Gabriel Garcia Marquez,
Living to Tell the Tale
(Knopf, 2003)

Living to Tell the Tale is the Colombian master-storyteller Gabriel Garcia Marquez's long-awaited autobiography -- or at least the first 500-page long installment of the projected three-volume work.

This first volume is a personal recounting of the years of childhood, coming-of-age and early adulthood of the writer of more than a dozen major works including One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in His Labyrinth and (my personal favorite) The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor.

It took me precisely one month of nightly sittings to follow the author's journey: from his home in the small city of Aracataca, through his studies, to his apprenticeship as a journalist in the large Colombian cities of Barranquilla, Cartagena and Bogota. Each night I would wait until everyone in the house was asleep and the neighborhood was still, before delving into the possibly true adventures of "Gabito."

It's indeed quite a tale. Along with Garcia Marquez's story, the reader is treated to the opportunity to learn more about Colombia itself, its diverse geography, its violent political struggles and, foremost, its literature. Did you know Colombia even had a literature?

The reader has to pay close attention to follow the author's endless wanderings between these cities and around the country, the names of the various characters, the newspapers and so on. A Colombian reader might be at a bit of an advantage, in perhaps knowing more about the various figures he comes into contact with. And an avid follower of the author's fiction will pick up many of the trails Marquez followed in his novels and stories. (Yes, Aracataca is the famous Macondo of fiction -- the name "Macondo" is borrowed from a nearby banana plantation.) But if you, the reader, lose track, it really does not matter so much, as you can easily pick up the trail further on ahead.

The history is complex: Colombia seems to have been at war with itself for most of its history, with Liberals fighting Conservatives, and that is even before the current "war on drugs" made the country notorious. (One of the most horrific stories of violence in Colombia -- not in the book -- is that of the murder of the poor soccer player who scored against his own national team in the World Cup.) The communal violence often intrudes into the text, though seldom does it deter the young writer from his pursuits. The exception is the infamous "events of April 9" in Bogota.

In one such harrowing scene, a leading politician is assassinated and bodies begin piling up on the streets of the Colombian capital, Bogota. At this point in the story, translator Edith Grossman does something unusual, she starts to simply transliterate the author; so the tale is being told in English, with grammar, syntax and a choice of words very close to the original Spanish. This, I believe, is done to get the reader as close to the author as possible (that, or the translator was temporarily distracted during the most tense part of the book):

The next intervention was from Don Luis Cano, well known for his brilliant prudence. He had almost paternal feelings for the president, and he would offer himself only for the rapid and just decision that Ospina decided with the backing of the majority. Ospina gave him assurances that he would find the indispensable means for a return to normalcy, but always adhering to the constitution.

This kind of prose goes on for a couple of pages. To have done this for an entire book would make it unreadable, but for these few short and breathless passage, it has something of the desired effect. For the most part, however, the translation is smooth and unremarkable.

Marquez the budding writer often seems oblivious to all of the turmoil, although Marquez the autobiographer is well aware of the political backdrop. (His young self has a devotion to carousing matched only by his devotion to literature and poetry -- I recall Marquez's reported reaction to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was one of surprise that "the world's most powerful man could not find a safe place to make love.")

If sometimes the reader gets confused about who is who and what is what, perhaps it is because the author, too, is confused. Indeed, the author's famous "magical realism" style applies to his non-fiction as well as his fiction. If the reader has to occasionally bear with the author though his meanderings, all is forgiven because of the quality of the prose.

Obviously, Garcia Marquez had a mother that forgave him everything, and in so doing, allowed for the development of perhaps the greatest fiction writer South America ever produced -- a Spanish-language prose writer rivaled only by Cervantes. A reader equally forgiving of a few minor flaws will be rewarded with hours of enjoyment and, perhaps, further enticement to rediscover the great writer's works. Living to Tell the Tale is well worth your while.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 3 July 2004

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