"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."

The Bogotazo sent García Márquez back to the coast, where he stumbled into a line of work and a group of friends that would prove the making of his vocation. A chance encounter introduced him to a newspaper editor familiar with his stories, who immediately drafted him onto his staff. Thus began a relentless apprenticeship in the arts of gathering facts and assembling them into convincing narratives. He wrote columns, editorials, unsigned articles, last-minute pieces and whatever else needed to be done–sometimes all in the same day. He learned about voice, tone and structure, how to find a story and how to give it imaginative volume. His journalistic work would continue throughout his career, running in symbiotic parallel to his fiction and eventually including three book-length pieces, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, Clandestine in Chile and News of a Kidnapping. "The novel and journalism," he has said, "are children of the same mother."

In his case, journalism was the elder sibling. Discussions of magic realism too often stint the second term in favor of the first. García Márquez did not invent the mode, but he became its most celebrated practitioner as much through the firmness of his realism as through the buoyancy of his magic. His flying carpets soar because he keeps them tethered to the ground, and what enables him to do so is the respect for actuality, and skill in its handling, he developed as a journalist. Missing these, acolytes like Rushdie are flimsy by comparison. One Hundred Years of Solitude begins with a set of declarative statements; Midnight's Children, with a sequence of narrative postures. A master of rhetoric, García Márquez rejects the postmodern idea that the world is nothing but rhetoric. So magic and realism go hand in hand in his work, like fiction and journalism, legend and fact, Tranquilina's presentiments and the Colonel's definitions. We are back, in his art, to the world of his childhood, which can now be seen as expanding out, along with his growing experience of the world, in concentric circles of mutually invigorating antitheses: grandmother and grandfather, house and town, Aracataca and Sucre, coast and Bogotá–eventually, Latin America and El Norte.

Meanwhile, as he learned the newspaperman's trade, García Márquez was getting an education of a different kind. Not long after returning to the coast, he fell in with a group of slightly older literary bohemians who became his mentors in drinking, whoring, reading and talking. Under their tutelage, he not only completed his discovery of European Modernism–Virginia Woolf became a major influence, notwithstanding their polar differences in temperament, so much so that he began to sign his columns "Septimus," after the doomed World War I veteran of Mrs. Dalloway–but, crucially, was also introduced to the North Americans. His new circle of confident young costeño provincials, Martin tells us, was virtually unique in Latin America (and thus a quarter-century ahead of its time) in embracing the culture of the United States. Faulkner became a decisive example–Macondo descends from Yoknapatawpha–Hemingway an icon of craft. And craft itself–"carpentry," "the secrets of [the] trade," "the stubborn difficulties of learning to write"–became the writer's watchword, then and forever. The voracious dedication of García Márquez's early years, when he consumed whole libraries in search of instruction, subjecting books to "a kind of surgical disemboweling until I reached the most recondite mysteries of their structure," laid the foundation for his surpassing virtuosity as a narrative technician.

But that wasn't the only appetite he was indulging. In his memoirs of the time, the word "carouse" comes second in importance only to the word "write." He would work half the night, party the rest and somehow get up in the morning to go back to the newspaper. That is, if he wasn't sleeping there already. His energy was matched by his penury, and he often had no regular place to live, bedding down on rolls of newsprint, on park benches and for one year in a brothel (an experience he'd later give to Florentino Ariza). But though he was the most indigent even among his circle–and would remain in dire poverty for many years–he never asked for money and never complained about his lot, sustaining himself on the eternal foodstuffs of artistic achievement: discipline, fortitude, ambition and self-belief.

He needed every gram of that belief, for despite his growing reputation as a journalist and short story writer, his efforts in the novel were not prospering. He knew what his subject was to be–the manuscript he was tormenting was called The House–but he hadn't figured out how to make emotional contact with it. The Proustian moment finally came on a trip back to Aracataca with his mother a few weeks before his twenty-third birthday, his first return since boyhood. The town, they discovered, was a virtual ruin–United Fruit had long since pulled up stakes–but in that land of walking ghosts, amid the vultures and the strays, the young man found his past preserved in layers of memory and dust. He understood what he needed to do; time and consciousness must themselves become both subject and technique. The House had been a work in the nineteenth-century style. Now, with the encouragement of Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner, García Márquez saw that he needed to begin by resurrecting his own experience. Writing, which had been an ambition, became a hunger. As soon as he got back home, he launched himself on a new work, the story of a little boy, his mother and grandfather, and an unburied corpse–the past as palpable weight and urgent problem. The novel's setting was baptized after a United Fruit plantation whose name would become the most famous in the annals of postwar fiction. Aracataca had become Macondo. The House had become Leaf Storm. The young man had become a writer.

