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Looking for the Patriarch

When Gabriel García Márquez finished writing One Hundred Years of Solitude in August 1966, he was almost forty, the father of two young boys, and so broke that he didn’t have enough money to send the manuscript from Mexico City to his prospective publisher in Buenos Aires. The anecdote is famous, one of many that have contributed to García Márquez’s carefully molded public image as a literary populist and everyman genius. In his admiring biography of the writer, Gerald Martin reports:

The package contained 490 typed pages. The counter official said: “Eighty-two pesos.” García Márquez watched as [his wife] Mercedes searched in her purse for the money. They only had fifty and could only send about half of the book: García Márquez made the man behind the counter take sheets off like slices of bacon until the fifty pesos were enough. They went home, pawned the heater, hairdryer and liquidizer, went back to the post office and sent the second tranche.

In a year’s time the novel’s success would engulf García Márquez in what he would later call “the frenzy of renown”—for a writer of comparable international celebrity one would have to go back to Hemingway. During the preceeding decades, his life is a portrait of the desperate, diasporic existence that seemed to be the lot of Latin American writers of the twentieth century. Prior to One Hundred Years of Solitude, he had published three novellas in tiny, almost clandestine editions. They were influenced more by the neorealist films of Vittorio De Sica than by any literary model, and were familiar only to a small group of Spanish-American cognoscenti. It didn’t seem reasonable to expect more. In 1943, the year García Márquez entered secondary school, on scholarship, six hundred students graduated from high school in all of Colombia.

García Márquez’s career as a journalist gave him the opportunity to slip away to Europe in 1955. This was during the most intense period of a twenty-year-long conservative crackdown in Colombia known as La Violencia.1 To escape was a personal necessity, not a political one. Always cautious, García Márquez never explicitly challenged the government in his reporting, and it is doubtful that he left the country to avoid being a target of the paramilitary squads as some of his admirers have claimed.

Shortly after he arrived in Paris, the Bogotá newspaper he was working for, El Espectador, was shut down by the government. He stayed in Paris for eighteen months, living with a Spanish actress who was as destitute as he was. Martin writes:

He collected empty bottles and old newspapers and received centimes in return at local stores…. One day he had to beg a fare in the metro…and was humiliated by the reaction of the Frenchman who gave him the money.

Later, he told Martin that he could have found work with another paper, but decided not to. Unlike most Latin American writers of his generation, he had not come to Paris to “get culture” but to learn about himself, to attend “to my emotions, my inner world.” His experience there, and elsewhere in Europe, seemed to reinforce his persistent sense of himself as a costeño—a Colombian of the Caribbean, “half Indian and half gypsy” as a friend described his looks, with the costeño‘s quality of mamagallismo, ready to deal with the world by taking a piss.

Today, he is the emblematic writer of the so-called Latin American literary boom of the 1960s, whose members regarded themselves as representatives of a borderless, Bolivarian sensibility.2 But García Márquez lacked the continental nationalism of his contemporaries. Martin tells us that as a young man he saw other Latin Americans “as distant cousins rather than as brothers.” He was content with his regional costeño culture and the material it had given him, which was more than enough to feed his fiction for the rest of his life.

It wasn’t until 1961, when he was in his mid-thirties and living in Mexico City, that he became aware of the existence of a coherent Latin American literature of which he could become a part. His deeper affinity had been with North American writers whom he read in translation: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and especially Faulkner, who gave him the idea that one could depict illiterate backcountry characters in mythic terms. Such an affinity was unthinkable, if not blasphemous, to most Latin American intellectuals, who saw the United States as an irreconcilable enemy, and looked to Europe—and especially France—for artistic direction. As a young man, García Márquez seemed unaware of this attitude. Culturally, Colombia lagged behind the rest of the continent, and it was his peculiar good luck that the country did not produce an important novelist before him. The territory was wide open, and the unique prerogative of that brief period was to be able to write with the illusion of naming things for the first time.

