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A Life

By Gerald Martin

Illustrated. 642 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $37.50.



Unravelling the Labyrinthine Life of a Magical Realist


Published: May 27, 2009 , New York times



In a January 2006 interview with a Barcelona newspaper, Gabriel García Márquez, whose memory had begun to fail, deflected a question about his past. “You will have to ask my official biographer, Gerald Martin, about that sort of thing,” he said, “only I think he’s waiting for something to happen to me before he finishes.”


The author Gabriel García Márquez in the mid-1940s.

GM Family Archive

Mr. Garcia Márquez with Mercedes, his wife, and their sons in the late 1960s in Barcelona.

This otherwise doom-laden remark brought good news to the newly designated “official biographer.” Mr. Martin at that point had devoted 15 years of his own life to chronicling that of Mr. García Márquez, though he spent a total of only a month in that Nobel laureate’s company during his extended research. Until that point Mr. Martin had called this project only a “tolerated biography.” It has turned out to be much, much more.

This intensive, assured, penetratingly analytical book will be the authoritative English-language study of Mr. García Márquez until Mr. Martin can complete an already 2,000-page, 6,000-footnote version “in a few more years, if life is kind.” He compressed that sprawling magnum opus into 545 pages (plus notes and index), a “brief, relatively compact narrative,” so it could be published “while the subject of this work, now a man past 80, is still alive and in a position to read it.” Both author and subject have been treated for lymphoma, Mr. Martin says.

That kind of bluntness runs throughout “Gabriel García Márquez: A Life,” and it is essential to the book’s success. The last thing this literary lion needed was a fawning, accommodating Boswell. Nor did he need a biographer eager to show off his own flair. When writing about Mr. García Márquez, king of the magical realists, Mr. Martin understands that it is best to stick to the facts and skip the fancy footwork.

Could any biographer have been better suited to this gargantuan undertaking? Absolutely not: Mr. Martin is the ideal man for the job. He has already written studies of 20th-century Latin American fiction; translated the work of another Latin American Nobel laureate, Miguel Ángel Asturias; and written about Latin American history. These are essential prerequisites for unraveling the labyrinthine cultural and political aspects of Mr. García Márquez’s peripatetic life. So are Mr. Martin’s demonstrable patience, wide range of knowledge and keen understanding of his subject’s worldwide literary forebears, from Cervantes to Dostoyevsky to Mark Twain.

Mr. Martin confidently calls Mr. García Márquez, Colombia’s best-known storyteller and superstar (“Gabo”), the “Mark Twain of his own land: symbol of the country, definer of a national sense of humor and chronicler of the relation between the provincial realm and the center.” But he is just as comfortable linking Mr. García Márquez to less likely literary figures (Virginia Woolf), historical figures who loomed large in his imagination (Simón Bolívar) and dictators, of whom Mr. García Márquez has known more than his share.

This book has the sophistication to weigh its subject’s affection for Fidel Castro against the changing currents of left-wing governments over 50 years, sharply revealing the personal revisionism that has sustained this novelist’s huge popularity no matter what goes on around him. (Not for nothing has he earned “García Marketing” as one of his nicknames.) The biography can slip readily from the exploits of Bolívar to revolutions in Cuba and France. It can discuss “the most famous punch in the history of Latin America,” an occasion on which Mr. García Márquez addressed the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa as “Brother!” and Mr. Vargas Llosa slugged him in reply. Mr. Vargas Llosa’s wife seems to have played a role in this confrontation.

Mr. Martin’s book also has the heft to deliver penetrating thematic analyses of each García Márquez work, even if literary criticism is not its first concern. “No one writes,” “solitude,” “autumn,” “funeral,” “death foretold,” “labyrinth,” “kidnapping”: these are all words used in García Márquez book titles and, as Mr. Martin asserts, words that imply some challenge to power. In addition to parsing each book and its meaning, Mr. Martin must trace the family stories that figure in the fiction, so that childhood years spent with Mr. García Márquez’s maternal grandparents can be seen as seminal to the fictitious setting (Macondo) and family (Buendía) found in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

The complexity of all this is staggering. So is the magnitude of Mr. Martin’s accomplishment in grappling with it. Consider: this is a book that includes four different family-tree illustrations, three devoted to Mr. García Márquez’s actual relatives (including those by marriage and by illegitimate birth) and one for the Buendías he invented. It travels with its subject from his European days as a hungry (literally) young journalist to his politically formative glimpses behind the Iron Curtain to his celebrity globe-trotting in later years.

From time to time the book hits a brick wall, as when Mr. Martin unearths the painful story of a thwarted love affair in Paris and Mr. García Márquez refuses to talk about it. Dogged biographer that he is, Mr. Martin perseveres, though never in a salacious fashion. He finds the old flame, connects her with events in the García Márquez canon and explores his subject’s ideas about sex and love, about private, public and secret lives. How long has this research been going on? Long enough for Mr. Martin to have a firsthand interview with the mother of a subject who is 82.

Given the global love affair with “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Love in the Time of Cholera,” which have been popular even in countries (like the United States) often reviled by Mr. García Márquez, this biography would be essential reading even if it delivered just the facts. But Mr. Martin is too dedicated for that, though not admiring enough to make excuses for his subject’s transgressions. And he zeroes in on the precise achievements that have meant so much in literary history.

How did the early blueprint for a novel about Mr. García Márquez’s childhood turn into a masterpiece about his memories of childhood? How did he bring the town of Macondo to the world by weaving the world into the town of Macondo? And how did his magical realism become this magical? Such questions are in Mr. García Márquez’s books. The answers are in this one.

The Author:  

Gerald Martin


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