Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love, passion and a melancholy man

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The Independent Online

It is rare for a publisher to rush forward publication of a novel to try to pre-empt pirate editions. But this week, Norma publishers in Colombia have been forced to bring out the latest book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez after illegal vendors had apparently sold more than 13,000 cheap copies on the streets of his home country of Colombia.

It is rare for a publisher to rush forward publication of a novel to try to pre-empt pirate editions. But this week, Norma publishers in Colombia have been forced to bring out the latest book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez after illegal vendors had apparently sold more than 13,000 cheap copies on the streets of his home country of Colombia.

Of course, Garcia Marquez is no ordinary novelist, and his latest book, in Spanish called Memorias de Mis Putas Tristes (in English, Memories of My Melancholy Whores) is his first fictional work to appear in 10 years. Indeed, many people were afraid that his 1994 offering Of Love and Other Demons might be his last, particularly when news got out in 1999 that the writer was suffering from lymphatic cancer and was making regular trips to California for treatment.

In 2000, it was even reported that he was close to death, after a poem saying farewell to life and throwing himself on God and his mercy was published in a Peruvian newspaper and on many internet sites around the world. Despite its trite sentimentality, it took express denials by Garcia Marquez and his formidable Spanish agent Carmen Balcells before it was recognised that the reports of his impending death had been somewhat exaggerated.

However, the sense that Garcia Marquez was struggling with illness and turning his thoughts towards his own death was strengthened by the publication in the late 1990s of the first volume of his autobiography, entitled in English Living to tell the Tale. The title itself suggested the mood of its author, and many of its 400-odd pages were an intense effort to conjure up, for one last time it seemed, the landscapes and protagonists of his childhood. Now though, Garcia Marquez has produced another book.

At 110 pages long, it is more of a novella than a fully-developed novel, and is said to have started life as the first of a book of three short stories. It tells the narrative of a 90-year-old classics teacher who decides to celebrate his birthday by having sex with a 14-year-old, virgin prostitute. While anticipating his pleasure, he recalls all the other women he has enjoyed over the years - and of course, there is a sting in the tail.

Publishers of the book in the Hispanic world are so confident of its success that the first edition is said to be a million copies - 300,000 of them in the author's native Colombia alone.

And just in case, they have insisted that the pirate editions are not the final version - the author has apparently made "important, last-minute changes" to the final chapter. These anticipated huge sales reinforce the fact that Garcia Marquez has been that most valuable of commodities; a writer who has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his books in many different countries, while at the same time keeping academic critics happy.

He has been a world-wide publishing phenomenon since the appearance of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, with one of the most famous openings in 20th century literature: "Many years later, facing the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." Garcia Marquez has described how that phrase came to him while driving his family to a holiday in Acapulco. Ignoring their protests, he turned the car around, shut himself in his study for 18 months, and wrote the whole book. One Hundred Years of Solitude was set in the region near Colombia's northern Caribbean coast where Garcia Marquez was born in 1928.

The first version of the novel was simply called "The House", in recognition of the importance of the ramshackle, wooden building in Aracataca where he was raised by his mother and grandmother, while his father worked (as a telegraph engineer) in at distant town. From the outset, Garcia Marquez has admitted he was ruled by "an amiable matriarchy".

Out of these childhood experiences, not only did he create a fictional region - Macondo - similar to that of William Faulkner, one of his greatest influences as a writer, but Garcia Marquez came to be associated with a whole school of writing, dubbed "magical realism", for the way in which the extraordinary and the illogical existed side-by-side with everyday reality.

This kind of writing has become the bane of Latin American authors, who feel they are only accepted internationally if they fill their novels with old men who can fly or levitating virgins. But in Garcia Marquez's fiction, magical realism is a convincing expression of a world where the powers of magic are as real as the scientific explanations given for events, in a population that has been kept out of the mainstream of history and feels abandoned to its "solitude".

Garcia Marquez himself only discovered this fictional world when he left it for the colder climate of the Colombian capital Bogota high up in the Andes mountains, where he was sent to school and later enrolled for law studies. As with many other young students, the adolescent "Gabo", as he is known to his friends, decided that the idea of becoming a journalist and a writer was much more attractive than a career in the law.

He quit university, returned to the hot Caribbean region and flung himself into both activities. Even so, it took him more than a decade of publishing short stories and novels before One Hundred Years of Solitude earned him a huge, international reputation.

