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Saturday 20 September 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Master of 'magic realism' and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude

Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30

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FRIENDS: Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, left, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Photo: Rafael Perez
LITERARY ACCLAIM: Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1972. Photo: Rodrigo Garcia, FNPI

GABRIEL Garcia Marquez, who died last Thursday aged 87, was widely regarded as one of the 20th century's finest writers. A leading exponent of the Latin American 'School of Magic Realism', he created two of the greatest examples of the genre with his best-known works, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.

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Born on March 6, 1927, Gabriel Jose de la Concordia Garcia Marquez grew up in Aracataca, a small Colombian town notable only for the fact that it had flourished briefly during the "banana fever" boom of the early 20th century. His mother's parents were leading members of the local community, and his maternal grandfather, who had at least 17 sons, had once been a colonel in the Colombian 'War of a Thousand Days'.

Soon after his birth Gabriel's parents moved away, leaving Gabriel to be brought up his grandparents.

His grandfather was "the biggest eater I can remember and the most outrageous fornicator" and later became the model for the character of Aureliano Buendia, the patriarch in One Hundred Years of Solitude. His grandmother, by contrast, was a fiercely superstitious woman who believed in magic and told her grandson about ghosts and miracles. He grew up wanting to be his grandfather, but was drawn into his grandmother's world, later saying he could trace his interest in "magic realism" directly to her.

In the course of his life, he also repeated his belief that the essential problem for any Latin American novelist was to get across the fact that the magical strangeness emerging from the continent's fiction was not highly fantastical but a true reflection of the Latin American experience.

After his grandfather died, Gabriel was sent a Jesuit boarding school, and then to the Liceo Nacional in Zipaguira, 30 miles from Bogota. "It was like a death," he said, "because I lost my people and my family. . . I just felt like a foreigner."

He made his first visit to the capital, which he found "dismal, smelling of soot. . . you only saw a woman occasionally since they were not allowed in the majority of public places". But despite his distaste for his surroundings, the school itself was a hotbed of learning, with poor students from all over Colombia and the great majority of the teachers steeped in Marxist theory. "When I left there," he wrote, "I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to write novels, and I wanted to do something for a more just society. The three things, I now think, were inseparable."

He enrolled at the National University of Bogota in 1946 to study law, and, when the editor of Colombia's best-known Liberal magazine, El Espectador, wrote an article claiming that there were no talented young writers in the country, Garcia Marquez sent him a selection of stories which were immediately published under the collective title Eyes of a Blue Dog (1947).

This burst of success was interrupted on April 9 1948 when the Liberal president, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was assassinated and a period of intense political turmoil, now known as "la violencia", began. The National University was closed down, and Garcia Marquez left the capital and began working for a variety of Liberal newspapers in the relatively peaceful Caribbean region.

He continued to write fiction, and began work on his first novel, Leaf Storm, though it was repeatedly rejected by publishers and did not appear in print until 1955. He also helped start up several new magazines in which he published six of his own stories. This marked the beginning of a lifelong commitment to new writing in Colombia.

In 1954 he returned to Bogota to work as a reporter for El Espectador. He became both the film critic and an investigative reporter, and his most celebrated coup was a series of interviews with a sailor called Velasco who had been the only crew member to survive the shipwreck of a Colombian naval vessel officially caused by "an unexpected storm". Velasco revealed exclusively to Garcia Marquez that there had been a government cover-up and that the true cause of the tragedy had been the ship's badly stowed, illegally smuggled cargo. The implications of the scandal led circulation of EI Espectador to soar (the series of articles was published in book form as The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor in 1970); meanwhile, Garcia Marquez was sent to Europe until things quietened down.

The newspaper was closed down by the government soon after he arrived in Paris, but he decided to stay on and, eventually, a Venezuelan newspaper commissioned him to write some pieces about life behind the Iron Curtain. Over the next few years he made three separate journeys to Eastern Europe and, though he never wavered in his belief that socialism was the only system capable of resolving the unequal distribution of wealth, he also wrote that the people in Eastern Europe lived in terror and were "the saddest I had ever seen".

He never actually joined the Communist Party, though he always maintained close personal contacts with its leading members in Colombia, and, despite its illegal status between 1954 and 1957, never failed to pay monthly contributions. As a result, he was frequently denied tourist visas to the US while, simultaneously, having to take criticism from the Colombian Left for not committing wholeheartedly to their cause.

In 1958 he travelled to Venezuela to witness the fall of the country's detested dictator, Perez Jimenez, and it was during this period that he wrote No One Writes to the Colonel (1958), in which a retired army officer begins an endless and futile attempt to obtain the war veteran's pension to which he feels justly entitled. The simple prose style was a deliberate attempt to get away from literary ideals and to concentrate on the daily realities of life in Colombia.

