MEXICO CITY -- In a moment, we'll get to the serious stuff: the encroaching shadow of death, why a house of prostitution is a good place for a writer, how love is eternal as long as it lasts, and whether a novel about an ageless insane dictator can also be an autobiography. But for now, consider something more mundane. Consider the shower.

After rising at 5 a.m., the novelist performs the usual chores: brushing, shaving, dressing. He detests them all -- the time wasted, the sheer bother. Every morning he wishes for some sort of miracle drug, a tonic that would instantly transport him to his desk. The only thing he likes is the shower.

As the hot water streams down, he mulls over what he wrote the day before and waits for fresh revelations. This is a writer who built his career on what he once called "those details of human interest that do not seem important but that are in fact the ones that move us." They bring his fantasy down to Earth, make it magically real: A storm doesn't merely go on for years, but for "four years, 11 months and two days"; a death is heralded by "a light rain of tiny yellow flowers"; a priest levitates six inches off the ground, but only after drinking a cup of hot chocolate.

Sometimes the details arrive so quickly he jumps out, hair slick with shampoo, and rushes to his desk. But there are mornings when the process isn't so quick, when he has to tarry under the spray, legs growing weary, for the muse to make a grudging appearance.

Like everything else about him, a myth has grown up about this. His showers are said to be so lengthy that he had to install a second water heater. One imagines the really bad day, when there is no way for the narrative to move forward, when his skin resembles a boiled chicken and the clouds of steam spiraling up from the bathroom can be seen from the summit of Popocatepetl 50 miles away.

So what's the longest his showers last?

"Oh, 10 minutes."

When you're a genius, it seems, even inspiration beats a path to your shower stall.

A writer of fiction can be popular or he can be esteemed, but he is rarely both. John Grisham might sell 60 million books in four years, but heads of state do not seek his counsel. William Gaddis is worshiped by the literary Establishment, but he earns less per hour than a hamburger flipper at McDonald's.

More than any other writer in the world, Gabriel Garcia Marquez combines both respect (bordering on adulation) and mass popularity (also bordering on adulation). "One Hundred Years of Solitude" -- his 1967 masterpiece that effortlessly recaps the history of Latin America while never straying from the imaginary Colombian town in which it is set -- has sold upward of 20 million copies, influenced two generations of writers and been judged the one novel of our time most likely to survive.

" 'Solitude' has the same relationship to Latin American culture that Rabelais' work does to French, or Dante's to Italian, or Cervantes' to Spanish. Once their books existed, the cultures from which they came seemed unimaginable without them," says Gerald Martin, an English academic who's writing the authorized biography. "Garcia Marquez is the first person to universalize the Latin American experience. He opened a continent for literature."

Since "Solitude," 10 more of his books have been translated into English, ranging from the lushly romantic ("Love in the Time of Cholera," about a couple who must endure 51 years of separation before their love can be consummated) to the phantasmagoric ("The Autumn of the Patriarch," a meditation on dictators) to masterly short exercises ("Chronicle of a Death Foretold," a reconstruction of a murder). As is true of few other writers, a new book by Garcia Marquez is always an event -- in any language.

One reason is that he never forgets he is telling a story. From the first sentence, the narratives pull you in. "On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on" ("Chronicle"). "I've seen a corpse for the first time" ("Leaf Storm"). "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice" ("Solitude"). The voice is assured, supple, akin to watching an accomplished magician: After a bit, you stop trying to figure out the tricks and surrender to pleasure.

Note that all three opening sentences refer to death, an event the 67-year-old writer calls "the only important thing that happens in a lifetime." His devotion to his art, he admits, has always been tinged with fear. "I think I write because I'm afraid of death. If I didn't write, I would die."

Recently he's been wondering if he might die anyway. This most life-affirming of writers is troubled by thoughts of an imminent end. Hearing him talk about it, you half expect him to keel over right here, on the leather easy chair in his office.

It's an extremely comfortable but not lavish place, a separate building behind his house that is heated to toasty. One wall is covered with books in four languages, another with his compact discs and a top-notch stereo system. As in the house, the decor is white. So, too, with the writer's outfit: white sweater, white pants, white socks and white sneakers. He looks a little like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

"Besides this house," he explains, "I have an apartment in Bogota, an apartment in Cartagena, a house in Cuernavaca, a house in Paris and a house in Barcelona. My friends laugh at me because they're all the same: white. I have the exact same computer everywhere, and the same temperature setting -- the temperature of the Caribbean. Tomorrow, if I have to go to Barcelona or Bogota, I just grab my diskette and put it in my pocket."

