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LIVING TO TELL THE TALE

By Gabriel García Márquez 

Translated by Edith Grossman. 484 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95. 

(Available in our Library)

Reviewed  By MICHIKO KAKUTANI

Critics have frequently observed that magical realism in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the developing world has been a product of those regions’ tumultuous histories, a mirror of their surreal politics and the disorienting fallout that politics has had on people’s daily lives. But as Gabriel García Márquez’s new magical memoir makes clear, the sources of his phantasmagorical work lie as much in his family’s anomalous past and his own experiences as they do in the convoluted politics and historical woes of his native Colombia.

”Living to Tell the Tale” — a title that conjures memories of ”Moby- Dick,” as well as this Nobel laureate’s own nonfiction book ”The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor” — is the first volume of a planned autobiographical trilogy. But its most powerful sections read like one of his mesmerizing novels, transporting the reader to a Latin America haunted by the ghosts of history and shaped by the exigencies of its daunting geography, by its heat and jungles and febrile light. The book provides as memorable a portrait of a young writer’s apprenticeship as the one William Styron gave us in ”Sophie’s Choice,” even as it illuminates the alchemy Mr. García Márquez acquired from masters like Faulkner and Joyce and Borges and later used to transform family stories and firsthand experiences into fecund myths of his own.

As in so many of his novels Mr. García Márquez uses an elliptical narrative in these pages, cutting back and forth in time to show how memory colors experience, how time moves on a Proustian loop between the present and the past. While recounting a trip he took as a young man with his mother to his childhood home in the remote town of Aracataca, he lays out the story of his family, a story that would indelibly inform his later fiction, from the remarkable ”One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1970) through the equally potent ”Love in the Time of Cholera” (1988).

His family, we learn, saw the move to this Wild West-like town as ”a journey into forgetting”; they had left their earlier home after a duel in which the author’s grandfather killed another man. Aracataca was a place, Mr. García Márquez writes, that ”entered history on its left foot as a remote district without God or law,” a place where ”the banana fever” — galvanized by the arrival of the United Fruit Company, its promise of sudden riches and the company’s abrupt departure — brought ”extreme social disorder,” a place subject to dry hurricanes, killing droughts, sudden floods, plagues of locusts, and ”a leaf storm of adventurers from all over the world who took control of the streets by force of arms.”

Mr. García Márquez’s mother — a model for the many strong, resilient women in his fiction — established, he recalls, ”a matriarchal power whose domain extended to the most distant relatives in the most unexpected places, like a planetary system that she controlled from her kitchen with a subdued voice and almost without blinking, while the pot of beans was simmering.” Her courtship by and eventual marriage to a young telegraph operator — Mr. García Márquez’s father, who became a model for the many impulsive dreamers in his stories — would provide the inspiration for the epic love affair celebrated in ”Love in the Time of Cholera.”

In that novel the fictional couple meet in the 19th century; their courtship, forbidden by the girl’s father, lasts more than 50 years. The real-life romance between Mr. García Márquez’s mother and her ardent suitor was also denounced by her family, who sent her on a long, arduous journey ”as a brutal cure for her lovesickness.” But in the end her parents reluctantly agreed to a wedding after a priest wrote them a letter expressing ”his heartfelt certainty that there was no human power capable of overcoming this obdurate love.”

The portraits that Mr. García Márquez draws of other family members are equally resonant, and reminiscent of the characters who populate his fiction.

There’s his Aunt Francisca, who ”sewed her own made-to-measure shroud with such fine workmanship that death waited for more than two weeks until she had finished it,” his beloved grandfather who painted the walls of his workshop white so that the young Gabriel had an inviting surface on which to paint; and his grandmother, ”the most credulous and impressionable woman I have ever known,” a fantasist or visionary who saw ”that the rocking chairs rocked alone, that the phantom of puerperal fever was lurking in the bedrooms of women in labor, that the scent of jasmines from the garden was like an invisible ghost.”

Although the sections of this book chronicling his adventures at school and his early forays into journalism lack the fierce, tactile magic of the portions dealing with his family, Mr. García Márquez delivers a wonderfully vital portrait of himself as a young, aspiring writer. He captures the avidity with which he used to devour books — too poor to buy his own, he would often stay up all night, finishing novels he had borrowed from friends — and the zeal with which he deconstructed them, scouring them for clues to technique, to language, to structure, to anything that might help him learn how to write.

He conjures up, in vivid bloody detail, the explosive historical backdrop against which he came of age (during the late 1940’s and 50’s, a period often called ”La Violencia,” when more than 200,000 people died). And he studiously delineates the penurious existence he lived as a young man: sleeping in the office where he worked, cadging meals here and there, worried that he did not even have the few coins needed to buy a copy of the paper containing his first published story.

At the beginning of this volume the author is still a shy young man trying to find a way to tell his parents that he does not want to become a doctor or lawyer, as they had hoped, but intends to become a writer. By its end he is a journalist and published short-story writer, and well on the road toward becoming the literary magus we know today, a master magician who would be as influential for successive generations of writers as Faulkner and Joyce and Borges had been, in those early remembered years, for him. 

Courtesy: MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NEW YORK TIMES

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