Of course, becoming a writer and making a living as one are not the same thing. Leaf Storm would not come out for five years and not earn much when it did. In the meantime, García Márquez honed his skills as a reporter, deepened the socialist commitments that had quickened in the Bogotazo and acquired a passion for film–in particular, the neorealism of Bicycle Thieves and other works, a spare, humane cinema of the poor and dispossessed. These last two developments soon led him down an artistic detour that must be counted as one of the most fortunate wrong turns in literary history. He now saw Leaf Storm as too inward and insufficiently engaged, and in the course of a three-year sojourn in Europe, produced No One Writes to the Colonel, that classic of white-lipped endurance, and began work on the precise, ironic stories of Big Mama's Funeral. But though he eventually turned back to an art of memory, subjectivity and myth, his neorealist phase left him with a permanent commitment to the idea of literature as public act. By writing about the lives of the poor costeños among whom he'd grown up–people oppressed by the wealthy, forgotten by the government and ignored by the country's official culture–he would restore them to dignity and visibility.

No One Writes to the Colonel drew on his grandfather's fruitless, interminable wait for a government pension but also on its author's experience of slow starvation in Paris. This time, however, he wasn't starving alone. Though he had left Colombia engaged to the girl he'd been courting for years–Mercedes Barcha, an exotic beauty from his Sucre days–he took up in Paris with a sophisticated young Spanish actress named Tachia Quintana. Tachia was bold, liberated, worldly, artistic–a woman unlike any he'd known before. The affair must have opened up new worlds, and certainly touched him very deeply (while the Spanish edition of Love in the Time of Cholera is dedicated to "Mercedes, of course," the French translation would be inscribed to his old girlfriend), but he refused in the end to follow the road it represented, returning instead to South America and the woman who became his Nora Joyce–the figure who stood for home and would carry it within her wherever they went.

That itinerary was soon shaped by the distant figure who eventually became one of García Márquez's closest friends. His years in Europe, which included several peeks behind the Iron Curtain, had relieved him of any attachment to the Soviet model. Castro's significance, for him, was precisely that he promised a new direction for Latin America. Fervent to join the cause, García Márquez went to work for Prensa Latina, Castro's news service–first in Bogotá, then, for five anxious, unhappy months, in politically hostile New York. But when his patrons were forced out of Prensa–romantic idealism giving way, as he saw it, to Moscow and bureaucracy–he found himself cut off from the revolution. Running out of options, the family made their way to Mexico City–there was a son by now, and would soon be another–a journey that included a fortnight by bus to New Orleans, through the heart of Faulkner country.

Now came the most desperate passage of García Márquez's career. It was one thing to starve himself, quite another to inflict starvation on his children. His career as a journalist had foundered; his fiction was at a standstill. He could neither go back to Colombia nor forward to Cuba. In despair, he went to work in advertising, resigned to the end of his life in literature.

What saved him, like other geniuses pulled back from the brink of obscurity, was the work he'd already done. The Latin American literary efflorescence that would soon become known as El Boom was gathering steam in the fiction of Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, and through the patronage of Fuentes, García Márquez began to be viewed as a member of the team. With the courage now to return to fiction, he embarked on the road, not to Damascus but to Acapulco, where, en route to a family vacation, he was struck by divine lightning: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad…"–the first line, or at least the first image (like the Gospels, versions differ) of One Hundred Years of Solitude, in whose tone and point of view the entire work lay coiled.

After two decades of struggle and preparation, the book poured out of him in little more than a year, cheered on by a growing cadre of friends and admirers. Like Ulysses, One Hundred Years of Solitude was the novel that everyone had been waiting for–in the former case, to set the crown on Modernism; in the latter, to ignite the powder of the Boom. That García Márquez saw his project in Joycean terms is clear from his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, at the exact center of which he places the story of his introduction to the older work. One day, he writes, a fellow student "placed an awesome tome on the table in front of me and declared with his bishop's authority: 'This is the other Bible.'" Like God's book, and Joyce's, One Hundred Years of Solitude aims to be a universal history, beginning with a genesis, ending with an apocalypse and stuffing the whole of human experience in between. But like all great works, including those other two, it is rooted in the particulars of its own time and place–which were, its author now realized, that of Latin America as a whole. The swell of ambition that marked the Boom was incited by the emergence of a new regional consciousness; the aim was no longer just to write novels about Mexico or Argentina or Peru. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, that consciousness was now seen to have found its supreme expression. Through García Márquez, assuming the role of communal storyteller and taking his stance in the public square like the roving balladeers of his childhood, a whole continent was felt to speak.

