Aracataca and Sucre
"García Márquez is like a head of state," Fidel Castro has remarked. "The only question is, which state?" The comment starts to take us into what's unique about its subject's work and life--not least because of who delivered it. No other writer in our time has operated on so vast a scale. None has approached his literary achievement; none has so parlayed achievement into political prominence. His multifarious career as novelist, journalist, screenwriter, institution-builder, freelance diplomat, all-around wise man, global celebrity and keeper of his own gaudy legend is unified by one idea: the writer as public man. For García Márquez, literature is the continuation of politics by other means--unless it's the other way around. Other contemporary writers have sought such a role--Norman Mailer, Günter Grass, A.B. Yehoshua, Arundhati Roy--but none has approached his continental, even worldwide reach. He is Tolstoy for the twentieth century, a Latin American Dickens. Above all, he is Joyce, for while Dickens aimed himself at particular ills, García Márquez, inspired by Castro's example to lead a comparable revolution in the mental sphere, created the unformed conscience of his race. Before he could do so, however--and this is the great story of his life--he had to discover his own.
How Gerald Martin manages to compress that life into fewer than 600 shrewd, lucid, incisive pages is a wonder in itself. That he is English, and writes in English, appears to have been little impediment. An esteemed scholar of Latin American literature, Martin interviewed more than 300 subjects over the course of seventeen years. A footnote mentions a 2,000-plus-page manuscript from which the present volume has been extracted. When the larger version is published, as is Martin's intention, it will undoubtedly be worth reading to the last drop.
Martin has not only beaten his way through the thicket of conflicting versions that García Márquez has offered of almost every major event in his life; he evaluates those events with a sensitivity tempered, especially with respect to his subject's incessant reputation-mongering, by skepticism. His psychological analyses are penetrating but prudent--no semi-Freudian overreach here--his biographer's inevitable "no doubts" and "must surely haves" generally persuasive. While he exhibits a degree of sympathetic bias in evaluating García Márquez's political activities, he does not shy away from pointing out his missteps, just as he is candid about the artistic demerits of his lesser works. To his comprehensive grasp of the multifaceted literary context from which his subject's work emerged, Martin adds a thorough knowledge of Colombian history and a sophisticated understanding of cold war politics and culture. His prose, nimble and forceful, is seasoned with wry humor. Best of all is Martin's abundant possession of that rarest and most precious commodity among literary biographers: critical acumen. To encounter his interpretations of One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, No One Writes to the Colonel and other works--readings that combine biographical acuity with a remarkable feeling for form and voice--is to discover these masterpieces anew.
Gabriel García Márquez was born in 1927 in the small town of Aracataca in his country's sweltering Caribbean coastal zone, a provenance that determined his relationship not only to Colombian society but to the larger currents of world culture. In contrast to the dark clothes and long faces of haughty, chilly Bogotá--Andean, insular--costeño culture is unlaced, profane and feverishly exuberant: precisely the qualities that first strike us in so much of García Márquez's work. It is also mongrel; through the world of his childhood blew a "leaf storm" of transients (to take the title of his first book)--Arabs and Gypsies, East Asians and Europeans, Indians from the Sierra and migrants from the old runaway-slave regions--all drawn by the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company. While metropolitan Bogotá sat removed in its high mountain valley, little Aracataca found itself stirred into the great, global mixing bowl of the Caribbean Basin.
As a young boy, the shy, solitary García Márquez looked out upon this tumultuous world from the shelter of the place he would forever after think of simply as The House: his grandparents' compound of verandas, gardens, workshops, plaster saints, guava trees and macaws--a treasure chest of meanings and smells. One of the delights of reading about his life is discovering how many of the marvels recounted in his fiction are not made up. There really was a wandering accordionist named Francisco the Man who sang the news of distant places. The writer's grandfather really had been a colonel in the civil wars, really did sire a brood of illegitimate children, really had left his native town after killing a man in an affair of honor, really did spend his retirement making little golden fishes. If the old man represented an amalgam of José Arcadio Buendía, the patriarch, and Colonel Aureliano, the warrior, García Márquez's grandmother was the magnificent Ursula--mercilessly superstitious, iron-willed, a baker of little candy animals--whose family name, Iguarán, she shared. The two figures divided his boyhood world: the rational, practical, public realm of the Colonel, who would take his grandson by the hand as he made his rounds about town, and the domestic, feminine, spirit-ridden space of Tranquilina Iguarán and her fleet of housemaids and aunts. The dictionary on one hand; the fables of the kitchen on the other.
If his grandparents' domain became One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez was living there for reasons adumbrated in Love in the Time of Cholera. Like Florentino Ariza, the writer's father was a lowly telegraph operator, charming but illegitimate. Like Fermina Daza, his mother was a stubborn beauty whose family refused to sanction the young couple's love. As in the novel, Luisa Santiaga was sent away on an arduous backcountry trek designed to extinguish her passion, only to thwart the scheme with the help of a conspiracy of telegraphists. But the feckless Gabriel Eligio lacked his alter ego's determination and industry, which is why his eldest son was placed with his maternal grandparents for the first ten years of his life, while his mother continued to produce offspring (there would eventually be eleven altogether) and his father bounced from place to place, an itinerant "pharmacist" now.
The parallels with Joyce are noteworthy: the loutish, braggardly father; the large brood of more or less alien younger siblings. García Márquez never seems to have integrated himself into the life of the family once he joined their peregrinations. He refused to accept Gabriel Eligio's authority--the Colonel would always be his real father--and the early sense of maternal abandonment would haunt him for the rest of his life. Sucre, the isolated river town where the family finally dropped anchor, would become Aracataca's demonic twin. The latter was reborn as Macondo, locus of enchantment, the former as the anonymous and malevolent setting of No One Writes to the Colonel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and In Evil Hour, whose intended title was "This Shit-Heap of a Town."
Whatever his struggles in the family, however, García Márquez was valued for another quality he shared with the Irishman: early evidence of intellectual ability. School ignited his wildfire passion for reading, classmates deferred to his superior gifts and a long string of teachers promoted his advancement despite his intractable inability to spell and hopeless incompetence at math. By 20, he was publishing his first stories under the shadow of Kafka while pretending to study law in Bogotá. Within a year, however, fate had taken a sharp turn for both himself and his country. The assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a charismatic populist who had dared to challenge Colombia's decades-long oligarchic consensus, touched off days of rioting in the capital city and, eventually, the years of right-wing repression known as La Violencia. García Márquez would later remark that the Bogotazo, as the upheaval became known, was the moment that Colombia finally entered the twentieth century. It certainly marked his own political coming-of-age. By striking coincidence, Gaitán was to have met that day with another 21-year-old, in town for a Pan-American student congress. The name in the slain leader's appointment book read "Fidel Castro."