There's a practical reason too. "When visitors see it's a white carpet, they immediately start to clean their feet on the mat. If it weren't white, they wouldn't bother."

He speaks in Spanish -- not knowing English, he says, is one of his big regrets. To schedule a conversation with the writer in any language requires months of negotiation and a good deal of help. Over the past 20 years no more than a dozen full-scale profiles have appeared in English.

One reason for his disinclination, perhaps, is that interviews nowadays always involve technology. He fusses over the tape recorder, asking several times why one is necessary. "It has an ear but no heart," he protests, and such is his power to redefine reality that for a brief time the machine stops working.

Every morning, inspired by the shower, he comes here to work. "I think it's Rilke who says, 'If it's possible to live without writing, do it,' " says Garcia Marquez. "There's nothing else in this world I like more than to write. And there's nothing that can keep me from writing. That's all I think about."

That, plus death. "Strange Pilgrims," published in the United States last fall, is ostensibly a dozen stories about the unlikely fates that befall Latin Americans traveling abroad, but from the opening sentence of the first story, "Bon Voyage, Mr. President," it's really about the biggest trip of all: "He sat on a wooden bench under the yellow leaves in the deserted park, contemplating the dusty swans with both his hands resting on the silver handle of his cane, and thinking about death."

When the stories don't begin with la muerte, they end that way. Even in the introduction, Garcia Marquez recounts a dream he had about a "festive" and "happy" occasion he spent with friends: his own funeral.

All this was a premonition. Two years ago, the day after the book was finished, an X-ray of his thorax revealed a tumor. It was malignant, but it hadn't spread.

The prognosis is good, or so the doctors say. But the checkups remain "terrifying. They might find something else." Recently, he had an appointment scheduled for a Wednesday. "On Saturday I was anxious. On Sunday, I thought I was going to die." On Monday, he had the appointment moved up -- something possible if your name is Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The brush with cancer has clearly shaken him. "I'm in more of a hurry. I used to say, 'I can do this in 20 or 30 years,' but now I know there might not be another 30 years. But I try to get over this when I sit down to work. Hurriedness in creative expression is immediately noticed."

Nevertheless, his output has escalated. He was a notorious perfectionist, agonizing over every page as it came out of the typewriter, refusing to move on unless it was perfect -- not only as good as he could make it, but without a single typo or penciled correction. Helped by his Apple, this process now moves along much more quickly. Whereas once he worked on a single page at a time, now he works on 10.

A novel used to take seven years. Now it's about three. He's finished a historical tale set in Colombia, a tragic love story titled "Love and Other Demons." (Knopf will publish it in the U.S. next spring.) He's well along on a series of essays about his life. He has a new nonfiction project about to get underway. Other ideas are in various stages of development.

"When I first started to write journalism, everyone said, 'Now you're screwed because it will take up all your time and you won't be able to write fiction.' When I started working in advertising" -- this happened briefly in 1963 -- "they said the same thing. And again when I started making films. And again when I started talking about politics."

In 1981, the writer himself said one thing would be an "absolute catastrophe": the Nobel Prize. The next year, he promptly became the youngest laureate in a quarter-century. As he predicted, it increased the demands on his time and thus wreaked havoc on his personal life, but the famous curse of the Nobel -- a deadly self-consciousness -- has yet to show up.

Actually, his attitude toward this highest of all literary honors is rather casual. "The only thing the Nobel is good for is not having to wait in line," he says. "If they see you waiting for something, they take you right up to the front. Pass this tip on to Toni Morrison."

'Solitude'

The defining moment in Garcia Marquez's life was the 1967 publication of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" in Buenos Aires. He had published four books in the previous dozen years, but sales and attention had been modest. "Solitude" instantly changed things.

"People were talking in cafes about it. You went into a bookstore and people would ask if you had heard of it," remembers Alberto Manguel, an Argentine critic and novelist.

It was an era when the death of the novel was being proclaimed, when the innovations of modernism seemed at an end and fiction was deemed incapable of capturing an increasingly complex existence. "Solitude," with its delightful touches of magic realism and faultless interweaving of epic history and mundane life, shattered these assumptions like a brick through a window.

Critics have traced much of the novel back to the eight years following Garcia Marquez's birth in 1928. Or was it 1927? Like some other things about him, it's hard to pin this fact down. "In my town, there were no civic birth certificates," he explains. "My father would say I was born in 1927. My mother said, 'Let him be born whenever he wants to be born.' Clearly, she's a practitioner of the new journalism."

