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You Can Go Home Again

Living to Tell the Tale

by Gabriel García Márquez,translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Knopf, 484 pp., $26.95

1.

Last year, at the age of seventy-five, Gabriel García Márquez published in Barcelona Vivir para contarla; now it is brought into English as Living to Tell the Tale, in a beautiful translation by Edith Grossman, the first of three projected volumes of memoir. It was thirty-five years earlier, in early June 1967, that Editorial Sudamericana launched a novel by the then unknown Colombian writer, called Cien Años de Soledad. They were sufficiently impressed by the novel to risk a first printing of eight thousand copies. A week or so later, they were reprinting, and I imagine they are still.

For García Márquez, who was then forty, life changed precipitously. Since the age of twenty-two, he had scratched out a threadbare living as a reporter for various Colombian newspapers, and had written four short works which, although much admired by his friends, neither rewarded nor satisfied him. He was then living in Mexico, writing film scripts, when, in an intense surge, he wrote the book that had been lying out of reach in his mind for years. The book spread, first as a rumor, then in its written form, throughout the countries of Latin America, the length and breadth of the Spanish language. Nor did readers in other languages have long to wait, for translations followed almost obligatorily, after the book was ubiquitously named Best Foreign Novel in the countries it arrived in, apparently unscathed. The huge success of the book freed García Márquez to give his whole time to writing, and he has not disappointed the enormous readership he won over with One Hundred Years of Solitude. Since then, he has published a book about every four years, a progress that was punctuated but not interrupted by the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

García Márquez’s fame had many reverberations, in Latin America in particular. Although the Latin American countries could each come up with native writers of distinction, few of them in the twentieth century, except for Pablo Neruda, came close to becoming a “Latin American” writer who reached across these unforgiving boundaries. With the beginning of the 1960s, however, a clutch of novels from Latin America began to attract attention well beyond their origins, beginning with Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Ciudad y los Perros (The Time of the Hero), which in 1962 came in for rapturous attention in Franco’s Spain. In its wake, the Cubans Alejo Carpentier and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the Mexicans Carlos Fuentes and Juan Rulfo, the Argentine Julio Cortázar, and the Chilean José Donoso all published novels that showed remarkable literary sophistication and seemed bent on exploring and unveiling a vast Latin American reality that had not so far seen the light.

In 1961, after Jorge Luis Borges, with Beckett, won the International Editor’s Prize, which provided that his work appear all at once in half a dozen languages, his influence spread like a virus. So when One Hundred Years of Solitude appeared in 1967, it was read as the confirmation of what was already referred to as the Boom. More than that, it became to Latin Americans the one book that seemed to encapsulate their history and their myths in its account of a single family to which many of his readers felt they could easily belong. In no time it was declared a classic, the book that might be to Latin Americans what Don Quixote has always been to Spaniards.

Another huge consequence of the emergence of so many writers at once was to bring into being a whole new reading public in Latin America. The Boom, too, must have launched innumerable academic departments of Latin American studies, for these works were subjected to the scrutiny of an extensive academic industry. One Hundred Years of Solitude has by now generated a Great Wall of multi-lingual theses and commentaries. Its first critical notices abound in superlatives, some of them apparently written in a state of literary shock. With time, however, detailed studies of the book multiplied and inevitably turned to the writer himself, to unravel the provenance of this work that seemed to have sprung whole from its author’s head.

As a new celebrity, García Márquez was much in demand. To escape the pesterings of the press, he exiled himself to Barcelona in 1968 with his family so he could continue writing. Interviewed at length by his friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza he made two extraordinary statements, which he often repeated: “Everything I have written I knew or I had heard of before I was eight years old,” the second, no less surprising: “There is not a single line in my novels that is not based on reality.” Given the extravagance of happenings described in the novel, these claims might have at first seemed an irony. They were not.

