It will come as no surprise to readers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez that the first book to leave a lasting impression on that sorcerer of fiction was The Thousand and One Nights. This is just one of many glorious details the Colombian-born Nobelist, who put magical realism on the world's literary map with his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, shares in the first volume of his memoirs, Living to Tell the Tale.
Garcia Marquez is one of those writers who is frequently described as beloved, and this autobiography has been a huge bestseller around the globe in its original Spanish. Now elegantly translated into English by Edith Grossman, the book is at last available to those of us who do not read the author's native tongue.
Just as he might start one of his novels, Garcia Marquez begins his narrative with a journey. He is in his early 20s, living in Barranquilla and scratching out a living as a journalist, when his mother appears one day out of the blue at a bookstore where he often hangs out. As the eldest son, he must accompany her to the town of Aracataca to close the deal on the sale of the family home. The uncomfortable journey via boat and train is fraught with mishaps, and the young man spends a good part of it assuaging his mother's concerns about his decision to drop out of university to become, of all things, a writer. The whole misbegotten venture ends with a muddle that leaves the house unsold, but for Garcia Marquez it proves the catalyst for this larger journey into the past.
Though he mostly sticks with chronology when relating the story of his life, Living to Tell the Tale is anything but linear. One memory casually sparks another, leading him to a colorful digression about some other event or character. Character is the operative word here, for the real people who surrounded him were as singularly eccentric as anyone he has created in his fiction. "I cannot imagine a family environment more favorable to my vocation than that lunatic house," he admits, "in particular because of the character of the numerous women who reared me." If his grandmother and aunts encouraged piety, his grandfather, known as "the Colonel," encouraged freedom of expression, at one point having a wall in his office painted white with the express purpose of providing a fresh canvas for preschool-age Gabriel's wall scribblings. The Colonel's own freedom of expression had resulted in nine illegitimate children. When all the sons descend on the house one Ash Wednesday to pay their respects, imaginative little Gabriel thinks that the crosses they all bear on their foreheads are some kind of family imprimatur, and he is sorely disappointed later to learn the truth.
His father was a homeopathic pharmacist who disappeared for long periods of time, leaving his mother with 11 children to raise. But Garcia Marquez's memories are anything but bleak, for everyone in his world was relatively poor and struggling, and pleasures were found wherever possible. Later, working as a journalist in Bogota, he weathers his country's political upheavals with the same sense of equilibrium. It is around the time of the popular uprising of April 9, 1947, that he reconnects with the girl he has known since childhood who will become his wife. This chapter of the story ends with Garcia Marquez on a plane headed for Geneva, writing a letter to Mercedes asking her to be his bride. Like the trip that launched the book, this seems to be another symbolic journey, as he embarks on the part of his life that will turn him into a citizen of the world.
So much of what Garcia Marquez lived in these early years would feed his fiction, and Living to Tell the Tale is a delightful companion to those incomparable novels and stories. It covers just the first third of his life, but the now 76-year-old Garcia Marquez has promised two more volumes of memoirs. For our sake, may he live to tell those tales, as well.
Robert Weibezahl's new book, A Second Helping of Murder: More Diabolically Delicious Recipes from Contemporary Mystery Writers has just been published by Poisoned Pen Press.