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Unmasking the weaver of dreams

Gerald Martin's biography of Gabriel García Márquez reveals a little-known side of the Colombian novelist.


There is an unforgettable scene in Gerald Martin’s biography of Gabriel García Márquez, when the Colombian writer, who is leading a hungry and desperate existence in Paris, spots his hero Ernest Hemingway wandering down the street in Paris one morning in 1957. García Márquez, shy but determined not to let his idol walk on by, shouts out: “Maestro!” Hemingway replies: “Adiós, amigo!” and disappears.

The image of a young, still undiscovered García Márquez chasing after a writer he reveres contrasts sharply with that of the García Márquez we have come to know. For at least the last 20 years he has been an easy-going grandfather figure, oozing gnomic bonhomie and magical tales.

In the first English-language biography of the Colombian, Martin, a British professor of modern languages at the University of Pittsburgh, does indeed bolster the idea of this writer as a charismatic, charming weaver of magic (who, incidentally, also seems to have clairvoyant powers).

However, he also deconstructs the persona to uncover another side to the Nobel laureate. The humorous, avuncular image, it turns out, is something of a façade, a carefully cultivated self-defence mechanism that is in part a product of García Márquez’s extensive experience of the media. Behind it there is (or was, given that the writer appears to have retired) a driven, ambitious man, convinced of his own worth. “I’m going to write something that will be read more than Don Quixote,” he tells his brother when still in his early twenties.

A Latin American watershed

And he would be right. García Márquez’s Don Quixote would be One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel so groundbreaking and brilliantly crafted that it would mark a watershed in the life of its creator and also Latin American fiction. Martin’s biography is divided into three parts: early life in Colombia, experiences as an up-and-coming journalist and novelist, and finally, life after One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Another lesser-known area behind the GGM façade (or “García Marketing” as some cynical wags have labelled him) that Martin successfully explores is his rich yet traumatic childhood. Abandoned by his mother as an infant – she left him to join her travelling-quack husband – the young García Márquez was raised by his maternal grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Márquez, a veteran of the Colombian civil war who adored the boy.

The young Gabriel was later reunited with his mother and his father, but the Colonel, Martin convincingly concludes, was the guiding adult force in his life. His death was a huge blow to the future writer, who would later say: “I was eight when he died. Since then nothing important has happened to me. Everything has just been flat.”

However, his experiences living on Colombia’s Atlantic coast with its liberal yet complex sexual mores, superstitions and latent violence would be absolutely crucial in the formation of García Márquez as a writer and make for compelling reading. And Martin boldly suggests that his painful and confused childhood would also provide material and subtexts aplenty for his fiction.

Martin’s description of the writer’s hometown of Aracataca (which would famously become Macondo in his novels) makes this novelist at times appear more of a realist than a magical realist. The Colonel, it transpires, had fled another town years before his grandson was born after killing the son of a woman with whom he had been having an affair. This, along with another violent episode, involving a close family friend, would provide colourful material for his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

Inevitably, the second half of the book – and indeed the second half of García Márquez’s life – is dominated by One Hundred Years of Solitude and the enormous fame it thrust on its author. By the end of the biography the descriptions of tributes and other public events become slightly exhausting and the reader -like the great novelist himself it seems- longs for a return to the days when “Magical Realism” and “Latin American Boom” were yet to become household terms.

A controversial friendship

One of the more intriguing developments in García Márquez’s life after becoming a Latin American icon has been his relationship with Fidel Castro. García Márquez only got to know the Cuban leader in the 1970s, after the early romance of the Revolution had faded. Assiduous diplomacy and lobbying by the Colombian eventually got him into the Cuban leader’s inner circle and Martin describes their relationship as like that of two brothers, with Fidel the older, more worldly one. Garcia Márquez insists that when together, the two men spend most of the time discussing literature. It’s difficult to believe, but almost impossible to challenge.

García Márquez’s determination to maintain this controversial friendship, despite his own apparent drift away from revolutionary politics and Castro’s well-documented excesses remains something of a mystery. Martin hints it is due to a combination of hero worship and ideological conviction. Indeed, despite his obvious charm and intelligence, Colombia’s most famous son is clearly a man who is almost pathologically obsessed with power. His friends have included Bill Clinton, Francois Mitterrand, Felipe González and several Latin American leaders of varying political stripes.

Of course, the rise of a poor Caribbean boy to the status of Nobel prize winner is bound to make for an absorbing read. In his introduction, Martin says he has written a 2,000-page, unfinished version of this biography, which he hopes one day to publish. The 600 pages he has left us for now, however, contain enough detail to provide an acutely insightful survey of the writer’s output and an endlessly entertaining narrative of his life. On describing the beginning of the writer’s friendship with fellow Colombian Plinio Mendoza in Paris, Martin writes:

“Three days later the two men met again, after the first snowfall of the winter, and García Márquez, child of the tropics, danced along the Boulevard Saint-Michel and over the Place du Luxembourg. Mendoza’s reserve melted like the snowflakes glistening on García Márquez’s duffel coat.”

Read Martin’s superb book and any reservations you may have about diving into such a detailed, well-researched biography will melt too.

Gabriel García Márquez: A Life by Gerald Martin. (Bloomsbury). Now out in paperback.

Gabriel García Márquez: Una Vida by Gerald Martin. (Vintage).

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Published: Jan 26 2010
Category: Culture, Books
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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