a book that changed me

Garca Mrquez's 'In Evil Hour'
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The Independent Culture
In 1981 the short-lived literary magazine, Quarto, then edited by the poet Craig Raine, sent me a book to review. It was an early, somewhat odd novel by the Colombian writer and Nobel Prize winner, Gabriel Garca Mrquez. I was an ambitious critic with a cruel streak. I gave it a dismissive review. I described it, loftily, as "unsatisfactory". Nevertheless, In Evil Hour was the book which was to inspire my own career as a novelist.

I was, at that time, in the uneasy but enviable position of having a publishing contract. Many of my less idle acquaintances in my home town of Birmingham already had thick, completed manuscripts - but no publisher. I had the publisher - and some of the publisher's money - but not a word of fiction yet committed to paper. "Write what you know about" was the only advice anyone would offer. So I embarked on an autobiographical novel, set in my own scruffy suburb and detailing the troubles of a man who was indistinguishable from me except that he had more hair. I hated every conventional word of it. After one year and with my publisher hungry for a finished book, I had only managed to squeeze out a dozen pages. That's when the Garca Mrquez landed on my mat.

I had not encountered magic realism before. I had always thought that fiction had to mirror a real and recognisable world. Readers should feel comfortably located in places and emotions they could recognise. But In Evil Hour, for all my critical sniffiness, was something disconcertingly different. It was a novel with an entirely allegorical and invented setting, the fictional town of Macondo which you would not find on any map and which would feature again - triumphantly - in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Its mirror was a circus mirror which distorted the world and left its readers dislocated, bemused - and excited.

Why had I not enjoyed the novel more? Because Garca Mrquez was using tricks which I felt instinctively I could pull off easily myself. I could spot all the rigging and all the scaffolding behind such magic fiction. I now saw that though my realist skills were limited, I too could dislocate the world like Garca Mrquez.

I dropped my autobiographical pages in the bin, and started on the book which was to become Continent, an episodic novel set in an invented landscape. Pure magic realism. And stolen from Garca Mrquez without even the compliment of a generous review for his In Evil Hour by way of thanks. I owe my writing voice to that one book.

! Jim Crace's 'Quarantine' (Viking pounds 16.99) is shortlisted for the Booker Prize.'In Evil Hour' is published by Penguin, pounds 6.99

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