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On Sale: May 05, 2009
Pages: 688 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27200-3
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In this exhaustive and enlightening biography—nearly two decades in the making—Gerald Martin dexterously traces the life and times of one of the twentieth century’s greatest literary titans, Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez.
Martin chronicles the particulars of an extraordinary life, from his upbringing in backwater Columbia and early journalism career, to the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude at age forty, and the wealth and fame that followed. Based on interviews with more than three hundred of Garcia Marquez’s closest friends, family members, fellow authors, and detractors—as well as the many hours Martin spent with ‘Gabo’ himself—the result is a revelation of both the writer and the man. It is as gripping as any of Gabriel García Márquez’s powerful journalism, as enthralling as any of his acclaimed and beloved fiction.



Of Colonels and Lost Causes


Five hundred years after Europeans stumbled across it, Latin America often seems a disappointment to its inhabitants. It is as if its destiny had been fixed by Columbus, “the great captain,” who discovered the new continent by mistake, misnamed it—“the Indies”—and then died embittered and disillusioned in the early sixteenth century; or by the “great liberator” Simón Bolívar, who put an end to Spanish colonial rule in the early nineteenth century but died dismayed at the newly emancipated region’s disunity and at the bitter thought that “he who makes a revolution ploughs the sea.” More recently the fate of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the twentieth century’s most romantic revolutionary icon, who died a martyr’s death in Bolivia in 1967, only confirmed the idea that Latin America, still the unknown continent, still the land of the future, is home to grandiose dreams and calamitous failures.

Long before the name of Guevara circled the planet, in a small Colombian town which history only briefly illuminated during the years when the Boston-based United Fruit Company chose to plant bananas there in the early twentieth century, a small boy would listen while his grandfather told tales of a war that lasted a thousand days, at the end of which he too had experienced the bitter solitude of the vanquished, tales of glorious deeds in days gone by, of ghostly heroes and villains, stories which taught the child that justice is not naturally built in to the fabric of life, that right does not always triumph in the kingdom of this world, and that ideals which fill the hearts and minds of many men and women may be defeated and even disappear from the face of the earth. Unless they endure in the memory of those who survive and live to tell the tale.

At the end of the nineteenth century, seventy years after achieving independence from Spain, the republic of Colombia had been a country of less than five million controlled by an elite of perhaps three thousand owners of large haciendas, most of whom were politicians and businessmen, and many also lawyers, writers or grammarians—which is why the capital, Bogotá, became known as the “Athens of South America.” The War of a Thousand Days was the last and most devastating of more than twenty national and local civil wars which had ravaged Colombia during the nineteenth century, fought between Liberals and Conservatives, centralists and federalists, bourgeoisie and landowners, the capital and the regions. In most other countries the nineteenth century gradually saw the Liberals or their equivalents winning the historical battle, whereas in Colombia the Conservatives were dominant until 1930 and, after a Liberal interlude from 1930 to 1946, took charge again until the mid-1950s and remain a powerful force to the present day. Certainly Colombia is the only country where, at the end of the twentieth century, the general elections were still being fought out between a traditional Liberal Party and a traditional Conservative Party, with no other parties gaining a lasting foothold. This has changed in the last ten years.

Although named the “War of a Thousand Days,” the conflict was really over almost before it began. The Conservative government had vastly superior resources and the Liberals were at the mercy of the eccentricities of their inspirational but incompetent leader Rafael Uribe Uribe. Nevertheless the war dragged on for almost three years, increasingly cruel, increasingly bitter and increasingly futile. From October 1900 neither side took prisoners: a “war to the death” was announced whose sombre implications Colombia is living with still. When it all ended in November 1902 the country was devastated and impoverished, the province of Panama about to be lost for ever and perhaps a hundred thousand Colombians had been slaughtered. Feuds and vendettas resulting from the way the conflict had been fought were to continue for many decades. This has made Colombia a curious country in which the two major parties have ostensibly been bitter enemies for almost two centuries yet have tacitly united to ensure that the people never receive genuine representation. No Latin American nation had fewer coups or dictatorships in the twentieth century than Colombia but the Colombian people have paid a staggeringly high price for this appearance of institutional stability.

