As ways of writing about a past, memoirs and autobiographies, although in practice they may often overlap, are different undertakings. At the limit, a memoir can re-create a world lavishly peopled with others, while saying very little about the author himself. An autobiography, on the other hand, may take the form of a pure portrait of the self; the world and others featuring only as mise en scène for the inner adventure of the narrator. In recounting their lives, novelists have produced bravura performances in both genres. Among modern writers, Anthony Powell’s To Keep the Ball Rolling–four leisurely yet laconic volumes–offers a masterpiece of the first form. Sartre’s brief book The Words is perhaps the greatest example of the second. Gabriel García Márquez’s Living to Tell the Tale is billed by its publishers as a memoir, and there is little doubt that on the whole it falls to that side of the divide. García Márquez is a legendary storyteller. But he also has an acutely self-reflective intelligence, as a glance at The Fragrance of Guava, his biographical conversations with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza of twenty years ago, shows.

In Living to Tell the Tale, García Márquez exercises this side of his gifts very sparingly. By artistic choice he has instead constructed a memoir as close in form to a novel as perhaps has ever been written. It opens with the arrival of his mother in Barranquilla, to take her son–then 22–back with her to sell the family house in Aracataca, on the trip that made him the novelist he became; and ends with the ultimatum he wrote on a plane to Geneva, five years later, that made the elusive sweetheart of his adolescence his future wife. Between these two parallel coups de théâtre the author recounts his life up to the point when he left Colombia in 1955, in a narrative that obeys not the untidy patterns of experience or memory, with all their unevenness, but rules of a perfectly symmetrical composition. The book is divided into eight chapters of virtually identical length, an arrangement that least corresponds to the way any life is actually lived, as if to underline that we are in the presence of another supreme artifice.

From the start, García Márquez has practiced two relatively distinct styles of writing: the figurally charged prose already on brilliant display in his earliest fiction, Leaf Storm, which was rejected for publication at the time, with the concession that it was “poetic”; and the objective concision of such tales as No One Writes to the Colonel or reportages like News of a Kidnapping. If technically the register of Living to Tell the Tale lies somewhere between the two, the tone and effect of the whole–this follows from the conception of the memoirs–have the crisp, sumptuous grandeur of his major novels. We are in the world of One Hundred Years of Solitude or The General in His Labyrinth, with its metaphoric density and trademark dialogue: lofty one-liners that function like near-epigrams of inimitable pungency and good-humored irony.

Formally, what we are told is the tale of García Márquez’s youth in Colombia. Vivid portraits of his grandparents and parents establish the strangest of family settings. We are then given his childhood, up to the age of 8, with his grandfather in the banana zone of the Caribbean coast; early school days in poverty in Barranquilla, and holidays in a more Edenic hinterland; passage up the Magdalena River to an Andean liceo; entry into university at Bogotá; an eyewitness description of the apocalyptic riots in the capital after the assassination of the country’s leading populist politician, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán; flight from the conflagration back to the coast; early journalism in Cartagena; literary enthusiasm and bohemian dissipation in Barranquilla again; finally a regular reporter’s job in Bogotá, and dispatch abroad to cover the Geneva Conference of 1955. All this with a wealth of striking incident, intriguing detail and flamboyant chance that few works of fiction could equal.

Yet its sum is not a Bildungsroman of the author, whose personality is rarely front-lit, but the re-creation of an astonishing universe, the Caribbean coastlands of Colombia in the first half of the last century. Anyone who might think that a factual counterpart of García Márquez’s fictions could be at best only a pallid duplicate can be reassured. Scene after remarkable scene, character after arresting character, cascades of gestures without measure and coincidences beyond reason make Living to Tell the Tale a cousin of the great novels. This first volume of what is likely to be García Márquez’s final enterprise is a major, meditated edifice of literary imagination. It is tempting therefore to read it simply as a work of art, independently of its status as a biographical document.

That would diminish its interest, however. One way of seeing why this is so is to consider its relationship to the memoirs of the Latin American writer most often associated with García Márquez, and second only in fame to himself. Mario Vargas Llosa’s A Fish in the Water, published more than a decade ago, has a less conventional structure. Written in the aftermath of the defeat of his candidacy for the presidency of Peru in 1990, it consists of chapters alternating between the writer’s childhood and youth in his native country, and his campaign to become its leader when he was in his 50s–a switching device he has used more than once in his fiction, from Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter to the current The Way to Paradise. Within this form, the three years of his presidential campaign take up more space than the twenty-two years of his passage to adulthood. That alone makes it a very different kind of memoir from García Márquez’s. All the more striking, then, are the resemblances between their early experiences, in many respects uncannily close.