What did it say? The question is tricky because the novel declaims with two radically different voices. Describe its subject, and you end up with adjectives like "bleak," "bitter" and "disillusioned." Think of its style, and the terms are more likely to be "delightful," "exuberant" and "life-affirming." The novel's characters are solitary, self-involved, at times even monstrous, and yet, through the frantic lovability of their creator's prose, they also become irresistible. Once we've finished with Borges and Faulkner, Kafka and Woolf, Rabelais and Cervantes and the Thousand and One Nights, realisms neo- and magic and all the other influences we can pick out of the work of this insatiable literary trencherman, we are left with that style as the great stamp of his originality: its propulsive momentum, its hyperbolic excess, the fat plenitude of its syntax, its vividness and variety, the sheer alertness of every phrase. Above all, its swashbuckling way with an adjective: "astonished breasts," "frugal estuary," "libertine pigs," "chronic journalist," "arbitrary anarchist," "livid saliva," "rocky" orgasms, "slow" lawns. Ordinary modifiers work to characterize their targets more precisely. These are designed to do the reverse: defamiliarize them, pull them away from our normal understanding, add a penumbra of imaginative color, bring out their strange, human hearts. In short, be the magic to their realism. Nouns are objects, obdurate and obvious. Adjectives, García Márquez implies, are what we make of them.

This struggle between reality and subjectivity, encoded in his very syntax as in his most characteristic technique, is García Márquez's essential subject. We can see it in his taste for paradox: "I was always famous, from the time I was born," he once told a friend. "It's just that I was the only one who knew it." Will, as long as life itself, butting its head against the world. More than one of his novels end with such a flourish of insane defiance. No One Writes to the Colonel: "And meanwhile what do we eat?" "Shit." Love in the Time of Cholera: "And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?" "Forever." We can also see it in the way he handles speech, of which these outbursts are characteristic. García Márquez has acknowledged his difficulties with dialogue, but he learned how to circumvent them by using it sparingly and setting it as carefully as a jeweler. Long passages of pell-mell narration are brought to a climax by one-line declarations as indelible as maxims: "You're a woman, little sister"; "Don't be simple, Crespi…. I wouldn't marry you even if I were dead." The narrative, a rushing current of event that threatens to pull the characters under; the utterance, a vaunting assertion of desire.

Will narrowed on a single object and fixed in the face of adversity, even hopelessness–this is what gives so many of his figures their magnitude and memorability. Colonel Aureliano Buendía fighting thirty-two wars and losing them all. That other colonel waiting fifty-six years for his pension. Florentino Ariza waiting even longer for his love. And, conversely, the monumental appetites: José Arcadio drinking sixteen raw eggs and laying every woman in sight; the wedding party in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which drinks the town dry. These are the pans of García Márquez's emotional balance: grim determination, bitter resignation and mordant disillusionment, on the one hand; epic explosions of revelry and revolution, on the other. And this is how his impossible fusion of subject and tone gives utterance to the Latin American soul: by fronting the continent's tragic history with the unquenchable fiesta of his style. The betrayal of fate, the madness of power, the indifference of death: realism. Imagination, laughter, music and hope: magic.

Poetry, Auden said, makes nothing happen. It is not a revolution, not an election, not even a platform. García Márquez understood that the highest service literature can perform is to give people an image of their historical reality, especially the way that reality has shaped their souls. One Hundred Years of Solitude is political for the same reason neorealism is: it shows us not only the lives of ordinary people but also the political context that creates them and the historical context that creates that. For García Márquez, the most important fact of Latin American history, more important even than the malign influence of the United States, is inertia: of the oligarchies, of the church, of tradition, of corruption, of the whole eternal way of doing business. The Colonel is defeated despite his heroic efforts; his seventeen sons, a seemingly inexhaustible posterity, are exterminated; the banana workers are gunned down. That the novel depicts the futility and viciousness of public life, that its characters finally withdraw from politics in exhaustion and despair–these are arguments not against political action but in favor of it. What form such action might take to escape the nightmare of history lies beyond the novel's horizon, but eight years after the Cuban revolution, it did not lie beyond that of its author or its audience.

