"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.