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.