This novel was followed by several equally famous books, including Autumn of the Patriarch, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and what is regarded by many as his second great masterpiece, Love in the Time of Cholera. His international reputation was crowned in 1982 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the same time, particularly in Latin America, Garcia Marquez gained a huge reputation as a ground-breaking journalist and a persuasive, left-wing commentator.

His political views and fear of being kidnapped led him to leave his home country in the 1970s and set up home in Mexico. This has not prevented his name being put forward several times as presidential candidate in Colombia, although so far he has wisely declined the offer. He does though, exert considerable influence inside Colombia through the school of journalism he sponsors in Cartagena on the coast, and through his weekly magazine, Cambio.

His left-wing views, and in particular the unswerving support he has shown for his friend Fidel Castro in Cuba, have made him a more polemical figure outside Latin America. Unlike many progressive intellectuals, he did not change his mind about the Castro regime through the 1970s: he has continued to visit the island regularly, helped to set up an international film school there, and has argued in support of the regime on many occasions.

This backing for Castro was called into question again last year, following a crackdown on 75 intellectuals, many of them independent journalists, and the subsequent execution of three men who had attempted to hijack a ferry operating in Havana harbour and sail it to the United States. When international figures such as Susan Sontag called on "Gabo" to denounce the Castro regime for its cruelty, he reacted harshly, saying he was not going to be led into any "provocative" international campaign, and stressing that he had saved the lives of many Cuban dissidents over the years, thanks to his private contacts with Fidel Castro.

Garcia Marquez's view of the world also raised eyebrows during the Falklands War in 1982. On that occasion, he called on the Ghurkas to rise against their "colonial masters", and when that did not happen, accused them of "beheading" Argentine prisoners during the conflict. His political beliefs led to the strange situation that, whereas One Hundred Years of Solitude was being taught on campuses throughout the United States, and was one of the most popular books of the 20th century, the author himself was consistently being refused an entry visa.

Things have changed since then, however, and in addition to travelling to California for cancer treatment, Garcia Marquez has enjoyed summer vacations with President Bill Clinton at Martha's Vineyard, apparently discovering a shared passion for William Faulkner. One consistent criticism of his work has come from feminist academics, who see Garcia Marquez as an "unreconstructed macho" just as much as an "unreformed revolutionary". His fictional women tend to be passionate, mysterious objects, or "tarts with a heart of gold". A passage in Living to Tell the Tale describes how when the young author returned to the Caribbean city of Barranquilla, he would frequent the brothels there, and even set up as a writer in one, arguing that they were nice and quiet in the mornings, and yet could guarantee a party every evening. His reputation as a womaniser has survived since those days, despite his 50 years of marriage to Mercedes, an adolescent sweetheart.

This helps to explain why even the title of Garcia Marquez's new book has been received with sighs in some quarters. In order to counteract this tendency, the publishers have gone to some lengths to explain the plot of the book. Memories of My Melancholy Whores is apparently based on a work by a Japanese fellow Nobel Prize winner, Yasunari Kawabata. In his 1926 novel, The House of Sleeping Beauties, Kawabata describes an old man being entranced by the beauty of a young geisha, but who was content simply to watch her sleeping naked, without touching her.

The protagonist of Garcia Marquez's book does something similar. Although intending to make love to the 14-year-old, in the end he is content just to look on her sleeping, while he recalls the importance love and passion have had for him throughout his life. The book is a poetic reflection on the power of love to defy age and time.

In a final twist to the new book, the word putas (whores) in the Spanish title has already caused problems. With the new efforts to clean up the internet, many sites have automatically had references to the book deleted from their messages, so hampering genuine booksellers in their quests to compete with the street vendors.

Even so, it seems that the 77-year old writer, who recently agreed to the selling of Hollywood film rights to some of his books in order, he said, not to leave his family "penniless", will almost certainly have another huge money-spinner on his hands.


Born: 6 March, 1928 in Aracataca, Colombia, to Luisa Santiaga Marquez Iguaran and Gabriel Eligio Garcia.

Family: Married to Mercedes Barcha Pardo, in1958; two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo.

Education: Studied law at the University of Colombia and the National University of Cartagena.

Career: Journalist and novelist. His breakthrough novel was One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Most recent book is Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004).

Awards: French Legion of Honour (1981), Nobel Prize for Literature (1982).

He says...: "I am one of the most solitary, most melancholy, persons I know."

They say...: "He likes to be near power, but not to possess it for himself." - Belisario Betancur, President of Colombia (1982-86) .