Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, By Gerald Martin

Gabo gets his first 'officially tolerated' biography
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The Independent Culture

"Why do you want to write a biography? Biographies mean death." Such was Gabriel García Márquez's reaction to Gerald Martin's initial proposal. Yet 17 years and 300 interviews later, this born storyteller and dynamic politician is still very much alive.

In Martin's opinion, "Literature and politics have been the two most effective ways of achieving immortality in the transient world that Western civilisation has created for the planet..." Yet such is his ability to chart and locate García Márquez's literary and political developments within the context of their Latin American history, that this book may well represent a "third way" to defeat death: get yourself an excellent biographer.

The book follows the chronology of García Márquez's astounding transition from fledgling journalist and reluctant law student, to "Gabo", the living monument and hero of magical realism. The story begins in the small town of Aracataca in Colombia's Caribbean region. We are introduced to a baby "Gabito", delivered in the midst of an unseasonal rainstorm and quickly given over to the care of his grandparents for what would become seven formative years. Although he would never fully make sense of the tangled historical networks of family lore that so influenced his childhood, García Márquez would not shy away from the project. Martin eloquently shows the extent to which this deeply personal obsession became irreversibly intertwined with his need to write.

This determination took him around Colombia and into the world of journalism; then to Europe at the height of the Cold War, and, more remarkably still, into Fidel Castro's jeep. Though he often travelled unaccompanied, he was never, in fact, alone. Besides the quiet support of Mercedes, his devoted wife with whom he had fallen in love when she was scarcely more than a child, he counted on the enduring company of many contemporary writer friends, from members of the eclectic "Barnaquilla Group", to novelists of the stature of Graham Greene.

Gerald Martin's detailed analysis of García Márquez's political life leaves no controversy or criticism untouched. Instead, with perceptiveness and lyricism, he offers his readers insight into the complexities of a subtle diplomat; a man capable of maintaining friendships with both Castro and Bill Clinton.

However, for his readers, Márquez is probably most loved for the creation of the town of Macondo. As Martin emphasises, this place embodies the living image of small town Latin America, and forms the mirror in which the novelist's own continent at last recognises itself and would now be recognised everywhere. Martin gloriously recreates the author's euphoric excitement when he realised the magnitude of his achievement: "What he felt was relief coursing through him on multiple levels from 100 different directions, all the efforts and all the anguish and all the failures and frustrations of his life relieved; liberation and self-recognition and self-affirmation all embodied in the extraordinary creation which he knew – he knew – could be a unique, possibly immortal work."

How Gerald Martin managed to persuade the notoriously elusive García Márquez to allow him to write his biography remains a mystery. Martin describes himself as "probably" García Márquez's only "officially tolerated biographer". It is plausible that Martin owes this begrudging accolade to his own tenacity, or, equally, to his profound knowledge of Latin American fiction. However, Martin's illuminating assertion that the Colombian's "deepest motivation as a writer" was a narcissistic desire to write about himself, suggests a further possibility. Perhaps García Márquez' cooperation was achieved as the result of a parallel ambition. Who, one imagines "Gabo" musing, would possess sufficient modesty and enthusiasm to write about him in the most respectful way imaginable? The book's foreword concludes with the words: "If ever a subject was worth investing a quarter of one's life in, it would undoubtedly be the extraordinary life and career of Gabriel García Márquez." Yet again, it seems, the immortal Nobel Prize winner got what he wanted.

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