Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
New York: Alfred A. Knopf
$16.95 - 483 pages
"It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams."
-Garbiel Garcia Marquez
Early in this astonishing autobiography, Gabriel Garcia Marquez makes a comment about the problems the he has experienced when writing about the past. He notes: nostalgia colors the way we recall the past because frequently, it has “erased the bad memories and magnified the good ones.” Ironically, this judgment is an accurate description of Living to Tell the Tale. For example, Marquez repeatedly veers away from describing the execution of 3,000 striking banana workers in his home town (Barranqualla) while devoting long, descriptive passages to his childhood passions: reading comics (Flash Gordon, Tarzan and Mutt & Jeff) while attempting to draw his own versions which he sold to the neighbors.
From the beginning, Marquez was a storyteller, entertaining his family with his personal accounts of local events, gossip and scandal. By the age of four, he had learned to embellish his stories with bizarre details. In addition, he loved music and delighted everyone by singing the romantic ballads he heard on the radio. However, to the distress of his parents, he always wanted to be a writer (journalist) and began his career writing for the local newspapers. By the time he was a teenager, he was writing a daily column while singing with local quartets at night, an activity that paid little if anything. (Gabriel’s father was a failed businessman (pharmacy) who was rarely able to provide for his family )
I first read a reference in the New York Times to Marquez as “our greatest living writer” some twenty years ago, and after reading his first novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, I concluded that the Times was right. Marquez is a master of descriptive detail and when I read his account of a journey he made with his mother to the nearly abandoned town of his childhood “to sell their house,” I remembered all of the journeys in Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth as Marquez describes the Magdalena river, the stench of drowned chickens and cows, the stultifying heat and the constant vibration of the engine on the boat as young prostitutes ply their trade in the dark. (He says the river mud was so deep and smelled so bad, passengers had to be carried to the bank by servants who beat off the clouds of turkey buzzards that fed off the dead creatures in the muck.)
Marquez developed an appreciation for American writers as a teenager and read (and identified with) Faulkner. He also read Dos Passos and Hemingway and often praised his favorites in his newspaper columns. However, his favorite literature was A Thousand and One Nights.
Marquez brings the same graphic realism to the streets of his childhood home where the nights are filled with laughter and weeping. In addition, the young Marquez listened to his relatives tell stories of ghosts and suicides.The household, including and awesome number of uncles and aunts who recount tales of the suicides of impoverished lawyers by “gold cyanide” and aunts who have been dead for years are sometimes encountered in the hallways. There is also a constant supply of illegitimate sons who come seeking refuge with the Marquez family. (Some are brothers to the young Gabriel and others are the sons of his grandfather who is notorious for his love affairs. (He was sometimes found guilty due to his cologne which was detected on a pillow by a jealous husband.) There is an insane grandmother who has conversations with the dead and numerous tales of duels fought either by gun-toting lawyers or short-tempered relatives with a grudge.
All of this sounds like a bad environment for a young boy, but such is not the case. The suicides, the murderers, the lovers and the lost ghosts - all are the characters of the novels that Gabriel Garcia Marquez will write, and they will be given a kind of immortality denied to most mortals. At some point, I realized that my appreciation for this creator of “magical realism” was partly due to his resemblance to another writer - a North Carolina writer who also had a talent for writing narrative filled with sensory details, passages that linger in the mind long after the work is finished. I am talking about Thomas Wolfe, of course. That is not a new comparison, since other readers have also noted that both Wolfe and Marquez share a talent for rich descriptive details, especially descriptions of journeys, of night time and of food. Both share a gift for celebrating lost love.
In reading Living to Tell the Tale, I had considerable difficulty in remembering that Marquez died two years ago, having only finished the first of his three-volume autobiography. (He chose to stop with his marriage in 1954, leaving some sixty years to celebrate in the last two books. When I went back to read a few of the tributes to Marquez, I found several heart-felt account of his final days. His friends remember that he never stopped believing that he would finish the remaining two books of his autobiography. He was living in Mexico at the time of his death since his “political views” had made him an unwanted resident in Colombia. (Due to his celebrated friendship with Fidel Castro, his presence in the United States was awkward.
According to his brother, Marquez developed pancreatic cancer while working on Living to Tell the Tale. Eventually, the author received chemotherapy treatments which inevitably caused senile dementia. Friends noted that the chemotherapy halted the cancer but destroyed Marquez’ mind. As a consequence, this gifted man gradually developed Alzheimer's. In the end, he stopped writing and acknowledged that he would not write again. He died in 2014 at the age of 87.
For those of you who are devoted fans, rumors are circulating about an unpublished work that will possibly be published soon. The work is entitled “We Will See Each Other in August.” At his death, Gabriel Garcia Marquez had written fourteen major works. His most noted work remains One Hundred Years of Solitude which won the Nobel Prize in 1982.