His own story is that the rhythm and content of One Hundred Years of Solitude came upon him “from nowhere,” that he was, in effect, anointed with the novel and, writing it, he acted as nothing more than a “poor notary” taking dictation. Certainly it was unlike anything he had written before. The novel’s fictitious town, Macondo, has become the exemplary Spanish-American backwater—an isolated, half-lawless place whose inhabitants are living in their own Middle Ages, superstitious, powerless, and with a brimming imaginative vitality that is of little practical use to them.

It is difficult to remember the astonishment the novel inspired when it first appeared forty-two years ago. Rereading it today, one is struck by the author’s daring creation of a world from scratch (it is, in part, a rewriting of the book of Genesis) and the amount of sheer inventiveness heaped onto almost every page. One admires its unassailably monolithic tone, its circus-act enchantments, and its terse aphoristic dialogue, interchangeable from one character to the next. But few writers I can think of have been more poorly served by their imitators than García Márquez. Innumerable knock-offs by lesser novelists have highlighted the weakest aspects of his technique—the flying carpets, the sudden ascents to heaven, the facile folkloric clairvoyance—threatening to obscure its complexity and turning magic realism into a mannerism rather than the urgent means of expression that it originally was.

Martin helpfully defines magic realism as a story in which

the world is as the characters believe it to be…without any indication from the author that this world-view is quaint, folkloric or superstitious.

García Márquez popularized the style, but he was not its inventor, and One Hundred Years of Solitude would not have been possible without his hav- ing studied, at Carlos Fuentes’s urging, the works of an older generation of Spanish-American writers who were magic realism’s pioneers, among them Alejo Carpentier and Miguel Asturias.3 It is remarkable that so little influence on his writing is credited to his Latin American precursors. This is partly because García Márquez himself has been reluctant to give them their due. At times he seems to enjoy casting himself as the magician who created a new Spanish-American literature out of thin air.

An intriguing aspect of Martin’s biography is the extent to which he demonstrates how closely the events of One Hundred Years of Solitude mirror those of García Márquez’s childhood, though in the novel they are refracted through a trick lens of deadpan exaggeration. Intent on following her itinerant husband, García Márquez’s mother left him to be brought up by his grandparents in the sweltering boom-and-bust town of Aracataca—the model for Macondo. It was during the 1930s, just as a fifteen-year-long economic expansion brought on by the United Fruit Company’s banana-growing enterprise in the region was beginning to fizzle as a result of the Great Depression and the massacre by the Colombian army of more than a thousand striking banana workers in 1928. It was a town, Martin writes, where

Almost every man carried a machete and there were plenty of guns. One of [García Márquez’s] earliest memories was of playing in the outer patio when a woman walked past the house with her husband’s head in a cloth and the decapitated body carried behind. He remembers being disappointed that the body was covered in rags.

The towering figure in his life was his grandfather, Nicolás Márquez, a colonel on the losing side of the civil war that ended, in 1902, with the Liberals’ surrender. He was imbued with the glamour of a noble defeat on behalf of a party that was spared the chance to govern and fail. To his grandson he was a kind of totem of bravery, virility, and power—an upstanding costeño family man whose brood of mistresses and illegitimate children was integral to his social prestige. He slept with a gun under his pillow, though he stopped wearing one on the street after murdering the son of one of his lovers. Someone had boasted publicly about his relationship with her, and the son was duty-bound to defend the family name.

Although the victim was unarmed, García Márquez has idealized the killing as a duel of honor. In 1967, he tried to explain the murder to Mario Vargas Llosa:

[My grandfather] had to kill a man when he was very young. He lived in a town and it seems there was someone who was always bothering him and challenging him, but he took no notice until the situation became so difficult that he simply put a bullet in him. It seems that the town was so much in agreement with what he did that one of the dead man’s brothers slept that night in front of the door to the house, in front of my grandfather’s room, so that the dead man’s family would not come to avenge him. So my grandfather, who could no longer bear the threat that existed against him in that town, went elsewhere; that is to say, he didn’t just go to another town; he went far away with his family and founded a new town.

