Wednesday May 20th, 2009

The Myths and More

Gabriel García Márquez: A Life by Gerald Martin
Knopf, 672 pp., $37.50

I once told a professor of literature that I couldn’t understand how Gabriel García Márquez had written The Autumn of the Patriarch. The most modernist of his novels, it presents an explosion of anecdotes on every page and between ten and twenty endlessly winding sentences per chapter. The professor had a simple explanation: “The thing is, he sits down – and the devil possesses him.”

I’m willing to bet that García Márquez would like that analysis; not for its association with evil, but because it adds to the sense of mystery in which he has enveloped the story of his life and his work. In Gerald Martin’s authorized Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, we learn that tracking down the early stages of the author’s great novels is a futile exercise because there are no surviving manuscripts, no drafts, no sketches. García Márquez destroyed each page as soon as the first proof arrived from the printer. In his need to control his own story, he even went to the extreme of buying from his wife, Mercedes Barcha, all the letters he had sent her during their long courtship: a total of 650 sheets that he proceeded to burn. (He managed to strike this deal with her, amazingly, while he was still a journalist, unknown to everybody except a small number of colleagues and readers.)

Of course, the survival of this mysterious aura depends on more than the destruction of evidence. Whenever asked, García Márquez has shaped the impression of his life and work with fable-like statements. He produces these statements with such discipline and constancy that they have become as much a part of his literary capital as, say, the titles of his books. The steadfastness with which Martin traces this mythomania (the word is his), and the manner in which he presents it to us as yet another of the writer’s creative endeavors, are two striking accomplishments of this biography. It’s impossible to resist the temptation of reproducing some of the most colorful examples here:

• When García Márquez first read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, he said, “Shit, that’s just the way my grandmother talked!”
• His father, upon hearing that his son was abandoning law studies to become a writer, said: “You’ll end up eating paper!”
• When his fellow communists went after him for accepting an honorary doctorate from Columbia University, García Márquez responded that he had done so only after consulting with the taxi drivers of Barranquilla, who are, in his opinion, the champions of common sense.

• “I am just a mediocre notary.” This is what García Márquez says to convey the idea that there is no magic in his stories, and that everything he writes corresponds to something that he experienced.

Perhaps the best known of his self-mythologizing statements concerns the origin of his most beloved work, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The way García Márquez tells it, he was driving his family to Acapulco for a vacation when the first line appeared to him “from nowhere.” (That famous opening: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”) Behind it, he could sense the whole novel. So he stopped the car, turned around, and went back to Mexico City and his writing table. He doesn’t care to clarify that for something close to twenty years, he had been mulling over a vast novel about his family that had the provisional title of La casa.

In the foreword, Martin draws a correspondence between this penchant for offering parallel truths and a very peculiar style of Caribbean humor, what Colombians call mamagallismo (he translates it as “piss-taking”), and informs us that he himself has been the target of this brand of humor. Apparently, García Márquez spread the story that his official biographer spent a whole afternoon seated in the main plaza of Aracataca, under a torrential downpour, “sucking up the atmosphere” of the place. To any Colombian, like myself, the early inclusion of mamagallismo is a good sign that the biographer, rainstorm or no rainstorm, got the atmosphere right.

In the first few chapters, Martin untangles the thicket of García Márquez’s genealogy while describing Colombia’s political history and the contours of its geography. This is a large task, and the skill he displays in completing it convinced me that these chapters will become the obligatory complement to Living to Tell the Tale, García Márquez’s memoirs of his early life. One by one, the relatives and the neighbors are brought forward, and through them appear the models of the stories that were to be written much later, and the ways of feeling and interpreting reality that we associate with Macondo, the fictitious setting of Solitude. Martin dives into the familial waters with few ripples, the one noticeable exception being García Márquez’s father, Eligio García, who comes across as a caricature, a selfish fool unable to shake his generation’s least palatable codes of Caribbean male conduct. Eligio was no doubt a difficult man, but Martin seems unwilling to concede that he was also full of energy and ideas, capable of overcoming more than a couple of bankruptcies.

During the law school years and the first jobs in journalism, Martin has a hell of a good time evoking García Márquez as an uncommon young man. Shy, skinny and small, with a ridiculous mustache and a sense of style that can’t be explained (a friend’s father called him “Civic Valour” because “it took nerve to dress the way he did”), the aspiring writer, already considered a prodigy by a few connoisseurs, lives in the abyss, moves from city to city and has no money or fixed residence, but somehow displays a unique combination of intelligence and feeling that gains him entry to the most interesting groups of writers and artists of mid-century Colombia. Of all the different Gabriel García Márquezes that populate the biography, this lonely eccentric is, without a doubt, the most surprising, and the most vital as well.

In the journey through the later decades of world fame and great political activity, the character that Martin has brought to such vivid life loses a bit of his shine; not from Martin’s fatigue or diminished capacity to analyze (García Márquez’s relationship with the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro, for example, gets the complex treatment it deserves), but from a simple lack of space. Martin mentions early on that he has material for a much longer biography (and gives reason to hope that an expanded version will someday be published), but decided to finish this abbreviated version so that García Márquez, already past eighty, could get to read it. The effect of this compression is felt strongly in the description of the writer’s life during the 1970s and 1980s, when he immersed himself in politics. In several instances, the acclaimed and influential author seems to jump from country to country, from one intrigue to the next, from one cause to another, with little effort and practically no minor setbacks or missteps at all. Clearly, the speed needs to be reduced in order to present episodes that convey more complexity about García Márquez’s thoughts and behavior during this time.

I also look forward to a longer version for more insights from the writer’s two sons. Because García Márquez refused to have a “heart to heart” conversation with his biographer, the book can feel at times more clinical than intimate. But midway through, Martin relates a conversation he had with the eldest son, Rodrigo, that is one of the finest passages I’ve ever read about García Márquez. Rodrigo talks about the importance that his dad assigns to friendship in his life and continues with other “essentials” that were promoted by both parents in the household. I’ll reproduce only the first one: “Firstly, Latin American people were the best in the world. They were not necessarily the cleverest, they might not have built a lot, but they were the very best people in the world, the most human and the most generous.” All hail the notary.

Juan Pablo Lombana is a Colombian writer living in New York. His first novel, Deudas de un patadura, was published in April by Alfaguara Colombia.

Books mentioned in this review:

Gabriel García Márquez: A Life
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The Autumn of the Patriarch
Living to Tell the Tale