia Marquez, (Gabito), the oldest, and his ten siblings. It tells of his early years which were spent in Aracataca, in the home of his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Ricardo Márquez Mejía, was a Liberal veteran of the War of a Thousand Days. The Colonel told his young grandson that there was no greater burden than to have killed a man. Later García Márquez would put these words into the mouths of his characters. His grandmother, Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes, had a major influence on Gabriel's life also. A great source of stories, her mind was filled with superstitions and folklore, and she gossiped away with her numerous sisters within hearing range of young "Gabito." No matter how fantastic her statements, she always delivered them as if they were the absolute, verifiable truth. This was the style which was to effect Garcia Marquez's fiction, sometimes called "magical realism."
Aracataca was a small village, a banana town on the Caribbean coast, where poverty was the norm and violence was an everyday occurrence. On December 6, 1928, in the Cienaga train station, near Aracataca, 3,000 striking banana workers were shot and killed by troops from Antioquia. Although still a baby, this event, recounted to him, was to have a profound effect on the author.
In 1940, when he was twelve, Gabo was awarded a scholarship to a secondary school for gifted students, run by Jesuits. It was during his school years, 1940s and 50s, that he was first drawn to poetry - a national obsession in Colombia. It was about this time that he decided to be a writer. The people who surrounded him in his childhood later became instrumental when developing the characters and the storylines for his novels. "Love In The Time of Cholera" was inspired by the romance between his mother and father. And his grandfather, who had twelve children, (some say 16), by two different women, became Colonel Aureliano Buendia in "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
One of the most powerful episodes of the book tells of the period called "La Violencia." In 1948 the Liberal presidential candidate, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was assassinated. The murder led to rioting, and left approximately 2500 dead on the streets of Bogota, during "el Bogotázo." Political violence and repression followed. One of the buildings that burned was the pension where Garcia Marquez lived, and his manuscripts were destroyed along with his living quarters. The National University was closed and he was forced to go to the university in Cartagena. Garcia Marquez began his career as a journalist, writing stories and commentary for a Liberal newspaper there.
His memoir begins, however, not with his real birth in 1928, but with his "birth as a writer," at age 22. He and his mother took a trip from Baranquilla, where he was working as a reporter, to his childhood home in Aracataca, now virtually a ghost town. They were going to sell the ancestral house. Vivid memories were stirred up here, memories which electrified his imagination. This trip was to change the course of his writing life. "With the first step I took onto the burning sands of the town, Aracataca instantly became Macondo, an earthly paradise of desolation and nostalgia." His one great subject became his family, "which was never the protagonist of anything, but only a witness to and victim of everything." 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."
Humor, dry wit, and a sense of the absurd are trademarks throughout the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and this autobiography is full of his deadpan humor. The anecdotes of his many mistresses and cafe society are wonderful. "Living To Tell The Tale" is a magical combination of memoir and national history written in the author's remarkable voice. It is his personal mythology, from the repertoire which birthed Macondo. Garcia Marquez leaves us, at the end of this volume, with a glimpse of his future love, his wife, ""wearing a green dress with golden lace in that year's style, her hair cut like swallows' wings, and with the intense stillness of someone waiting for a person who will not arrive."
Edith Grossman has done a fine translation. Kudos to her. Bravo Gabriel Garcia Marquez!!