They did seem so, however, to many enthusiastic readers of his masterwork; and it was not long before the remarkable prose of One Hundred Years of Solitude was being referred to as “magic realism,” a style that accommodated ordinary events and supernatural happenings in the same narrative tone, intruding magical events into lived reality. The source of the term can be found in Alejo Carpentier’s introduction to his novel, El Reino de Este Mundo (The Kingdom of This World), written in Haiti in 1949:

[In Haiti] I was discovering, with every step, the marvelous in the real. But it occurred to me furthermore that the energetic presence of the marvelous in the real was not a privilege peculiar to Haiti, but the heritage of all [Latin] America, which, for example, has not finished fixing the inventory of its cosmogonies. The marvelous in the real is there to find at any moment in the lives of the men who engraved dates on the history of the continent, and left behind names which are still celebrated…. The fact is that, in the virginity of its landscape, in its coming together, in its ontology, in the Faustian presence of Indian and Negro, in the sense of revelation arising from its recent discovery, in the fertile mixtures of race which it engendered, [Latin] America is very far from having used up its abundance of mythologies…. For what is the story of [Latin] America if not the chronicle of the marvelous in the real?

Carpentier was Cuban. García Márquez is a costeño, from the banana-growing Caribbean region of Colombia. In a study written by Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, El Olor de la Guyaba (The Fragrance of the Guava), he had this to say of his origins:

The Caribbean taught me to look at reality in a different way, to accept the supernatural as part of our everyday life. The Caribbean is a distinctive world whose first work of magical literature was The Diary of Christopher Columbus, a book which tells of fabulous plants and mythological societies. The history of the Caribbean is full of magic—a magic brought by black slaves from Africa but also by Swedish, Dutch and English pirates who thought nothing of setting up an Opera House in New Orleans or filling women’s teeth with diamonds. Nowhere in the world do you find the racial mixture and the contrasts which you find in the Caribbean. I know all its islands: their honey-colored mulattas with green eyes and golden handkerchiefs round their heads: their half-caste Indo-Chinese who do laundry and sell amulets; their green-skinned Asians who leave their ivory stalls to shit in the middle of the street; on one hand their scorched, dusty towns with houses which collapse in cyclones and on the other skyscrapers of smoked glass and an ocean of seven colours. Well, if I start talking about the Caribbean there’s no stopping me. Not only is it the world which taught me to write, it’s the only place where I really feel at home.

As these two statements clearly reveal, supernatural or “magic” occurrences were an integral part of that reality. The term “magic realism,” however, quickly became a handy tool in the critical canon, with García Márquez cited as its principal exponent, and One Hundred Years of Solitude its basic text. The term, unfortunately, implies a separation of the two dimensions, the magical and the real, a separation that both Carpentier and García Márquez are careful not to make. More than that, as Juan Goytisolo has pointed out, it perpetuates the view of Latin America as a continent on the leafy fringe of the civilized world, exotic, unpredictable, and ruled as much by superstition as by reason. The view was indeed given a powerful start by Columbus’s fanciful diaries, and has obstinately prevailed. It has also derailed some of the writing on García Márquez by critics who read the book more as a creation of the literary imagination than as a version of an earlier lived existence, as though “magic realism” were simply a detachable writing style.

García Márquez introduces his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, as follows: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” He must have written that with some feeling, for it precisely describes the experience of his first forty years. After he was born in Aracataca in 1927, his parents, by arrangement, left him in the house and care of his maternal grandparents, who remain, he has often said, “the dominant influences on my life.” His grandfather had fought on the liberal side in the War of a Thousand Days, the civil war in Colombia between 1899 and 1903, a source of endless stories passed on to his grandson, while his grandmother would fill his bedtimes with the voices and stories of dead relatives, and with the omens she saw everywhere:

…She saw that the rocking chairs rocked alone, that the phantom of puerperal fever was lurking in the bedrooms of women in labor, that the scent of jasmines from the garden was like an invisible ghost, that a cord dropped by accident on the floor had the shape of the numbers that might be the grand prize in the lottery, that a bird without eyes had wandered into the dining room and could be chased away by singing La Magnífica. She believed she could decipher with secret keys the identity of the protagonists and places in the songs that reached her from the Province. She imagined misfortunes that happened sooner or later, she foresaw who was going to come from Riohacha in a white hat, or from Manaure with a colic that could be cured only with the bile of a turkey buzzard, for in addition to being a prophet by trade she was a furtive witch doctor.