His parents' first child, he was given to his mother's relatives to raise as a gesture of conciliation; they hadn't approved of the marriage. Aracataca, set near Colombia's Caribbean coast, would eventually become the model for Macondo in "Solitude." Sixty years ago, it was a banana boom town gone bust. Most of the inhabitants were illiterate and barefoot, living in tiny shacks with thatched roofs.

Garcia Marquez's family, however, belonged to the local gentry. Their house had numerous rooms, and dead relatives could be heard sighing in many of them. That, at least, was the conviction of Dona Tranquilina, the boy's grandmother. He was fascinated by day, but terrified at night.

His grandfather, Col. Nicolas Marquez, had his own ghosts. The colonel had once shot a man who had insulted him, and came to be haunted by it. "You can't believe," he would say, "how much a dead man weighs." He took the child on stately processionals around Aracataca, taught him to respect the dictionary and endlessly recounted his long-ago adventures in the War of a Thousand Days.

All this made Garcia Marquez so somber he would be known to his schoolmates as "the Old Man." A photo shows a diminutive boy with sunken eyes and a grave demeanor, nearly a ghost himself. But he now had all the material to write his great book, and in only a few years would be making tentative stabs at writing it.

He was never much of a student but proved a natural journalist: At 20, he had his own newspaper column. He'd write it in the afternoon, then work on fiction, then go out and meet with his buddies. It was a wonderful time, a chance to form permanent friendships and live the sort of semi-raffish life that stands you in good stead in your more mature years.

"In his Paris Review interview," Garcia Marquez remembers, "William Faulkner says something unforgettable: that the best place for a writer to live is a bordello. There's a party every night, the best hours to work -- the morning -- are always peaceful, and you have a very good relationship with the police. I read that interview when I was living in a cheap hotel where prostitutes would take clients. Faulkner was right."

This was in Barranquilla, a Colombian port near Aracataca. Garcia Marquez was being paid three pesos a day for his newspaper column; the hotel, the cheapest in town, charged a peso and a half. The budding writer lived there more than two years.

"The desk clerk was a very thin man, missing one eye," he says. "Once I said I didn't have the money, explaining that I was a writer, a novelist, and that meant I didn't get paid well. I showed him the manuscript, saying, 'This is my life, this means more than anything else. I'll leave it with you, and tomorrow I'll come back for it.' He said okay, and put it on the shelf." From that day on, whenever the writer lacked funds, he would leave the manuscript instead.

He likes the anecdote about the hotel of prostitutes, recounting it with charming animation. The only problem is that the timing is off. The Barranquilla years were from 1950 to '52, but the Faulkner interview in the Paris Review didn't appear until much later in the decade.

In fact, the magazine didn't begin to publish until 1953. So when Garcia Marquez enthuses about how the Paris Review Q&As taught him to write -- "How exciting it was like for this writer in that bordello to read those interviews!" -- his memory, at best, is playing tricks. Reality was a fluid concept when he lived with his grandmother, and it's remained that way.

In his work, particularly "Solitude," the technique of bending the time stream has been labeled "magic realism" by the critics. Garcia Marquez wasn't the first to use it, merely the most skillful. The novel is narrated in a deadpan style suitable for recounting mundane events and, in a tone of equal sincerity, supernatural ones. In his hands, magic realism proved a tool for presenting both sides of Latin American society, the primitive and the developed.

"He says magic realism is just like listening to his mother," says Martin, the biographer. "And it is just like listening to his mother. She mixes folk beliefs with modern discourse in a really interesting and also disconcerting way. He's always said he's a realist writer who just writes down what he sees and hears. That's a literary conceit -- otherwise lots of people could do it -- but in a sense it's true."

Occasionally, Garcia Marquez's playing with reality has real-world consequences. One episode in "Solitude" recounts a strike at the local banana plantation, a revolt put down by the army with machine guns. Three thousand corpses are piled on a 200-car train and taken to the coast, where they will be dumped into the sea like rejected bananas.

This is based on an actual 1928 event, but the number of victims was undoubtedly much smaller (40 by the army's account, 400 by the union). Nevertheless, the writer long ago noticed that his 3,000 figure was being offered up by journalists and politicians as accurate. In Garcia Marquez's hands, fiction starts by filling in the gaps in history and ends by replacing it entirely.

Friends and Family

Partly as a strategy for surviving the demands of the present, he remains faithful to the past. He phones his mother, who still lives in Colombia and this year enters her 10th decade, every Sunday, and keeps in frequent touch with his 14 younger brothers and sisters. His best friends are those from the era before he was famous. Even something as relatively minor as his early affection for the Paris Review led him in 1981 to enthusiastically give the magazine one of his rare interviews. He seems more honored to have been chosen for that Q&A than he was by winning the Nobel.

