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Many years later, as he faced the impending deadline of his own mortality, Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez was to remember that distant afternoon when his mother asked him to accompany her to his hometown to sell the house where he was born. At the time, García Márquez was barely 23 years old, a sandal-wearing law school dropout, drinking and whoring away his meager earnings as a cub reporter, while devouring every book that fell on his lap. He hadn’t seen the village in 15 years, but he remembered Aracataca, Colombia, as a place of “infallible wizards and biblical misfortunes.” After a grueling two-day journey, mother and son arrived to find a desolate, woebegone mudhole forgotten by time and man.
Gabo-philes will instantly recognize it as the mythical Macondo of García Márquez’s fiction. In Living to Tell the Tale, he describes Aracataca by citing One Hundred Years of Solitude‘s opening-paragraph depiction of Macondo. (He quotes himself verbatim in the original Spanish, but here his longtime translator Edith Grossman deviates from Gregory Rabassa’s legendary rendition of Solitude.) With his recollection of that trek, García Márquez embarks on a Proustian stroll down Guermantes way; as in much of his fiction, he weaves a Möbius-like path that twists around itself, where chronology matters less than outrageous incident and hyperbolic detail. Tale may purport to be a memoir, the first volume of a planned trilogy, yet its epigraph acts as a warning sign by the on-ramp: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Caveat lector, in other words: Be sure to purchase an extra-large container of salt along with your copy.
Linearly put, Tale traces the author’s life to age 28, shortly after he completed his first novel, Leaf Storm (1955; translation, 1979). It also retells his saga of the Gabo clan, now stripped of the magic-realist filigrees of Solitude (1970): Having heard his parents tell the story of their tortuous courtship so many times, when he finally sat down to write Love in the Time of Cholera (1988), he “could not distinguish between life and poetry.” At its best, Tale provides an invaluable Baedeker of Gabo-land: García Márquez name-checks all his novels and catalogs the real-life events and persons that inspired their fictional counterparts. More importantly, the book lets us peek behind the curtain to see the wizard at work. It’s a master class in the art of writing, as well as the art of living a writer’s life, which isn’t always the same thing. But like any good magician, García Márquez keeps his best tricks up his sleeve, glossing over his Astaire-like gift for making it all look so easy. He praises Faulkner repeatedly, but his take on Borges’s translation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis could just as well apply to Gabo himself: “It was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice.”
Displays of such authority abound in Tale: Hear Lorenzo el Magnífico, the family’s 100-year-old pet parrot, sing patriotic songs from the Colombian war of independence! Witness local funeral home billboard warn speeding motorists, “Take Your Time, We’re Waiting for You”! Watch Aunt Francisca sew such a beautiful shroud for herself that Death waits more than two weeks for her to finish it! These magic-realist throwaways may strain credulity, but anyone who’s spent enough time in the Caribbean has heard stranger and more implausible anecdotes firsthand. In fact, there’s nothing magical at all about magic realism. The collective imagination, fermented in the centuries-old mire of slavery, colonialism, and violence both natural and man-made, spawned a world of tall tales and bullshit artists, where fact is weirder than fancy and truth is slippery at best. Which explains why García Márquez omits factual details from In Evil Hour (1979; working title: This Shit-Eating Town): They’re more unbelievable than the stuff he made up. Unsurprisingly, when he tries to set the historical record straight, the winds of misfortune begin to blow.
It was inevitable. Factual accuracy was never García Márquez’s strong suit. Take the real incident that became Solitude‘s pivotal episode, the Colombian army’s 1928 massacre of banana workers, which marked the beginning of Aracataca’s decline. Casualty estimates varied, but the Gabo-fied version fixed the number of dead at 3,000, a figure now bandied about as gospel truth. Tale‘s centerpiece is the “Bogotazo,” the 1948 assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and the subsequent riots and repression. The truth is elusive as ever, and García Márquez tries to compensate by relentless name-dropping (readers craving dish on longtime F.O.G. Fidel Castro will have to wait for volume two) and—in a major stylistic departure—needless repetition.
For García Márquez is a journalist, an occupation he variously describes here as an “unpleasant burden,” a “mortal sickness,” and “the best profession in the world.” Solitude aside, his best fiction is grounded in strong reportage—Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1982), and to an extent, The Autumn of the Patriarch (1976) and Cholera. His book-length journalism reads like fiction. “The novel and journalism,” he writes in his memoir, “are children of the same mother.” Tale is neither, and García Márquez may yet reconcile the style in the next installment. Here’s hoping that he won’t keep us waiting.