Tentative, overblown, the account is clothed in a protective, apocryphal armor similar to the one García Márquez would use to clothe his own life. The claim that his grandfather was “very young” is untrue—the victim was very young; Nicolás Márquez was in his forties. The picture of the dead man’s brother watching over the murderer’s door also seems to be an invention, as does the sympathy of the town (Nicolás was in danger of being lynched) and the founding of a new town.

When he was ten, shortly before his grandfather died, García Márquez went to live with his parents. In Martin’s account, the shift has the quality of a folk tale where the biological father becomes the evil stepfather presiding over a horde of children, both legitimate and illegitimate, whom the protagonist—García Márquez—barely knows. The mother, an aging kidnapped princess, has been ground down by her burdens. During certain periods the family’s poverty was severe. The father regarded García Márquez’s verbal inventiveness as the character trait of an incorrigible liar. The antagonism between them was so intense that at one point the father—a self-styled homeopathic healer—declared García Márquez to be schizophrenic and wanted to perform a kind of lobotomy on his skull “at the place where his consciousness and memory were situated.” His mother’s protests prevented her husband from carrying out the threat.

García Márquez’s childhood dependence on his grandfather’s omnipotent wisdom seems to have shaped a need for similar relations in his adult life—or so it is tempting to conclude when contemplating his weakness for men in positions of absolute power. The “intuition of power, the mystery of power,” he called it. It is the subject of his most penetrating fiction. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, supreme military leader of an interminable Liberal campaign for control of Colombia, becomes so convinced of the danger his special status has put him in that he prohibits anyone from coming closer than ten feet to him, including his mother. The illiterate tyrant at the center of The Autumn of the Patriarch wanders through his palace with the “slow feet of a meditative beast.” He has risen from poverty and knows exactly how to terrify the poor. What captures the reader is not the showmanship of his cruelty but his unsettling glimmers of tenderness that are as indecipherable to him as a foreign language. Friendship is uncertain, love impossible, paranoia the only reliable emotion.

García Márquez’s success as a novelist allowed him to achieve close friendships with living versions of the Caribbean dictators he wrote about—most notably Omar Torrijos of Panama and Fidel Castro. More than any of his contemporaries, he wrote from inside the psyche of el pueblo—“the people”—at a time when the Latin American pueblo was discussed among US policymakers with as much anxiety as the Arab “street” is discussed today. His opinions were a kind of commodity, and he was under constant pressure to come up with a coherent political position. But political coherence didn’t come naturally to him. He was a pragmatist, interested in the stratagems of power rather than the moral questions arising from its abuse that are normally the writer’s area of concern. He appeared to value his proximity to the powerful for its own sake, and in his relationship to Castro, in particular, he often seemed childlike and eager to please.

In 1961, fifteen years before he became friends with Castro, he was in New York as a correspondent for Prensa Latina, the Latin American newswire service that had recently been created with financial support from Havana. According to Martin, the job promised him the opportunity “to do exactly the kind of work he wanted, with no censorship and no compromises—or so he thought.” After five months he resigned, under pressure from pro-Soviet Communist Party members intent on steering the Cuban revolution away from its improvised Caribbean style. García Márquez never joined the Communist Party, and at the time was broadly viewed by orthodox Communists as just another member of a floating group of softheaded Latin American progressives unwilling to make real sacrifices for the cause.

It was the same schism of the left that had been repeating itself in other parts of the world since 1917. There is no doubt that he was aware of this pattern, and the purge at Prensa Latina could not have come as a complete surprise. He had traveled in Eastern Europe as a journalist in 1957, and had seen the rank and file of international socialism, looking, in his words, “defeated and embittered…like humiliated beggars.” In Hungary, ten months after the Soviet suppression of the 1956 uprising, he was shocked by the cynicism of the people he met on the street.