Besides being a refuge for eccentric aunts, the grandparents’ house was a way station for travelers, where stories were the main currency. The prosperous years of the “banana fever” were at an end by then, and Aracataca had fallen into economic decline. Nevertheless, it was to García Márquez a total world that not only entered his unjudging mind through the stories he heard and through the web of domestic happenings he witnessed. It was a world that he took in whole, and that remained in a bubble in his memory, until it began to ask for words. It is at this point that the memoir begins, and García Márquez introduces himself. His mother has sought him out as he is sitting in a café in Barranquilla in the company of his three inseparable literary friends and, before they have even embraced, she says:

“I’ve come to ask you to please go with me to sell the house.”

She did not have to tell me which one, or where, because for us only one existed in the world: my grandparents’ old house in Aracataca, where I’d had the good fortune to be born, and where I had not lived again after the age of eight. I had just dropped out of the faculty of law after six semesters devoted almost entirely to reading whatever I could get my hands on, and reciting from memory the unrepeatable poetry of the Spanish Golden Age. I already had read, in translation, and in borrowed editions, all the books I would have needed to learn the novelist’s craft, and had published six stories in newspaper supplements, winning the enthusiasm of my friends and the attention of a few critics. The following month I would turn twenty-three, I had passed the age of military service and was a veteran of two bouts of gonorrhea, and every day I smoked, with no foreboding, sixty cigarettes made from the most barbaric tobacco. I divided my leisure between Barranquilla and Cartagena de Indias, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, living like a king on what I was paid for my daily commentaries in the newspaper El Heraldo, which amounted to almost less than nothing, and sleeping in the best company possible wherever I happened to be at night. As if the uncertainty of my aspirations and the chaos of my life were not enough, a group of inseparable friends and I were preparing to publish without funds a bold magazine that Alfonso Fuenmayor had been planning for the past three years. What more could anyone desire?

So the memoir takes us on that slow return across the swamp to Aracataca, by launch, and then by somnolent train, to Márquez’s lost beginnings. In the course of the journey, he has to assuage his mother’s distress over his recent decision to leave his law studies to become a writer, a decision that was on the point of becoming something of an obsession:

Neither my mother nor I, of course, could even have imagined that this simple two-day trip would be so decisive that the longest and most diligent of lives would not be enough for me to finish recounting it. Now, with more than seventy-five years behind me, I know it was the most important of all the decisions I had to make in my career as a writer. That is to say: in my entire life.

Back in Barranquilla, he hurries to the office of El Heraldo and “almost without breathing I began the new novel with my mother’s sentence: ‘I’ve come to ask you to please go with me to sell the house.’” The return to the house in Aracataca, now run-down, desolate, revealed to him that his vivid beginnings were now lost forever, that he must somehow find a way to keep them alive by writing them down. As he says:

The model for an epic poem like the one I dreamed about could not be anything but my own family, which was never a protagonist or even a victim of anything, but only a pointless witness and a victim of everything. I began to write it at the very moment I returned, because an elaboration by artificial means was no longer of any use to me, only the emotional weight I had carried without knowing it and that was waiting for me intact in my grandparents’ house. With the first step I took onto the burning sands of the town, I had realized that my method was not the happiest for recounting that earthly paradise of desolation and nostalgia, though I devoted a good deal of time and effort to finding the correct one.

