Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, By Gerald Martin

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The Independent Culture

Master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez, known as Gabo, insisted that his fiction was "appallingly" real, while his early European and American readers enjoyed the tropical fantasies. One Hundred Years of Solitude was read through psychedelic lenses: through Mervyn Peake and Carlos Castaneda. His hyperbolic realism needs explaining, and a biography should be the best way. But beside imagining Colombian Caribbean life, García Márquez became intensely political, without letting his left-wing, pro-Cuban views dictate his fiction. The norm in Latin American fiction up to the 1960s had been politicised novels, often at odds with the demands of art. Again, biography may be the best way to delve into this deliberate omission.

One last concern about a biographical approach is that García Márquez has penned his own memoirs and is still alive. Nevertheless, the stunning, sensuous details of Living to Tell the Tale, which ends with the author's first trip to Europe aged 28, hides a flaw, perhaps thankfully: an absence of self-analysis, of introspection.

Indeed, in all his fiction, inner life is kept enigmatic and opaque. Characters reveal themselves through action and dialogue, as in a film (he has been a film critic, written scripts and adored Italian neo-realism). At the personal level, a wall of privacy surrounds him. When his biographer questioned him about a lover in Paris, he refused to confess. Everybody had three lives, a public, a private and a secret one, he added: "Don't worry. I will be whatever you say I am". Incidentally, linking his poverty and secret affair in Paris with the succinct No One Writes to the Colonel is a minor coup of this biography.

Gerald Martin spent 17 years researching this life and interviewed over 300 people, from the huge extended family to Fidel Castro. In a note, we learn that he accumulated over 2,000 pages and 6,000 footnotes, so that what we read here is a "brief" version. Biography, then, is collating everything: an unending, Borgesian task. Has Martin found the right balance between endless detail and telling moments?

One of the many off-the-cuff remarks made by García Márquez regards his grandfather the Colonel, who murdered a love rival: "I was eight when he died. Since then nothing important has happened to me." Martin investigates this claim and, overall, is lucid with his political-historical framing. In this case, it's the early 20th-century banana boom, the banana workers' massacre in 1928, that still haunts the area, and the consequent decline of hot, wet Aracataca.

He sketches how and why the child, born in 1927, was abandoned by his parents with the maternal grandparents for his first 10 years. Their grand house, with three slaves and assorted relations, the shock of first meeting his real mother and his distaste for his philandering father who sired 11 legitimate children and at least four illegitimate ones, partially beget a shy, reclusive boy. He absorbed everything, an early listener who would become an avid reader. Martin is less sure when he tries to enter this child's mind; "perhaps" and "must have" increase. The death of his colourful and loving grandfather left the boy with a lifetime's store of lore and images, but also, in Martin's guessing, with unexpressed grief. Here, biography fails to penetrate the inner life of his "anguished, troubled childhood", when compared to the later life-enhancing fictions that resulted.

Gossip and stories, an oral wealth matched by first reading The Arabian Nights when eight years old, emerged from those first years. I found the tangle of exotic names and illegitimate, incestuous relations muddling (despite the family trees at the back), but it echoes the chaos of characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude. In early chapters, I wanted more probing on how the child became the writer; for a start, how listening is turned into the rhythms of the lovely prose, or Melquíades's deep story-telling voice.

However, from then on, this biography warms up as it singles out how experience merges with the writing. Martin accounts for his subject's initiation into journalism at a time of curfews, censorship and political violence in Colombia. He reiterates the exact moment when García Márquez became a writer, after returning with his mother to Aracataca. That second nostalgic review of his own childhood explains the underlying melancholy in so many of his novels.

Martin blends the stories and novels superbly into his narrative. Yet, from his pre-fame days through to celebrity, García Márquez guarded his writer's privacy, despite acting the Latin lover and bohemian. Most effective was his courtship and quasi-arranged marriage with his wife Mercedes, from when she was but nine years old. Martin is acute on his solid marriage and on his protective friends, including Alvaro Mutis and Carlos Fuentes. The steely side to his writer's vocation ensures that everything falls into place around it. Nodal moments in the biography include the lasting marriage, the years of writer's block in Mexico, the frenzied and risky writing of his masterpiece as "radical therapy", its publication and his trip to Buenos Aires, The Autumn of the Patriarch as autobiography, winning the Nobel prize, the weight of celebrity – and the underlying core of his progressive politics.

A crucial friendship is with Fidel Castro, either the longest-lasting dictator in Latin America or its "most loved" patriarch. The biographer doesn't question this admiration for the prolix, articulate Castro. Yet Márquez admitted he could never live in Cuba, and that the revolutionary duty of a writer is to write well. General Torrijos, a "blood brother" and Graham Greene's Panamanian friend, is another ally - but not Hugo Chávez, to Martin's puzzlement.

The friendship with Mario Vargas Llosa ("the Gabo-Mario show") led to a generous critical study on García Márquez and a punch-up when Vargas Llosa floored him. It ended over Castro.

This first biography in English, with minimal repetitions and some Marquesian "many years later", catches the private man's outer self, airs its frustrations at pinning him down, and helps readers to ground his exceptional fiction in history. You will disagree with Martin: Big Mama's Funeral must be one of Márquez's worst fictions; is Virginia Woolf "demure", and is Karl Marx the most apt writer for comparison? The biography may be too action-packed, with little on mind-life, but it is worth the journey. We don't need the 2,000-page version.

Jason Wilson is professor of Latin American literature at UCL

Life in Brief

Born in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez grew up in Colombia's Caribbean region. He quit law studies in Bogota to become a journalist in the period of civil strife known as 'la violencia'. His first fiction was 'Leaf Storm' (1955), but global fame came after he left paid work for 18 months to write 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' (1967). Later landmarks include 'The Autumn of the Patriarch' (1975), 'Love in the Time of Cholera' (1984) and 'The General in his Labyrinth' (1989). He won the Nobel Prize in 1982.

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