Yet after being granted a private audience with General Secretary János Kádár, he wrote a favorable piece in which he explained that Kádár “had to renounce his convictions in order to move forward.” After Kádár presided over the execution of his predecessor, Imre Nagy, García Márquez continued to make excuses for him in print, criticizing the killing mainly for being “an act of political stupidity.”

Martin, who is thorough (and mostly forgiving) in his account of García Márquez’s political embroilments, comments:

It should perhaps not surprise us that the man who…at this time clearly believes that there are “right” and “wrong” men for particular situations, and who quite cold-bloodedly puts politics before morality, should eventually support an “irreplaceable” leader like Fidel Castro through thick and thin.

His determination to carve out a place for himself in Castro’s personal orbit, after being shunted aside by Prensa Latina, seems driven by something less explicable than political sympathy. In 1968, the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, who had satirized Castro in some of his poems, was awarded a Cuban literary prize against Castro’s wishes. The international jury was urged to change its mind but refused to do so, and a crisis broke out over free speech that split Latin American intellectuals and severely damaged Cuba’s image in the world. García Márquez defended Castro, angrily telling one of the jurors that “politics always came first. It didn’t matter if they hanged all us writers.” When Padilla was arrested three years later, the crisis intensified, and García Márquez’s refusal to take sides alienated him from most of his contemporaries. Out of fear of angering Castro, he would not make an unequivocal statement against the persecution of writers and intellectuals. If there were Stalinist elements in Cuba, he said, Castro would be the first “to root them out.”

In the mid-1970s, he made a concerted effort to seduce Castro with the weight of his literary prestige, offering to write about Cuba’s military expedition in Angola.4 He waited for a month in Havana’s Hotel Nacional until Castro would see him, and published his article only after Castro and his foreign secretary approved the text. According to Martin, during the course of their friendship he was able to influence Castro into releasing at least one political prisoner. But from a practical point of view, the relationship was one-sided. In 1989, García Márquez appeared to reach a moral nadir when Castro ordered the execution of the general who had been the hero of the Angolan campaign, along with two of García Márquez’s friends. Living part-time in Cuba, García Márquez remained silent.

Gerald Martin is an enthusiastic biographer, too gushing at times, but scrupulous in his research. Nevertheless, one finishes his book with the feeling that crucial aspects of his subject are missing. Prior to One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez had a successful career writing slogans for the multinational advertising agencies Walter Thompson and McCann Erickson. Later, he proved to be adept at managing the growing brand of García Márquez.

Martin informs us that García Márquez destroyed most of the written traces of his private life “and even of his professional literary activity”—the opposite of the reclusive artist who leaves everything of himself in letters, like Samuel Beckett or V.S. Naipaul, the other great Caribbean writer of the twentieth century, who provided his biographer with the record of his private life, the more blemished the better. The publicity-minded manner in which García Márquez has conducted his life has somehow ensured that he would remain essentially unknown. Martin admits:

It has not been easy to find my way through the multiple versions that García Márquez has given of almost all the important moments in his life…. Even when you can be sure than any particular anecdote is based on something that “really” happened, you still cannot pin it down to a single shape because you find that he has told most of the well-known stories about his life in several different versions, all of which have at least an element of truth. I have personal experience of this mythomania, by which I too have become joyfully infected….

One of the enigmas Martin is unable to solve is García Márquez’s fifty-year marriage to Mercedes Barcha. The story is that he resolved to make her his wife after laying eyes on her when she was nine and he was fourteen—another pivotal incident that presents itself as belonging to the higher order of fate, refuting analysis. Mercedes vaguely corroborates the story, and Martin delicately, if a bit timidly, pursues the subject no further.

