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Living to Tell the Tale

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Translated by Edith Grossman

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Knopf, 484 pages, $38.95

On the first page of his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez recounts a scene in which a woman approaches him in a café, stops, and before he can react, introduces herself: "I'm your mother." It's a masterful opening for an author who believes life is not what one lives, "but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it." The scene is not meant to demonstrate tension between son and mother. It's just how the story happened. And so powerfully are we swept up in the author's magnificent recording of the details that we never stop to ask about its psychological ramifications.

The memoir opens when Garcia Marquez is 22 years old. He portrays himself as the consummate bohemian writer: already a veteran of two bouts of gonorrhea, a columnist for the newspaper El Heraldo, "sleeping in the best company possible wherever I happened to be at night." Life doesn't require explanation or analysis; it only requires bravado, stamina and appetite.

Quickly it becomes clear how Garcia Marquez's life is inextricably linked with the great novels he has written. The memoir begins with a two-day trip he and his mother take back to the town of Aracataca to sell the house in which he lived with his grandparents until he was eight years old. He describes this trip into the past as the most decisive moment in his writing career. "Everything was identical to my memories, but smaller and poorer, and levelled by a windstorm of fatality: the decaying houses themselves, the tin roofs perforated by rust, the levee with its crumbling granite benches and melancholy almond trees, and all of it transfigured by the invisible burning dust that deceived the eye and calcinated the skin."

On this trip he recognizes for the first time that "that lunatic house" had been the perfect alembic for his writer's imagination. He remembers it as a "hermetic paradise" in which, apart from his beloved grandfather, he was the only male and that he held complete sway over the many resident and transient women (some living and some dead) who moved quietly through its rooms. With the hindsight of nostalgia, he recovers the memory perfectly: the shortsighted 100-year-old parrot who shouted anti-Spanish slogans at dinner and sang songs from the War of Independence; the clairvoyant sister who warned him not to wear the dead senator's overcoat his mother had just made over to fit him (she had seen the ghost of the senator wandering through the house wearing it). Only incredulity and "realistic cowardice," Garcia Marquez concludes, prevent people from understanding that the fantastic is a dimension of the real.

After informing us of this important discovery, he begins the narrative of his childhood in Aracataca, a lawless frontier town full of adventurers from all over the world -- Italians, Syrians, Turks, Irishmen, Frenchmen, Germans seeking their fortunes in the banana industry. It was a violent and bloody town. In 1927, the year he was born, government soldiers killed more than 100 workers on strike against the American owned United Fruit Company, an incident that became known infamously as the banana massacre.

At the age of 11, he left Aracataca to join his family in Barranquilla, a river port on the Caribbean coast and soon learned that the stranger who was his mother was a remarkable woman whose fortitude in the face of her husband's fatal impracticality had kept the family alive. In their exhausting poverty "she had the character of a lioness, silent but fierce when faced with adversity, and a relationship with God that seemed more combative than submissive." Though he makes little of his recurring childhood nightmares, or of his almost pathological shyness, and would certainly not ascribe these symptoms to parental abandonment, he does let slip a poignant scene in which he meets his mother for the second time: "I knew that my duty was to love her but I felt that I did not."

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Somehow money was found to send the young Gabito to study at the Liceo Nacional in Bogotá where the regimental rigour of the Jesuitical training was impressive. At 15, he was consuming the case studies of Freud and the meditations of John of the Cross, while the teacher on night duty in the dormitory read the boys novels like Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. After graduating from the Liceo, he went on to university to study law, which he soon abandoned, much to his parents' consternation, as they were counting on him to redeem the family's fortunes. By 21, he was writing a daily column for the Cartagena newspaper, El Universal.

His account of literary life in Colombia is fascinating. "It is difficult to imagine the degree to which people lived then in the shadow of poetry," he writes. "It was a frenzied passion, another way of being." Young writers lived a cosmopolitan café life, meeting to discuss the latest books that came by boat from Buenos Aires, where, after 1945, publishers had begun translating, printing and mass-distributing new books from all over the world.

It's a surprise to learn that Garcia Marquez was mesmerized by Virginia Woolf. He loved the ravings of her heartbreaking character, the shell-shocked Septimus Smith (in Mrs. Dalloway), to the point where he used the pseudonym Septimus for one of his newspaper columns. He claims that the novelists who stimulated him most in writing his first novel, Leaf Storm, were American, particularly Faulkner, because of the affinities he found between the cultures of the Deep South and the Caribbean. (He would later write One Hundred Years of Solitude while in exile in Mexico, listening to Debussy's Preludes and the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night.) He eked out a living from his typewriter, and it took remarkable stamina since he claims he did not receive decent royalties from his fiction until he was in his forties.

The backdrop of the memoir is the tragic history of modern Colombia, and Garcia Marquez uses his great narrative gifts to recount it. In 1948, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, the reformist politician who attempted to expose the repressive brutality of the conservative oligarchy, was assassinated. Riots erupted. Garcia Marquez describes fleeing Bogota "splashing through a swamp of blood and mud, with promontories of unclaimed corpses abandoned among smoking ruins." This was a watershed for the young writer and for his country. He writes: "The dead in the streets of Bogota and the deaths caused by official repression in the years that followed must have amounted to more than a million, not to mention the wretched poverty and exile of so many others."

However much we might think of Garcia Marquez as a fantasist or magic realist, like many of the great Latin American novelists he received his writer's apprenticeship in the realistic school of investigative journalism. He recounts a trip by helicopter he made in 1955 into the jungle to investigate the civil war erupting between the military and the insurgents. He had to run to his hotel in a zigzag to avoid being shot at. The story he was pursuing was about the abduction of more than 300 boys under the age of five. The military was attempting to exterminate the opposition.

Volume one ends when the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador sends him to Europe on an assignment that is supposed to last two weeks; he will stay three years. From the taxi on his way to the airport he sees Mercedes Barcha, the woman to whom he proposed after dancing with her twice: "She is slim and distant, like a statue seated in the doorway . . . with the intense stillness of someone waiting for a person who will not arrive." He will arrive, eventually, and she will become his wife, but like all good storytellers, he leaves us hanging.

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The beauty of this book is, of course, the writing, admirably rendered by the award-winning translator Edith Grossman. Garcia Marquez has promised two more volumes of memoirs. If they match this one, they will record not only the life of a great artist, but the modern history of the country that nurtured him and also broke his heart.

Rosemary Sullivan's most recent foray into Latin America was her book Cuba: Grace Under Pressure, with photographer Malcolm David Batty.

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