He returned briefly to Colombia in March that year in order to marry his long-term fiancee, Mercedes-Barcha Pardo, with whom he later had two sons. The couple's parents had been lifelong friends, and Garcia Marquez had proposed at their very first meeting, more than 12 years earlier. The newlyweds left for Venezuela so that he could cover the visit of US vice-president Nixon, and they were still in Caracas when, on January 8 1959, he received the news that Fidel Castro had entered Havana in triumph.

Garcia Marquez was jubilant. He went straight to the island to witness the founding of the new Cuban press agency, Prensa Latina, and was invited by Castro to set up an office in Bogota, where he spent the next two years energetically defending the Cuban revolution, first from Colombia and then from New York. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, his American visa was withdrawn, and he was forced to move again, this time to Mexico City, which became his permanent home.

He spent the next 18 months living off credit and writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, while his second novella, In Evil Hour (1962), which concentrates on the futility of civil disruption, won first prize in a competition in Bogota. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) tells the story of a family through six generations. It is the epic tale of a town, based on Aracataca but called Macondo, from its founding through to its collapse, and takes in the entire history of Colombia. But it is also a domestic tale full of detail from Garcia Marquez's own family life. It includes such memorably surreal images as a plague of insomnia; a priest who levitates when he drinks hot chocolate; and rain which lasts for four years, 11 weeks and two days.

Latin Americans were immediately enthusiastic about the novel, feeling that, at last, the continent had a literary style distinctively its own. Pablo Neruda called it "perhaps the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since Don Quixote"; it was translated into dozens of languages and has sold tens of millions of copies.

After its publication, Garcia Marquez began to lead the life of a famous writer, and became friends with a variety of Left-wing figures, including Francois Mitterrand – who was said to be obsessed by One Hundred Years of Solitude. Garcia Marquez used his new-found fame and wealth to launch a magazine in Colombia called Alternativa. Although relatively successful, the project was riddled with internal disputes and eventually collapsed in 1980.

After the publication of Innocent Erendira and Other Stories (1972), Garcia Marquez went to serve on the Russell Tribunal, investigating human rights violations in Latin America; and in 1978 he founded a human rights organisation called Habeas in Mexico City.

The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) was a poetical indictment of all the dictators to have plagued Latin America. He then entered into a literary silence, stating that he would publish no more fiction until General Pinochet had been removed from power in Chile. He was also personally responsible for the release of the dissident Cuban poet Armando Valladares, and in 1979, having been appointed to a Unesco commission, he worked alongside Graham Greene to secure the release of two British bankers who had been kidnapped by Salvadoran guerrillas.

Despite the fact that Pinochet was still in power, in 1981, Garcia Marquez published Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the fictionalised account of the murder of one of his own childhood friends.

In 1982, Garcia Marquez became the first Colombian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the first South American since Pablo Neruda in 1971. He seized the opportunity to make in his acceptance speech a very public denunciation of the horrific acts that had taken place in South America since Neruda's victory, and announced his intention to spend almost all of the prize money setting up a radical new Colombian daily paper. The speech was followed by a wild party for which Fidel Castro personally provided 1,500 bottles of Cuban rum and at which anti-American slogans were liberally hurled around the room.

With Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) Garcia Marquez produced a parody of romantic fiction while simultaneously embracing the genre. It was to be a worldwide bestseller despite America continuing to refuse him an entry visa to promote it.

The General in His Labyrinth followed in 1989 – an account of the last years of the revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar – and in the same year wrote the script for a television soap opera called I Rent Myself Out To Dream.

In 1996 he published News of a Kidnapping, a work of non-fiction about the Colombian Medellin drug cartel, and in 2003 a volume of memoirs, Living to Tell the Tale. His other novels were Of Love and Other Demons (1994) in which a coastal town slips into communal madness, and Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004), which was banned in Iran. Many of his books have been adapted for the screen, including Chronicle of a Death Foretold in 1987 and Love in the Time of Cholera in 2007.

Gabriel GarcIa Marquez spent much of his later life in an elegant suburb of Mexico City, writing short stories at an average of 24 lines a day in a study heated all year round to 28 degrees. He described his greatest literary influences as Kafka and his grandparents, and said that his greatest achievement in life was his two sons, both of whom were sent to English schools. He also maintained homes in Colombia, Barcelona and Paris and continued to keep up his friendship with Fidel Castro. During Garcia Marquez's frequent visits to Cuba, Castro would call on him as often as twice a day; the two men went fishing together, and talked about books and the nature of absolute power.

Despite his fame and fortune, Garcia Marquez preferred to avoid interviews, and his final years were marred by dementia. He did, however, enjoy explaining that what he liked most in life was "the world of the farandula, of show business. To me, it's enchanting to run around with singers, actresses, staying up all night, going to all sorts of parties. I'd like to run around with many beautiful women, different every day. And never work. But then I couldn't write. And the only thing I ever wanted to do in life was write."

He is survived by his wife and two sons.

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