In worldliness, the gap between them was enormous. When they married in 1958, Mercedes had never left Colombia. She was a provincial costeña, like her husband had been. Presumably she would allow him a measure of sexual freedom, without overtly endorsing it, in return for the respectability he gave her. Martin points out the curious fact that García Márquez “doesn’t bother to express any feelings for Mercedes in [his] memoir” Living to Tell the Tale. He speculates that for García Márquez the marriage was “a practical strategic choice”—fulfilling a need to stay connected to the region and atmosphere of his childhood, the main source of his fiction.

The letters he wrote Mercedes during their courtship amounted to 650 pages—a biographer’s treasure. A few weeks after their marriage he persuaded her to destroy them, with the argument that “someone might get hold of them,” though he was still unknown. García Márquez’s privacy, of course, is his right; and even the most revealing biographies are made up of snapshots derived from the accidents of information that come the biographer’s way. Having no other choice, Martin enters gamely into the spirit of his subject’s self-constructed persona, confessing that he “has found it quite impossible to kill off the myth which García Márquez himself has disseminated, and evidently believes….”

For the reader, however, this leads to some disappointments. We learn much about the rivalry between Vargas Llosa and García Márquez, for instance, but get little palpable sense of what must have been a richly textured friendship for the short time it lasted (mutual friends described them as being as close as “brothers”). The friendship ended when Vargas Llosa knocked García Márquez semiconscious in the lobby of a crowded theater, ostensibly because of García Márquez’s relationship with Vargas Llosa’s wife. With characteristic hyperbole, Martin calls it “the most famous punch in the history of Latin America,” but offers no fresh insight into the rupture.

What he does convey, convincingly, is the enormous social distance García Márquez has traveled. He has become something of a one-person literary theme park. Just a few weeks ago his announcement that he was still writing at age eighty-three made international news; and in 2007, on the fortieth anniversary of the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, he returned to Aracataca by train, with thousands of people along the route calling out his pet name—“Gabo, Gabo”—as if he were one of his invented caudillos.

Yet he has lived with what Martin perceptively calls a “permanent note of aristocratic identification,” frequenting Latin American billionaires, lending them the credibility of his populist glow, while in turn receiving support for the foundation for writers he set up in Cartagena. Such connections reflect a jarring fact of Latin American cultural life, where writers such as García Márquez and Vargas Llosa have leapt from the lower classes straight to the upper echelons of power, with no social space in between.

In 1999, he eulogized Latin America’s twentieth century with a note of Bolivarian despair:

We ended up as a laboratory of failed illusions. Our main virtue is creativity, and yet we have not done much more than live off reheated doctrines and alien wars…. Let us get on quietly with our Middle Ages.

One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch are the fullest description we have of those Middle Ages. As for Colombia, García Márquez told Martin, “The country will always be the same. There has always been civil war…and there always will be. It’s a way of life there.”

In his foreword Martin writes that the current book is the abbreviated version of a much longer biography that he plans to publish in a few years. Perhaps a deeper portrait of the writer will emerge in this future book. One hopes that it will. In a way García Márquez’s extraordinary life is a record of Latin America’s twentieth-century war with itself.

  1. 1

    La Violencia lasted from the late 1940s to the 1960s and resulted in the deaths of 250,000 Colombians.

  2. 2

    Other boom novelists were the Argentine Julio Cortázar, the Mexican Carlos Fuentes, and the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa. Martin marks the start of the boom as 1963, the year Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch was published. It ended four years later with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

  3. 3

    The Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier coined the term— lo real maravilloso—in 1949 to describe what he thought of as his variation on French Surrealism. Miguel Angel Asturias’s phantasmagoric novel about a dictator, El Señor Presidente (1946), was the prototype for García Márquez’s TheAutumn of the Patriarch. In 1967, Asturias, a Guatemalan, became the first Latin American novelist to be awarded the Nobel Prize. García Márquez was awarded the prize in 1982.

  4. 4

    Immediately following Angola’s independence from Portugal, in 1975, Cuba sent thousands of troops to the country to fight on the side of the governing MPLA against the US-backed UNITA. Cuban troops remained in Angola for thirteen years and were a key factor in the MPLA’s victory.

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