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'Living to Tell the Tale' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Garcia Marquez's memoir shows how family made him a writer

Sunday, November 23, 2003

By John Freeman

When he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer four years ago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez gamely declared to the world that the disease was an "enormous stroke of luck" because it finally forced him to write his memoirs.

"Living to Tell the Tale"

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Translated by Edith Grossman

Knopf ($26.95)


Here is the result, and it certainly does not read like the work of a man who for some time -- Garcia Marquez is healthy again -- thought he was racing against time.

With nearly 500 pages, full of richly researched anecdotes from the writer's childhood in a small Colombian village, the book has all the weight and exquisite story-telling prowess of his two masterpieces, "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

In a world full of memoirs stuffed with hagiography and boring publishing footnotes, this autobiography is a unique example of a writer dealing directly and intimately with his past.

The tale, as Garcia Marquez aptly calls this book, begins in the 1950s, when he was a struggling writer and journalist, so poor that he could afford just two pairs of pants, two shirts and some sandals.

As the book begins, he joins his mother for a trip back to the Colombian village of Aracataca, where he was born, to support her in selling her parents' old house, which has become so dilapidated as to call into question the validity of their memories of the place.

From this journey unfolds this fabulous memoir, which tells the story of Garcia Marquez's early life, and, by extension, that of his family. Born in 1927 to Luisa Santiaga and Gabriel Eligio, he grew up as a coddled child in a large household full of relatives whose mythic pasts became fodder for his later novels.

His parents' romance, lovingly told here, reads like something out of the writer's great novels. Forbidden to marry, they carried on a clandestine affair until their own parents realized the seriousness of their passion.

It's a common mistake to plunder a writer's memoir in search of clues to their fiction, but for this memoir, that instinct is the correct one. While reading about Garcia Marquez's childhood, it's clear that this writer's family -- and his memory of it -- is what made him a writer.

He recalls fabulous stories of bulls getting loose and terrorizing his family courtyard -- "the revelry of the drama had already begun in the house and would last more than a week, with endless pots of coffee and sponge cakes to accompany the tale" -- as well as more painful recollections of his family's desire to move.

After concluding the visit home, Marquez returned to the big city in excitement and tells a friend, "I'm writing the novel of my life." This epiphany occurred in 1950. It would be many years before Garcia Marquez, now one of the world's most revered and recognized literary writers, could live comfortably off his income as a writer.

One of the beautiful things about his book is that Garcia Marquez finds a way both to capture the heady days of his youth -- when he started a magazine out of sheer will power, and later, went back to law school to please his father -- and to pay tribute to the wellspring of characters and people that he was beginning to turn toward.

As they age, many writers enter the twilight of their powers, but Garcia Marquez appears not to be such a man. His prose is as sumptuous and lyrical as ever. It helps that nostalgia -- and nostalgia's pitfalls -- are the topic.

Garcia Marquez is a maximalist writer, and these glances at the past allow him the chance to riff on the redolent madeleines that take him back. Here he is describing the train trip across a banana plantation, the past rising up to meet him:

"I remembered the gangs of black laborers singing at twilight, the shanties on the estates where field hands sat to rest and watch freight trains go by, the ditches where morning found the cutters whose heads had been hacked off in Saturday-night brawls. I remembered the private cities of gringos in Aracataca and Sevilla, on the other side of the railroad tracks, surrounded, like enormous electrified chicken yards, by metal fences that on cool summer dawns were black with charred swallows."

Certain figures loom larger than others here -- especially the author's grandfather, Colonel Marquez, a stern yet loving man -- but the presence that looms largest is that of Garcia Marquez, the young writer who dropped out of college to pursue writing, who is almost impatient for his talent to catch up with his vision.

The first in a projected trilogy, the book reveals how dangerous a gamble that was for Garcia Marquez then. As with J.M. Coetzee's recent "Youth," this book brutally brings home how lonely and taxing a career in writing is. Looking back on it, Garcia Marquez is surprised he survived the loneliness, the whoring and drinking and smoking (60 cigarettes a day).

Stuffed with sentences as beautiful as he's ever written, the book will be an inspiration to readers who want to write or merely want to transcend their own provincial roots. This memoir also reveals how handsomely that long-ago wager paid off for Garcia Marquez: He is a maestro.

John Freeman is a free-lance writer in New York.

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