From the Encyclopedic to the Personal

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On December 10, 1982, Gabriel García Márquez received the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his new biography of the renowned Columbian writer, Gerald Martin describes the occasion:

Now, defiantly dressed in his liquiliqui—the closest thing when all is said and done to a recognizably Latin American lower-class uniform—with, oh horror, black boots, García Márquez prepared himself for the moment of truth. If the liquiliqui was wrinkled, no doubt those of Nicaragua’s Augusto Sandino and Cuba’s José Martí and other heroes of Latin American resistance had been wrinkled, not to mention that of Aureliano Buendía.

Martin’s handling of this climactic moment in a life that encompasses enormous geographical distances, varied socio-economic conditions, and intense political climates—not to mention an entire world of literature and fiction—is indicative of the way he manages to present García Márquez, in all his various facets, throughout the six hundred–plus page biography. In the space of two sentences, Martin signals García Márquez’s position as a literary-political hero of Latin America; he reminds us of the writer’s ideological allegiance to the Cuban Revolution and the working class (however ironized by the lavish awards-ceremony setting); and he chuckles, as he often does, over García Márquez’s quirky sense of fashion. And, indispensably, he makes an allusion to one of the patriarchs of the Buendía clan in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

This nod to the colonel from Macondo—a character largely modeled, as Martin duly acknowledges, on the author’s maternal grandfather—speaks to the challenges involved in writing a biography of Gabriel García Márquez. While the final product of Martin’s eighteen years of research and interviews with “Gabo” and scores of the people closest to him is an extremely well-catalogued chronicle of events, facts, relationships, and fictional works, the privilege of being García Márquez’s official “English biographer” (in his Foreword, Martin quotes García Márquez sighing, “Oh well, I suppose every self-respecting writer should have an English biographer”) does come with some difficulties.

The first of these challenges is that the author whose life Martin sets out to document is already in many senses a writer of autobiography. In addition to the multitudinous allusions to personal acquaintances and experiences already present in García Márquez’s fiction, in 2002 he published the memoir Vivir para contarla (it appeared in English in 2003 as Living to Tell the Tale). In this book, which focuses on the writer’s life up until 1950, García Márquez works to shape his own public perception. With the masterful storytelling style of what is commonly known as his “magical realism,” he presents himself and his childhood home of Aracataca, Columbia, with every bit as much fantasy as he does the Buendías in their Macondo.

All of this autobiography and fantasy gives Martin a lot of material to wade through. While Living to Tell the Tale appeared long after research for the biography had begun, Martin makes no effort to obscure the fact that he is covering ground that, as far as the reader of García Márquez is concerned, has already been tread. He takes cues from the memoir, illuminating and commenting on it by setting it in a larger context. Often Martin is able to offer the outside psychological analysis not present in García Márquez’s own writing. For example, the biographer explores Gabo’s early years, spent in the home and care of his grandparents, in order to reveal the importance of the opening anecdote of Vivir para contarla: a return trip to Aracataca taken by García Márquez in the company of the mother who had been absent during his childhood there.

Throughout the biography, Martin combines stylistic finesse with a painstaking effort to catalogue events that are various and often wrapped in a mythology of their own. In recounting the genesis of One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, Martin first relates García Márquez’s account of miraculously hearing the first sentence of the novel in his mind while driving his family to Acapulco and immediately turning back to Mexico City to write. He then interjects: “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 (as of so many others) and that the one just related cannot be true….” In this balancing act between myth and fact, he is able to provide what is perhaps a far truer account of the famed writer.

The second challenge Martin confronts in his project is the dominating, almost irresistible force that One Hundred Years of Solitude exerts over the telling of García Márquez’s tale. As the novelist’s best known and most widely-read work, his breakthrough novel and the one that won him the Nobel Prize, the book constantly begs for allusions like the one we saw in the excerpt above.