"He's a very loyal, a very committed person," says Chilean novelist Jose Donoso, a pre-"Solitude" friend. "And when he loves, he loves greatly."

Which brings us to Fidel Castro. Their relationship, which troubles some of the writer's admirers, goes back 35 years: "I was his friend when no one knew who he was." And now that everyone knows who Castro is, Garcia Marquez is still one of his best friends -- and certainly his most important.

It's a bond founded on a common belief. "We both have the conviction that Latin America's salvation is in its unity, and that the forces that prevent this come from outside Latin America." Castro, then, is a useful foil to U.S. imperialism.

"The destiny of Latin America is intimately tied to the United States," he adds in a favorite analogy. "It's like a transatlantic ocean liner. There's first class, second class, all kinds of classes, but the day the boat sinks, everyone drowns." The sooner the U.S. government finally realizes this, he believes, the better for everyone concerned.

But the fellowship with Castro goes beyond politics to something much more personal: literature. "He's a great reader. I bring him books -- quick, easy books to help him relax." A Castro favorite is also one of Garcia Marquez's top choices: Bram Stoker's "Dracula."

Many Latin American writers distanced themselves from Castro in 1971 at the time of the Heberto Padilla affair, when the Cuban poet was arrested and forced to confess to counterrevolutionary tendencies. Numerous intellectuals signed an open letter to Castro saying Padilla's confession recalled "the most sordid moments of the era of Stalinism," but Garcia Marquez was not among them.

"I believe when people sign a petition, they make a great noise," the writer says, with perhaps a trace of disdain. "They don't really care about the cause. They're just thinking about themselves -- what the public is going to think of their petition."

Garcia Marquez is powerful enough to be able to work silently. Padilla himself, who was eventually allowed to leave Cuba, acknowledges that Garcia Marquez "helped me." It appears he did a lot for others too.

Two years ago Garcia Marquez agreed to intercede for two prisoners in Cuba. In a statement to the Colombian press, he said: "There are more than 2,000 former political prisoners ... that I helped to set free and I did it quietly. Sometimes they didn't even ask me to do it or they didn't know about my interceding. Some of them, once freed, have turned against me."

Castro's enemies, however, say Garcia Marquez is either wittingly or unwittingly being used, maybe (it's sometimes hinted) because he craves power himself. "To me it's scandalous that a writer of such enormous talent be a spokesperson for a government which has put more people in jail (proportionately to its population) than any other government in the world," wrote Susan Sontag more than a decade ago. In his posthumous memoirs, the exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who died of AIDS in 1990, blasted Garcia Marquez as a "born opportunist" and implied his Nobel was due more to political than literary reasons.

Even Padilla has reservations. "I'm furious because he doesn't speak clearly to Castro. He should show him he does not approve." In an odd way, the exile whimsically adds, the "exaggerated, ridiculous" Castro is beginning to seem more and more like a character in a Garcia Marquez novel.

But the novelist is not the type to turn his back on a buddy under any circumstances. He exalts friendship the way others have elevated God or America or communism. "I consider myself my friends' best friend, and I believe none of them loves me as much as I love the one of them I love the least," he told his good friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in a book-length interview that is by far the best source in English on the writer's life.

Another friend was Luis Donaldo Colosio. The assassination of the Mexican presidential candidate last month prompted this statement from Garcia Marquez: "For the first time in my 35 years as a devoted Mexican, I feel it is my duty and my right to speak out about the domestic affairs of the country of my sons and grandsons." He appealed to "those Mexicans who are my friends -- and even to those who are not" to find "a thoughtful, peaceful and sure resolution to this very grave ambush of history."

With all his reverence for mere friendship, you can imagine how he feels about love. In his story "Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane," a passenger notices a beautiful woman and asks the ticket clerk if she believes in love at first sight. "Of course," the clerk responds. "The other kinds are impossible."

Garcia Marquez says this is his view as well. "The problem with love is making it last. Love is eternal as long as it lasts."

His greatest statement on this theme is "Love in the Time of Cholera." It's a story that parodies modern ideas of romance while at the same time underscoring them, making them new again. The obvious inspiration for the tale is Mercedes, his soul mate and wife, whom he first saw when she was a pigtailed 9-year-old. The book is dedicated to her, "of course."

She remains elusive -- apparently she has never been interviewed at length -- but friends and Garcia Marquez himself say she is the linchpin of his life. Without her, "Solitude" would probably never have been written.