Both writers spent their crucial first years as small boys under the roof of an adoring grandfather, the patriarch of the family–a civil war veteran in Colombia, a planter and prefect in Bolivia/Peru. Their fathers, who had similar jobs (a telegraph operator, a radio operator) and made similar marriages (against in-law resistance, above their station), were absent: blank positions in the emotional structures of childhood, in which even mothers played a secondary role. Sexual initiation came early, in brothels about which each writes with wry affection. Later, each married a home-town girl. As adolescents, both were sent against their will to boarding schools by their fathers. Each was happily formed in the provinces, and experienced arrival in the capital as a misfortune.

At university, both plunged into a side-life of journalism and nocturnal carousal. Each turned a hand to radio soap operas, even inspired by the same tear-jerker–Felix B. Caignet’s The Right to Be Born (no anachronistic pro-life connotations). In both cases, the great literary discovery of their youth was Faulkner, whose novels they report marking them more deeply than any other. Each ends his memoir of those years at the same fateful point, as the writer–having just learned something of the unknown interior of the land (El Chocó, Amazonas)–leaves his native country for Europe, never to fix his residence there again.

A set of parallels like these is an invitation to some future Plutarch of Latin American letters. Yet what they serve to throw into relief are finally the contrasts between the two novelists, and their memoirs. For all the similarities in their family constellations, Vargas Llosa came–on his mother’s side–from a more privileged social background, a clan of the Arequipa elite that produced Peru’s first postwar president, Bustamante y Rivero. Class and color situated him higher up the social scale, in what was also a more rigidly racist society, than a mestizo boy would be in Colombia. Formal education, too, separated them. García Márquez explains how thoroughly disaffected he was from his studies at university, where his father had insisted he take law, and he eventually dropped out. Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, had a brilliant student cursus, becoming an assistant to a leading local historian in Lima before even graduating. The university was a central experience for him, whereas it meant nothing to García Márquez. That difference explains why Vargas Llosa got to Europe so much earlier in his career, with a scholarship to Madrid. So, too, once in Europe, he has never really left it, living essentially in Paris, London and Madrid, with trips back to Lima; while as a journalist García Márquez soon returned to Latin America, and would ultimately settle in Mexico.

These divergent trajectories have their atmospheric correlates in the work of each. In their lifetimes, the histories of their two countries–measured in terms of slaughter, repression, frustration, corruption–could hardly have been grimmer, and these of course find expression in their novels. But García Márquez’s depictions of his homeland, even at its worst, are infused with a lyrical warmth, an immutable love, that has no counterpart in Vargas Llosa’s world, where the writer’s relationship to the land of his origins is always tense and ambiguous. Part of the reason for this difference can be found in their individual situations. For if the configuration of the two families from which they came was strikingly similar, their emotional voltage was quite opposite.

García Márquez’s mother, of whom he paints a loving portrait, was clearly a woman of great strength of character, capable of managing her spirited, if wayward, husband and eleven children, in penury or precarious prosperity alike. Vargas Llosa’s father, abandoning his spouse without a word when she was five months pregnant, and appearing out of the blue ten years later to repossess her and shanghai him, was by contrast a traumatic nightmare: feared by his wife and hated by his son. Showing no attachment to his native land, he eventually immigrated to the United States, dying a janitor in Pasadena.

Even the melodramas of the early sexual experience of the two writers, set pieces of Latin honor and outrage, reflected this contrast. When Vargas Llosa married his aunt–in this semi-deracinated family, not coincidentally a Bolivian–his father, after brandishing a revolver, denounced him to the police in Lima and threatened to kill him with five bullets like a rabid dog. García Márquez, caught in flagrante with the black wife of a policeman in the backlands, was faced with a pistol too, and the words “cheating in bed is settled with lead.” But the affronted sergeant let the terrified boy off with a humiliation, as thanks for a medical service from his father, and when last seen is drinking with him. The two scenes, each set pieces of a theatrical machismo, speak in their way of differing societies. The poetry and humanity of the Colombian episode capture the general spirit of Living to Tell the Tale and the ties of its author with the community in which he grew up, whereas the title of A Fish in the Water inverts the story it actually tells. This is more accurately conveyed by its first draft, released as A Fish Out of Water, a reversal that is not the least oddity of Vargas Llosa’s memoir as a whole. Composed at a moment of acute political disappointment, and inevitably somewhat discolored by it, the book is nevertheless shot through with a detestation of much in Peruvian life that clearly expresses feelings of long standing.