Martin’s ambivalence on this account is palpable. He dutifully fulfills the biographer’s obligation to document historical and chronological fact, and does his English-speaking audience a service by highlighting aspects of García Márquez’s life that are neither recounted in the memoir, nor well known by this general audience: his political persona, including early travels in Eastern Europe and the USSR; his time spent studying film in Rome and starving in Paris; and the importance of personal relationships with individuals from Fidel Castro to ex-girlfriend Tachia Quintiana to his literary agent Carmen Bacells. With methodical even-handedness, Martin dedicates chapters to all of García Márquez’s major novels after One Hundred Years, including The Autumn of the PatriarchChronicle of a Death ForetoldLove in the Time of Cholera, and The General in His Labyrinth. Yet the center of gravity never completely shifts away from One Hundred Years. After the awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1982, the final achievement of that long journey from the childhood house in Aracataca, Martin’s biography inevitably loses some momentum.

Still, Martin largely succeeds in using the magnetic force of One Hundred Years to his advantage. The pervasive autobiographical strains of the novel are acknowledged, deciphered, and returned to in allusions that lend resonance and coherence to the life story. García Márquez’s genealogical charts at the back of the biography echo those that appeared in editions of the novel in order to help readers keep all those Aurelianos and José Arcadios straight. Martin even manages to emulate aspects of García Márquez’s style, and to wonderful effect. Principal among these is García Márquez’s handling of time, wherein he allows the moment of narration to reference all events—those that have happened and those that will have happened—from the perfect perspective of an all-encompassing present. The best example of this is the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, before the firing squad, Coronel Aureliano Buendía would remember that far-off afternoon when his father took him to see ice” (my translation). At the beginning of his chapter on the composition of the novel, Martin deftly reproduces this technique:

Years later García Márquez would say that after he got home he sat down at his typewriter the next day, just as he did every day, except “this time I did not get up for another eighteen months.”

The affinities between One Hundred Years and Martin’s biography of its author are not only stylistic. It is the novel’s encyclopedic nature that perhaps most resonates with Martin’s biographical endeavor. From the famous opening lines to its final pages, One Hundred Years encompasses an entire catalogue of modern experience within the story of one family and one Latin American town. [1] García Márquez starts from his personal knowledge of small-town coastal Columbia, and finds in it the perfect means for explaining four hundred years of Latin American civilization, and perhaps human civilization as a whole. As Martin puts it, he is “the new Cervantes”:

Like Cervantes, García Márquez had explored the dreams and delusions of his characters which, at a certain time in history, had been those of Spain during its great imperial period and had then, in a different form, become those of Latin America after independence. Moreover, like Cervantes, he had created a mood, a humour, indeed a sense of humour, which was somehow instantly recognizable and, once it came into existence, seemed to have always been there and was an integral part of the world to which it referred.

As Martin himself has pointed out elsewhere, [2] the wide-ranging vision that makes One Hundred Years of Solitude akin to Don Quijote functions not only in the mode of mythology and “magic realism” with which García Márquez is so often associated, but also in the historical, de-mythifying mode of social critique. In the biography as in the fiction, myth and history speak to, contend with, and generate one another, expanding the reaches of their genres. As biographical cataloguer, Martin takes pains to salvage and record historical information that may be glossed over by “fantastical” readings of García Márquez’s work, or by the storytelling of García Márquez himself. He wades through hundreds of interviews, years of conversations, and multiplicitous versions of each story. Yet, remarkably, Martin handles all of this information without loosing the mythical attraction that is so much a part of García Márquez. As he weaves the various strands of the chronicle together, the biography draws the reader into its world just as García Márquez’s writing pulls us into its own. In either case—Aracataca or Macondo—our experience is the same: we are half-surprised and delighted to be reminded that the worlds biographer and author describe are, in fact, our own.

Which brings me back to the point from which I began this review, and my personal reason for starting there: the day that García Márquez received his Noble Prize in Stockholm—December 10, 1982—was also the day I was born.


[1] The relationship between One Hundred Years and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph,” a story that deals directly with the encyclopedic impulse, has been noted by Emir Rodríguez Monegal, in “One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Last Three Pages” (Books Abroad 47 [1973]: 485-98)

[2] See Martin, “On ‘Magical’ and Social Realism in García Márquez” in Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings (Eds. Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 95-116.)

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About Leslie Harkema

Leslie Harkema is a doctoral student and Presidential Teaching Fellow in Hispanic Language and Literatures at Boston University.