After thinking about the novel for 15 years, Garcia Marquez one day had a vision of the entire work: tone, structure, language. He needed only get it down on paper. That took 18 months, during which the family ran out of money. Early on, the car was pawned. Mercedes persuaded the butcher, the baker and the landlord to accept credit.

She walled him off from the world, made sure he had writing paper and cigarettes. At the end, they had only enough money to mail half the manuscript to the publisher in Buenos Aires. To get the 80 pesos postage for the second half, the writer pawned the Mixmaster and Mercedes' hair dryer. This sounds like romantic mythmaking, but the biographer has checked it all out and declares it true.

The couple have two children, both boys: Gonzalo is a publisher in Mexico City; Rodrigo works as a cameraman in Hollywood. "Do you know why we didn't have any more kids?" Garcia Marquez asks. "We were afraid we didn't have the means to educate them. And when we could, Mercedes said she was too old. So I tell all recently married couples to have as many kids as they want. Eventually, you'll be able to support them."

The Memory Machine

In more ways than the cancer, his body is starting to betray him. "It's curious," he says, "how one starts to perceive the signs of growing old. I first started to forget names and telephone numbers, then it became more encompassing. I couldn't remember a word, or a face, or a melody." He smiles. "I've sort of given up worrying about it."

It sounds like this most literary of writers is succumbing to a disease he invented in "Solitude." During the plague of forgetting, the inhabitants of Macondo are reduced to marking everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, cow, goat. Jose Arcadio Buendia responds by building a memory machine, an artifact "based on the possibility of reviewing every morning, from beginning to end, the totality of knowledge acquired during one's life." He writes 14,000 items for his dictionary before the gypsy Melquiades returns to Macondo, dispensing a potion that restores the citizens' memory.

In the absence of a supernatural brew, the best memory machine is a book. While Garcia Marquez is busy recapturing some of his past in a series of essays grouped around various themes -- friendship, journalism, childhood -- he professes a lack of interest in a more conventional, linear approach. "I already told my story in 'Autumn of the Patriarch,' " he says, referring to the 1975 novel that he says is his best and, with its sentences that last for pages, is unquestionably his most difficult to read.

This is a curious admission. The patriarch, an amalgam of various Latin American dictators, is a mythic figure, somewhere between 107 and 232 years old. Like many tyrants, he didn't begin badly. Recalls one of his citizens: "... all he had to do was point at trees for them to bear fruit and at animals for them to grow and at men for them to prosper."

By the end, however, he has sold to a foreign power the ocean itself. He has also suffered the usual fate of despots: As one courtier reports, "Everyone tells you what he knows you want to hear while he bows to your face and thumbs his nose at you from behind."

This is at the heart of it: The solitude of fame can be as distorting as the solitude of power. "Living in the presidential palace," the patriarch's mother says, "is like having the lights on all the time." That's something most presidents quickly figure out, and it's a lesson Garcia Marquez had to learn too.

It began soon after "Solitude" was published, when he discovered that a "friend" had sold his correspondence to an institution in the States. In response, he gave up writing letters altogether.

The Nobel only increased his caution and reticence. "The prize implies a sort of dignity," he says. "You really can't say what you want to someone who's bugging you all the time."

It's not easy, being a legend. Garcia Marquez still considers himself a journalist, but it's an increasingly hard craft to practice. "I had a project I wanted to do for a long time: Go to some small town in Colombia, get out of the car and write a report on what that town is about. But I realized something. By the third day, all the correspondents in Colombia would be there watching me do this. I'm the news."

Even at parties with friends, it's just like that old E.F. Hutton commercial: He starts talking, maybe just commenting on the weather or making a witticism, and everyone else shuts up.

Public events are worse. Says Garcia Marquez: "It's as if you could even measure solitude by the number of people around you. As you're surrounded by more and more people, you feel smaller and smaller and smaller."

Writing, then, is not only a necessity -- "It's like breathing for him," says his friend Jose Donoso -- but a sweet refuge. It's the one place no one else can touch, a spot where he can monitor and assimilate and understand the "wild reality" of his chosen territory, the Caribbean.

"I prefer not to know why it's so wild," he says. "Those who know say it is because it's a synthesis of many cultures -- Spanish, African, Indian. But I believe many regions of the world are like this, full of wonder and mystery. Most people just don't see it."

Garcia Marquez sees it. Out in the garden, the interview over, he reaches into his VW sedan and flicks a switch. The garage door rumbles up, revealing a shortcut to the street. "Now that," the novelist says with his first laugh of the evening, "is magic realism."