The proof that One Hundred Years of Solitude got the Latin American situation supremely right, artistically if not politically, is the delirious adulation with which its author has been received in the region from that moment to this. Its publication consigned García Márquez himself to the realm of legend. The career of this master of the superlative would henceforth be describable only in superlatives. Three weeks after the book came out, his appearance in the audience ignited a standing ovation in the most prestigious cultural venue in Buenos Aires, the most sophisticated of Latin American capitals. It was 1967; he had become, virtually overnight, the Beatles of Latin American fiction. Everyone wanted to meet him, and over the next few years, he spiraled ever higher through the ether of renown. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in 1981, had an initial print run of 2 million, the largest in world history for a work of literature. His ovation at the Nobel ceremonies–he received the prize the following year, after some deft back-channel maneuvering–was the longest in the annals of the event.

Now he had something to offer the revolution, putting both his celebrity and his pen at Castro's service. He has been criticized, sometimes excoriated, for his enduring loyalty to the man, a commitment that appears compounded of friendship, stubbornness and the conviction that whatever the crimes of the regime, the alternative, given Latin American history and Cuba's proximity to the United States, is likely to have been worse. In any case, his contributions to the country, and the region, were more than rhetorical. He would go on to set up a film institute on the island and, later, an institute of journalism in Colombia. Meanwhile, he had become a kind of roving ambassador for the cause of Latin American progress among the heads of state with whom he mixed on terms of equality and friendship: Omar Torrijos of Panama, Felipe González of Spain, Olof Palme of Sweden, François Mitterrand, various presidents of Colombia and Mexico, and eventually even Bill Clinton–the convergence of two lonely provincial boys who wanted to become friends with everybody.

Whether these efforts produced much in the way of concrete diplomatic results or were only the means of indulging a love of proximity to power has been another point of controversy. Certainly they produced artistic results in The Autumn of the Patriarch and The General in His Labyrinth, both deeply informed by their author's intimacy with men of power. In any case, advancing age and the fading of his cohort from the scene have made such questions moot. García Márquez has long since become a kind of suprapolitical figure, not a living national treasure but a global one. His eightieth birthday celebrations two years ago lasted eight weeks and were attended by a roster of international dignitaries, including five presidents of Colombia and the king and queen of Spain.

And through it all, until just a few years ago, he maintained his phenomenal productivity and undaunted search for new literary possibilities. With the exception of a few minor works, he never allowed his approach to degenerate into an easily reproducible "brand." One Hundred Years of Solitude was followed, after agonies of writer's block, by The Autumn of the Patriarch, a complexly Modernist "dictator novel" regarded by critics as his second-greatest work. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, that master class in narrative construction, was succeeded by Love in the Time of Cholera, his second most popular. The General in His Labyrinth, a fictionalized biography of Bolívar, represented marathons of historical research; News of a Kidnapping–he was pushing 70 by this point–a comparable effort of journalistic investigation. With his tireless diplomacy and pitiless appetite for friendship, his zealous involvement with his institutes and continuing contributions to periodical journalism (he wrote a newspaper column that ran weekly for nearly four years, uninterrupted even by the Nobel Prize), one gets the impression of a man who took occasional breaks to write novels. Only the waning of his memory in recent years has forced him into retirement. Martin's standard-setting biography comes at the perfect moment, on the brink of its subject's passage into a long and grateful posterity.

García Márquez set out to rival the great figures of Modernism. Did he succeed? A widespread judgment within the Spanish-speaking world regards him as the greatest writer in the language since Cervantes. While a longer retrospect might overturn that enthusiasm, less debatable is his status as the most important writer of the second half of the twentieth century in any language, the premier voice of the developing world and, as the man who brought magic realism to its height of possibility, the exponent of an entirely new mode of metaphoric expression. In any case, comparisons with Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner miss the most important thing about his achievement: that in rivaling Modernism, he ended by annulling its aesthetic standards. García Márquez showed us that delight is just as valid a measure of literary value as difficulty, that psychology can be revealed as effectively through action as introspection, that transparent structures can be as sophisticated as ones that flaunt their complications. For half a century, Ulysses was the mountain that all writers worked in the shadow of. Instead of going to the mountain, García Márquez brought the mountain to himself. Now he's the one casting the shadow (as the career of Roberto Bolaño, artist of exhaustion, Beckett to his Joyce, has demonstrated). The greatest works convert us to their aesthetic faith. When I read Joyce, I think that nothing could be better and that this is the only way that fiction should be written. And when I read García Márquez, I think the same thing.