Chronicle of a Life Foretold

Penury encouraged Gabriel García Márquez's early adult style: "Untrimmed mustache, tousled hair, jeans, flowered shirts, and a pilgrim's sandals"
Courtesy of Knopf
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Living to Tell the Tale

A family friend has a former teacher who knows Salman Rushdie. (A fairly Byzantine connection, certainly, but don't you think Rushdie would approve of such a tangled claim to intimacy?) Anyway, my family friend's former teacher claims that non-Indians wildly overrate the author's capacity for inventiveness. All Rushdie really did, she says, was get his weird family down on paper more or less accurately. (Apparently, those in the know nodded their heads at parts of Midnight's Children and thought, Yep, that's Salman's uncle all right.)

Reading the first volume in Gabriel García Márquez's projected autobiographical trilogy, Living to Tell the Tale, one can't help hitting on the same realization: Just like politics, most literature is local. If you know the details well enough, the most fantastical stories might not feel particularly imaginative.

It's not just the murder of the banana workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose reality would be apparent to someone who holds a passing acquaintance with Colombian history. Almost everything in Gabo's work turns out to be a lightly fictionalized version of the riotous family stories on which he was nourished. After reading Living to Tell the Tale, you may notice that his parents' difficult courtship--telescoped in time but with the emotional weather system maintained--furnished the plot of Love in the Time of Cholera. Various ancestral duels--there are two deadly yet borderline farcical affairs, each with sweeping, ridiculous consequences, in the first 70 pages here--prefigured blood-debt sagas like Chronicle of a Death Foretold. And your pick of clairvoyant grandmothers could be found lurking about, predicting the future at the drop of a feather.

The question, I suppose, is whether anyone is interested in clairvoyant grandmothers these days. Despite its past usefulness for Latin Americans straining to grasp the consequences of American bullying, or Eastern Europeans fantasizing about escape from the Soviet yoke, magic realism is now yesterday's news, tamed and denatured for American markets, with the politics mostly excised. (Commercials seem to have staged a hostile takeover of the style, making it the ideal means to convince us of the capacity of cars and computers to transport us to better worlds.) García Márquez himself has not produced a major fiction work for 15 years. So we might as well admit that this book will probably appeal most to a certain demographic that likes its politics nostalgic and its literary credit pre-approved.

That said, the man can tell a story. He begins with himself at age 22, a law-school dropout with an uncertain income whose father despairs of his ever finding a career. Described by more than one friend as a "lost cause," Gabito has determined to be a writer and has outfitted himself with a headful of poetry and the appropriate outward mannerisms. "A veteran of two bouts of gonorrhea, every day I smoked, with no foreboding, sixty cigarettes made from the most barbaric tobacco," García Márquez writes with more than a hint of pride. "For reasons of poverty rather than taste, I anticipated what would be the style in twenty years' time: untrimmed mustache, tousled hair, jeans, flowered shirts, and a pilgrim's sandals." Amid this training in the louche life, he is approached by his mother, who wants him to come upriver to help her sell the ancestral house.

And so off we go, voyaging upriver (as in Conrad), past the remnants of United Fruit Company plantations (evoked with Faulknerian affection for ruins), and into the often-preposterous swamp of family history. It will be another 50 pages before García Márquez will get himself born, occupied as he is with such matters as the 17 great uncles fathered out of wedlock by his great-grandfather--all of whom come to visit him for his birthday, a week late, with crosses marked in ash on their foreheads. He tells us of his childhood fears that his full diaper would soil his new overalls: "not a question of hygienic prejudice but aesthetic concern....I believe it was my first experience as a writer." All this is delivered with a straight face, of course, as if everyone's history ran as crooked.


The house does not sell, for reasons both personal and artistic. (How can one give away one's birthright, especially so early in the book?) But before we get away, we watch Gabo learn to read, convince his parents that he will be a writer and nothing but, and return to the city, where he will strive to make something of himself. Constructed with astonishing technical skill and unfussy virtuosity, this first section captures and summarizes everything that made García Márquez an international sensation in the first place: the miraculous told directly, with a folksy insistence on its verifiability; the rich language, seemingly steeped in rum and sweaty with jungle heat; the storyteller's ability to hook you instantly. Revisiting and excavating his past, the author reminds all of us how thoroughly he once felt like a discovery--as if we could suddenly understand, even become, Cortez's sailors standing silent upon the peak of Keats's well-loved poem, looking with wild surmise at the treasure before us.

Some of what comes later does, naturally, fall a bit from those heights. Fascinating as the machinations of publication may be, the nastiness and wrong-headed provincialism of everyone who failed to grasp the writer's future greatness are commonplace in such autobiographies. (No matter how enormous that greatness and how foolish the literary gatekeepers, the fundamental plot remains the same.) More interesting are the author's unsparing visions of himself haphazardly accumulating experiences, riding streetcars, and gathering a worldview. But what is most exciting is the sheer epic scale of García Márquez's self-invention in all its social, cultural, and political breadth--a story told so ravishingly here that it gives the reader every reason to fall in love with his work all over again.

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