For the next sixteen years, he carried the book whole and entire in his head, writing for newspapers to survive, and always searching for a manner of telling, a way of writing the story he already knew by heart. To Miguel Fernández-Braso in an interview published in Barcelona in 1969, he had this to say:

I had to live twenty years and write four books of apprenticeship to discover that the solution lay at the very root of the problem: I had to tell the story, simply, as my grandparents told it, in an imperturbable tone, with a serenity in the face of evidence which did not change even though the world was falling in on them, and without doubting at any moment what I was telling, even the most frivolous or the most truculent, as though these old people had realized that in literature nothing is more convincing than conviction itself.

Although Borges led a literary life far removed from García Márquez’s penurious beginnings, his presence is nevertheless close to the younger writer in many oblique ways. Borges makes those who read him intensely aware of the vast gulf between lived existence and language. His favorite quotation is from an essay of Chesterton on the painter G.F. Watts:

[Man] knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest…. Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.

Borges referred to anything put into words as a “fiction.” We are all fiction makers, he reminds us, from the fictions we cobble together to explain our days to the larger fictions we assemble to make sense of our lives. It is a view that García Márquez echoes in all his writing, and in his initial observation about memory as “what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

2.

Living to Tell the Tale is an exercise in remembering, but without the tensions and contrivances of the novel. The first three chapters tell of his return to the personal Eden of his childhood, brought back in spellbound detail. It is less actively remembered than unforgotten, for the details seem to have remained intact in his head. Only when he rejoins his family do harsher realities set in. From then on, remembering requires a more deliberate effort. There is a loving account of his parents’ turbulent courtship, and their worry about his determination to be a writer, a vocation that seemed to them beyond the compass of their lived world. Of his parents, he writes, “They were both excellent storytellers and had a joyful recollection of their love, but they became so impassioned in their accounts that when I was past fifty and had decided to use their story in Love in the Time of Cholera, I could not distinguish between life and poetry.”

In the memoir he is not so much submitting the past to the reflections of later years as recalling it as a series of lived moments. The dramas of family confrontations and of enlightening friendships are fixed in place by the anecdotes that crop up like nuggets throughout. He says of his grandparents’ house:

Everything that happened to me in the street had an enormous resonance in the house. The women in the kitchen would tell the stories to the strangers arriving on the train, who in turn brought other stories to be told, and all of it was incorporated into the torrent of oral tradition….

Among the revelations that García Márquez passes on to his readers, one is particularly telling. After his first astonished reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he writes:

These were mysterious books whose dangerous precipices were not only different from but often contrary to everything I had known until then. 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.

For readers familiar with García Márquez’s novels, one of the pleasures of the memoir will be in discovering how many small domestic details in this telling foreshadow their ultimate appearance in fictional form. He recalls his mother “sniffing every article of Papá’s clothing before tossing [it] in the laundry basket”—as Fernanda Daza does in Love in the Time of Cholera. Exploring the house in Aracataca, he writes in his memoir:

The last room was a repository for old furniture and trunks that sparked my curiosity for years but which I was never allowed to explore. Later I learned that also stored there were the seventy chamber pots my grandparents bought when my mother invited her classmates to spend their vacations in the house.

He writes about this incident at greater length in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Similarly, recalling the inhabitants in his grandparents’ house, he singles one out:

Lorenzo el Magnífico, the hundred-year-old parrot inherited from my great-grandparents, who would shout anti-Spanish slogans and sing songs from the War for Independence. He was so shortsighted that he had fallen into a pot of stew and was saved by a miracle because the water had only just begun to heat.

The parrot will also assume an even more spectacular place in Love in the Time of Cholera.