The literary consequences of this difference are not what might be expected. The–now shopworn–label of “magical realism” is customarily applied to García Márquez’s novels. It has never fitted Vargas Llosa, who disavows the adjective. “I have an invincible weakness for so-called realism,” he remarks in A Fish in the Water. One of the most significant contrasts between their fiction follows from–or perhaps dictates–these distinct options. The bulk of Vargas Llosa’s work is set in the Peruvian present, contemporary with his own experience. The principal exceptions are displacements, not just of time but of space–the Brazil of The War of the End of the World, or the France and South Seas of The Way to Paradise. Within his own country, he has been unwaveringly à la page. None of García Márquez’s major novels, on the other hand, represent the epoch in which he himself became a writer. Macondo vanishes in the Great Depression. The patriarch belongs to the rustic world of Juan Vicente Gomez, who ruled Venezuela from 1908 to 1935. The time of cholera is Victorian. The general expires as the Restoration ends. Modernity is allergic to magic: García Márquez’s powers have always needed a recession into the past to be exercised with full freedom.

In the public mind, what probably distinguishes the two writers most are conventional images of their politics–García Márquez, friend of Fidel; Vargas Llosa, devotee of Thatcher: figures respectively of an ecumenical left and a neoliberal right. That polarity exists, of course. But if one looks at the writing, rather than the affiliations, another contrast is more striking. Vargas Llosa was from the beginning, and has remained, a political animal. As a student in Lima under the Odría dictatorship, he was an active Communist militant, inducted into the party by Héctor Béjar, who would lead the first Peruvian guerrilla movement in the 1960s; and after arriving in Europe, he steeped himself in Marxist theory as an enthusiast for the Cuban Revolution. When he broke with the left over Cuba in the early 1970s, he did not simply retreat into literature, as did others, but became a passionate admirer of Hayek and Friedman, and a leading advocate of free-market capitalism in Latin America. His run for the presidency of Peru, with the support of the traditional right, was not a sudden caprice but the outcome of a decade of consistent public activity. Logically, his fiction–from his earliest depiction of the military academy in The Time of the Hero through the revolutionary conspiracies of Conversation in the Cathedral or The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta to the recent The Feast of the Goat–takes contemporary political conflicts directly as an organizing theme.

This has never been the case with García Márquez, and Living to Tell the Tale helps to explain why, though patches of mystery remain. He depicts a youngster, coming from the coast to the highlands in his teens, so absorbed in literary matters–at first poetry, above all–as to have virtually no interest in public affairs. Colombia was already in a state of high political tension in his last school years, and just as he arrived at university, the country descended into civil war. The single most powerful chapter of Living to Tell the Tale contains a Goyaesque panorama of the social earthquake that engulfed Bogotá when Gaitán, its most popular politician, was murdered in 1948. From his pensíon three blocks away, García Márquez rushed to the scene, arriving to witness the lynching of the assassin and the outbreak of the tidal wave of rioting and looting that swept the city. But his reaction, as he records it, was simply to go back to the boardinghouse to finish his lunch. Meeting him on the street, an older relative–who became one of the leaders of the revolutionary junta that tried to steer the turmoil into an uprising against the Conservative government–urged him to participate in the student protests against the murder. In vain. Terrified by the wholesale destruction and killings of the next days, when the army moved into the city to restore order, his one desire was to escape.

The Violencia, which ravaged Colombia for the next decade, pitting Liberals against the ruling Conservatives, took 300,000 lives–a catastrophe worse than any endured in Peru. This was the historical background to García Márquez’s early career as a journalist and writer. But he seems to have remained eerily untouched by it. Although a regular columnist for a Cartagena daily, he writes that “in my political obfuscation at the time, I did not even know that martial law had been reimposed in the country.” In Barranquilla, a little later, “the truth of my soul was that the drama of Colombia reached me like a remote echo and moved me only when it spilled over into rivers of blood.” The confession is disarming but the distinction untenable: Colombia’s drama was the spilling of rivers of blood. The reality seems to have been that in these years the young littérateur, entirely wrapped up in discoveries and experiments of the imagination, effectively ignored the fate of his country.

This was easier to do in the coastal cities, since the Caribbean littoral, although not immune to sectarian killing, was spared the worst of the Violencia raging along the coffee frontiers of the highlands. García Márquez’s identification with his region–“the only place where I really feel at home”–has given his writing its luminous intensity, but also seems to have shielded, or blinded, him from larger national patterns and forces. “Colombia,” he writes, “had always been a country with a Caribbean identity that opened to the world by means of the umbilical cord of Panama. Its forced amputation condemned us to be what we are today: a nation with an Andean mentality whose circumstances favor the canal between the two oceans belonging not to us but to the United States.”

