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Love, Power and Art

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 17, 2009

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

A Life

By Gerald Martin

Knopf. 642 pp. $37.50

Far more so than most writers, Gabriel García Márquez has lived a full life that goes beyond his typewriter or, more recently, his computer. Not merely has he written three of the 20th century's greatest novels -- "One Hundred Years of Solitude," "The Autumn of the Patriarch" and "Love in the Time of Cholera" -- but he has been a highly active participant in public events during a time of immense change and controversy in Latin America. He has been the friend and confidant of presidents (and dictators), a leading advocate of leftist politics, a dabbler in movie-making and a widely read, influential journalist, among other things.

For the literary biographer, this is a heady mix. To be sure, in García Márquez's case as in every writer's, the books are all that really matters, but there's a real story here as well. Gerald Martin, a British academic who specializes in Latin American literature, has been "working on this biography for seventeen years," with the "friendly, hospitable and tolerant" acquiescence of its subject, and on the whole has made the most of the opportunities that García Márquez's life offers. He does rattle on too long about García Márquez's political activities, but he skillfully shows how a long journalistic apprenticeship led to the incredible creative explosion that produced "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

The story of García Márquez's early years has been told innumerable times and will be familiar to anyone who knows his work: his birth in 1927 and his boyhood in Aracataca, a tiny Colombian town that eventually metamorphosed into the fictional Macondo; the shaping influence of his maternal grandfather, Col. Nicolás R. Márquez, "who gradually rescued him from that [Latin American] feminine world of superstition and premonitions, those stories that seemed to spring from the darkness of nature itself, and who installed him in the man's world of politics and history"; the "Baranquilla Group" of Colombian journalists into which García Márquez fell in the early 1950s, making some of his most important friendships; desperate poverty in Paris in 1957, when "I was so hungry that I salvaged what I could from [a friend's] garbage and ate it then and there"; marriage in 1958 to Mercedes Barcha, who "would become indispensable to a man who thought of himself as absolutely self-reliant"; the feverish writing of "Solitude" in 1965 and 1966 and its triumphant publication the following year, almost instantly transforming its unknown, impoverished author into one of the most famous writers of serious literature in the world.

"Solitude" was his fourth book. The first three -- "Leaf Storm" (1955), "No One Writes to the Colonel" (1961) and "In Evil Hour" (1962) -- attracted little attention outside his immediate literary circle, and none was translated into English until well after the success of "Solitude." This is worth noting because García Márquez's readership and critical acclaim in the United States have been steadily and exceptionally high since 1978, with the publication here of Gregory Rabassa's brilliant translation of "Solitude." Though García Márquez has had his conflicts with the U.S. government (which for several years refused to grant him a visa) and his infatuation with Fidel Castro has won him few American friends, he has always been quick to make clear his appreciation for his large, loyal American following.

The success of "Solitude" made García Márquez the dominant voice in the Latin American literary boom, of which the three other chief figures were Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa. This last famously "floored [García Márquez] with one mighty blow to the face" at a film premiere in Mexico City in 1976, apparently because of some real or imagined slight to the Peruvian writer's wife. Relations between the two men remained frosty for three decades, compounded by political as well as personal differences, but in 2007 Vargas Llosa made, and García Márquez accepted, a conciliatory move in the form of an appreciative essay on the 40th anniversary of "Solitude."

There may be no more accurate measure of García Márquez's greatness than that he was able to follow "Solitude," eight years later, with a second masterpiece, "The Autumn of the Patriarch." This, as Martin correctly points out, is not a book about Colombia but "a Latin American book, written with that symbolic readership in mind, with almost no significant Colombia dimension, not least because Colombia never had the sort of patriarch it portrays." It is the book that encompasses "his literary obsession with power"; and, having given ultimate expression to that obsession, it freed him to move along, a decade later, to "Love in the Time of Cholera," his sublime exploration of his other great theme, love, through an imagined account of his parents' courtship.

Lesser works of fiction have been published since "Solitude," but these three novels are his literary monument, joined at an only slightly lower level by "Living to Tell the Tale" (2004), his memoir of his early years, published when he was in his late 70s after a long siege of serious illness. Whether another volume of memoirs will appear remains to be seen, but García Márquez has secured his place alongside Faulkner at the very acme of 20th-century world literature.

The less said about García Márquez's political ventures the better, though in fact Martin goes on and on and on about them. Apparently, he shares more than a touch of García Márquez's political naiveté, for he describes Castro as "undoubtedly a leading candidate for the number two position -- after Bolívar -- in the list of Latin America's great men." Unfortunately, that list is very short, so long as one restricts it to politicians and military men, but another liberator, José de San Martín, certainly ranks many steps above Castro, if indeed Castro belongs there at all. García Márquez's laudable sympathy for the downtrodden, of whom Latin America has far too many, leads him, as it has led many others, to a reflexive support for charlatans and opportunists whose populist rhetoric bears little relationship to their self-aggrandizing deeds.

But then there is scarcely anything new about political naiveté among the literati, as a whole host of American, British and European writers have demonstrated all too abundantly over the past few decades. The difference between García Márquez and all the rest is that while his politics soon enough will be forgotten, his books will not. To call them monuments is no exaggeration, for their presence is towering and timeless.

yardleyj@washpost.com.

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