To be honored with the Nobel Prize should be enough for a writer, but to have a genre of literature attributed to one’s genius, to in essence start a new school of prose, is an honor without a timeframe. Such a writer is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the most widely read authors in the world even now, when it has been some years since he wrote a book. His works are as popular in English translation as in his native Spanish.
In writing about Marquez, Gerald Martin, Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages at the University of Pittsburgh and specialist in Latin American literature, rides the tiger – finding it difficult, perhaps impossible, to dismount. The life of Marquez could itself be a life’s work, as evidenced by this tome of more than 600 pages including a genealogy and copious footnotes.
The early life of the 20th-century writer who has been compared to Cervantes was as multi-layered as his multi-colored novels would one day prove. A predominant figure in his boyhood was his grandfather, the Colonel, not only a warrior and an outspoken political force but a prodigious story-teller whose influence on the child may be matched only by that of his grandmother, who spoke to spirits and treated the supernatural world as natural. Martin determinedly threads his way through the complex family ties that included the whiff of incest and gave the boy myriad memories that would one day see print. Marquez emerged with a mind highly sensitized by his youth in Aracataca, Colombia, undoubtedly the place where the magic of his mythical Macondo had its origins.
A journalist before he finished college, Marquez clearly had a destiny as a writer. He had a problem with authority that drove him to write what he shouldn’t, so he was banished to Spain to work as a foreign correspondent. There he composed pieces such as this evocative description of England’s Queen Mother:
And as she wanders, accompanied by her solitude, along the immense corridors of Buckingham Palace, she must remember with nostalgia that happy age in which she never dreamed nor wished to dream of being a queen, and lived with her husband and their two daughters in a house overflowing with intimacy…Little did she know that a mysterious blow of fate would turn her children and the children of her children into kings and queens, and her into a queen alone.
In this passage one can sense the glimmer of the novelist to come and the omen of the “mysterious blow of fate” that would put Marquez at the pinnacle of his generation of artists.
Though Gabo, as he is known to his friends, once declared that “a good writer will go on writing…even though his shoes need mending and even if his books don’t sell,” Martin portrays Marquez as a changed man after the acknowledged success of
One Hundred Years of Solitude. He allowed himself to “make a fuss henceforth about everything—not least about the cupidity of publishers and booksellers, a topic that will become an obsession.” He boasts of never attending a book launch and “finds it demeaning to have to peddle as a commercial product something which is for him, in its original impulse, an aesthetic creation…”
Still, his fans were glued to him from the publication of that first hit; he could do no wrong, literarily speaking. Not even his controversial friendship with Fidel Castro (and concomitant dislike of the U.S.) could disillusion the adoring thousands who guaranteed that Marquez was showered with awards, kudos, ceremonies and fanciful titles. And no doubt every ounce of praise was deserved. For he was not being lauded for his personal foibles, but for his extraordinary talent in putting pen to paper. Call it alchemy. Call it magical realism. Call it greatness.
In latter days Marquez is in seclusion, possibly suffering from Alzheimer’s and certainly no longer able to produce. However, his fame is sealed on earth, and if he reaches heaven, he will be given the red carpet there as well.