García Márquez is among the most domestic of writers. It is in household rituals that his characters reveal themselves, in family crises that global ca-lamities unfold. His family had spread like a web, and, in the narrative of the passing days, some cousin is likely to appear, some forgotten uncle, some stray soul, each one of them a separate story, a different twist in the thread. Yet García Márquez’s reality, while contemporaneous with our own, is a vastly different one, less magical than real. Here are two examples. The first introduces García Márquez’s mother:

My mother…was sickly. She had spent an uncertain childhood plagued by tertian fevers, but when she was treated for the last one the cure was complete and forever, and her health allowed her to celebrate her ninety-seventh birthday with eleven of her children and four more of her husband’s, sixty-five grandchildren, eighty-eight great-grandchildren, and fourteen great-great-grandchildren. Not counting those no one ever knew about. She died of natural causes on June 9, 2002, at eight-thirty in the evening, when we were already preparing to celebrate her first century of life, and on the same day and almost at the same hour that I put the final period to these memoirs.

And later he recalls his grandmother, Mina, in Aracataca:

It was difficult to believe that my grandmother Mina…was the economic support of the house when resources began to fail…. When there was nothing left, Mina continued to support the family in her spirited way with the bakery, the little candy animals that were sold all over town, the spotted hens, the duck eggs, the vegetables from the backyard. She made a radical reduction in the number of servants and kept the most useful ones. Money as cash came to an end because it had no meaning in the oral tradition of the house. So that when they had to buy a piano for my mother when she returned from school, Aunt Pa made an exact calculation in domestic currency: “A piano costs five hundred eggs.”

This is not a reality that North Americans have lived, except in literature; but it is still the reality, throughout Latin America, of the inhabitants of its small isolated settlements for whom existence does not come furnished with explanations, as ours does, but which has to be understood and dealt with by the imagination. It is a world where making sense is a daily effort. Colombian history has little to do with our own, but has been, immemorially, one of a latent civil war, erupting at horrifying intervals. In Living to Tell the Tale García Márquez writes about being in Bogotá at the outbreak of La Violencia in 1948:

My brother and I went outside after three days of confinement. It was a horrific sight. The city was in ruins, cloudy and dark because of the constant rain that had dampened the fires but delayed recovery. Many streets in the center were closed because of nests of snipers on the roofs, and you had to make senseless detours by order of patrols armed as if for a world war. The stink of death in the streets was unbearable. The army trucks had not yet picked up the promontories of bodies on the sidewalks, and the soldiers had to confront groups of people desperate to identify their relatives.

Colombia is a country fiercely devoted to poetry; and throughout his school days, García Márquez learned vast amounts of poetry by heart, almost as a defensive weapon. The phrasings of poetry stayed in his head when he arrived at the prose style he looked for so long. The style he achieved with One Hundred Years of Solitude was formidably his own, running on relentlessly, imperturbably, unjudgingly, like time passing, his sentences unrolling almost as self-contained stories, sharp and precise in detail, ending in an emphatic finality. His reportorial eye has always served him well; and what the memoir reveals most of all is how truly important the journey he took back to Aracataca with his mother was for him. Fourteen years after he had left it, he saw the place that had been his entire world in both a forward and a backward view at once. So freed from time, he could become the all-seeing narrator.

When I lived in the Caribbean, my neighbors were fishermen and subsistence farmers, most of them analfabetos, “without letters,” as they said. They were, nevertheless, extremely eloquent, although, for lack of any written history, their sense of time was vague, dates meaningless. The events of the past, however, both the highlights and the bad moments, were preserved in the form of well-polished anecdotes, which would occasionally vary in the telling. News came by way of what we all called radio bemba (lip radio), word of mouth. Fears that the outside world might disrupt their lives were tamed, at least for a while, by fictions that often showed the remarkable ingenuity of the imagination. García Márquez has always been aware of the force of the anecdotal world he grew up in and he has raised it to a high literary plane. In his memoirs the accumulated anecdotes of a lifetime find their way back into circulation, since the point of anecdotes is to give the unknown a human form. That early realization—that there was a way to keep his astonishments alive through the telling—has been behind everything that García Márquez has written, as it is in Living to Tell the Tale.

Significantly, Knopf has published Living to Tell the Tale/Vivir para contarla in twin Spanish and English editions, companion volumes—a sensible nod to our increasingly bilingual city.

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