The regret is palpable, and consequential. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that the Andean uplands that form the core of Colombian society have remained something of a closed book to García Márquez. Hence in part, no doubt, the blankness of Living to Tell the Tale about the civil war within which its latter half unfolds. The novelist’s one venture into contemporary history, News of a Kidnapping, humane and gripping though it is as the account of a closing episode in drug lord Pablo Escobar’s career, confirms a certain intellectual mountain sickness. For it lacks either much sense of the social context of Colombia’s drug wars or critical vision of the oligarchy presiding over them. Reading it, one might be tempted to think that at bottom García Márquez has remained as unpolitical as when he started out.

That would be a mistake, as the sequel to Living to Tell the Tale will certainly show. But both this memoir and his fiction suggest a mind with a marvelous intuitive sensibility for the temper, the color and the details of the world in which he grew up, without much thought for definition of its relationships or structures. From this account, it would be difficult to locate García Márquez’s family with any accuracy in a social scale. His grandfather, though represented as a patriarch of some substance, appears to have been originally little more than an artisan, albeit a goldsmith: The economic basis of the legendary household in Aracataca–where his father sought the hand of the “daughter of a wealthy family”–remains obscure. The ups and downs in his father’s fortunes, from extreme poverty to modest comfort–seemingly unrelated to the proliferation of fifteen offspring–are only a little less elusive. In due course, clan connections reveal themselves: an uncle in the Cartagena police, capable of dispensing jobs; a professor in Bogotá; the owner of a major bookstore. How all this fitted the young Gabito into a complicated hierarchy of class and color we are left to work out for ourselves.

What, finally, of the self-portrait that emerges from this memoir? It is curiously glancing. García Márquez provides us with a thorough account of the development of his literary vocation, from school days to his mid-20s, and many a captivating incident or enthralling encounter in his journey to maturity. But what he was like as a boy or a young man is not so clear. The self-confidence his grandfather gave him as a child seems never to have left him, save for the briefest of adolescent turbulences. But there is little sign of deliberate ambition. He dwells on his shyness, but he was obviously lively company, since he was never short of friends. But how far he sought them, or whether they saw him as other than a madcap bohemian, is not revealed. In transactions with the opposite sex, seductions came mostly from women rather than himself. Though he says that when he returned to Barranquilla, “I had the timidity of a quail, which I tried to counteract with insufferable arrogance and brutal frankness,” he seems to have been on generally good terms with his elders and peers, in one setting after another. No major quarrel marks this progress. Only occasionally does he allude to other, more volcanic sides to his personality–“fits of rage for any reason at all,” “puerile tantrums”–but these hints are not enlarged upon.

Rather than any sustained self-analysis, García Márquez extends a generous mirror to his contemporaries. Living to Tell the Tale contains a teeming gallery of relatives, paramours, classmates, mentors and confederates, captured in a paragraph or a page or two. This is enough to make Anglo-Saxon readers impatient, but it is an attractive loyalty, which sets these memoirs apart from Vargas Llosa’s. A Fish in the Water, aimed at an international public from the start, is here much thinner. García Márquez’s memoirs are aimed at Colombian readers first of all.

They announce their principle of construction at the outset, in the manifesto set like an epigraph at the head of the book: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Taken literally, this is an invitation to selective recall, with all the facilities of a convenient amnesia. There is no reason to suppose García Márquez has abused his maxim. Yet it remains legitimate to ask how far memories correspond to facts. However much license we are willing to grant an artist in reconstructing the past, we would not value the result in the same way if it all proved imaginary.

In this case, the narrative allows for some question marks in the margin. Sex, politics, literature: Each leaves a penumbra of uncertainty around the edges. Commenting on his father’s “furtive hunter’s ways,” García Márquez mentions that there was a period when he was tempted to imitate him, but soon discovered this was “the most arid form of solitude.” Nothing in his account relates to this brief avowal. In The Fragrance of Guava he says he belonged to a cell of the Colombian Communist Party when he was at university in Bogotá. There is no trace of this in Living to Tell the Tale. Of authors who shaped him, he emphasizes Faulkner. But his rule that “each sentence ought to be responsible for the entire structure,” and the celestial use of the adjective (he reports his aversion to adverbs) that is the signature of his prose, derive from Borges, whom he barely mentions. His abandonment of the Barranquilla group that produced the literary journal Crónica, the crucible of his first flourishing as a writer, is presented as an amicable parting, without trouble or resentment. Yet it slips out of the sleeve that he had resigned as editor in a fury some time before, for reasons unspecified. It looks as if the break might have been more painful than he suggests.

Do such discrepancies matter? The epigraph absolves them. But a life and a tale are never the same thing, and the interstices–wider or narrower–between them are inescapably part of the interest of each.