The War of a Thousand Days was fought over the length and breadth of the country but the centre of gravity gradually shifted north to the Atlantic coastal regions. On the one hand the seat of government, Bogotá, was never seriously threatened by the Liberal rebels; and on the other hand, the Liberals inevitably retreated towards the coastal escape routes which their leaders frequently took in order to seek refuge in sympathetic neighbouring countries or the United States, where they would try to raise funds and buy weapons for the next round of hostilities. At this time the northern third of the country, known as la Costa (“the Coast”), whose inhabitants are called costeños (coast-dwellers), comprised two major departments: Bolívar to the west, whose capital was the port of Cartagena; and Magdalena to the east, whose capital was the port of Santa Marta, nestling beneath the mighty Sierra Nevada. The two major cities either side of the Sierra Nevada—Santa Marta to the west and Riohacha to the east—and all the towns in between as you rode around the sierra—Ciénaga, Aracataca, Valledupar, Villanueva, San Juan, Fonseca and Barrancas—changed hands many times during the war and provided the scenario for the exploits of Nicolás Márquez and his two eldest, illegitimate children, José María Valdeblánquez and Carlos Alberto Valdeblánquez.

Some time in the early 1890s Nicolás Márquez and Tranquilina Iguarán had moved with their two children Juan de Dios and Margarita to the small town of Barrancas in the Colombian Guajira and rented a house in the Calle del Totumo, a few paces from the square. The house still stands today. Señor Márquez set up as a jeweller, making and selling his own pieces—necklaces, rings, bracelets, chains and his speciality, little gold fish—and establishing, it seems, a profitable business which turned him into a respected member of the community. His apprentice and eventual partner was a younger man called Eugenio Ríos, almost an adopted son, with whom he had worked in Riohacha, having brought him from El Carmen de Bolívar. Ríos was the half-brother of Nicolás’s cousin Francisca Cimodosea Mejía, with whom Nicolás had grown up in El Carmen and whom he would later take with him to Aracataca. When the War of a Thousand Days began, after many years of Liberal frustration and bitterness, Nicolás Márquez was, at thirty- five, getting a bit old for adventure. Besides, he had established a comfortable, productive and agreeable life in Barrancas and was looking to build on his growing prosperity. Still, he joined the army of Uribe Uribe, fought in the Guajira, Padilla and Magdalena provinces and there is evidence that he fought harder and longer than many others. Certainly he was involved from the very start when, as a comandante, he was part of a Liberal army which occupied his native city of Riohacha, and he was still involved at the conclusion of the conflict in October 1902.

By the end of August 1902 the recently reinforced Liberal army, now under the command of Uribe Uribe, who had recently made one of his frequent unscheduled reappearances, had marched its way westward around the sierra from Riohacha to the small village of Aracataca, already known as a Liberal stronghold, arriving on 5 September. There Uribe Uribe held two days of talks with Generals Clodomiro Castillo and José Rosario Durán and other officers, including Nicolás Márquez. And it was there, in Aracataca, that they made the fateful decision to fight one more time which would lead to their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Ciénaga.

Uribe advanced on Ciénaga in the early morning of 14 October 1902. The battle went badly for the Liberals from the moment that a government warship began to shell their positions from the sea. Uribe Uribe was shot from his mule and several bullets that pierced his jacket miraculously missed his person (not for the first time). He exclaimed, as García Márquez’s Colonel Aureliano Buendía might have done: “How many changes of uniform do these damned Goths think I have!” (“Goths” was the Liberal name for the Conservatives.) Nicolás Márquez’s teenage son Carlos Alberto died a hero’s death; his elder brother José María, fourth in command of the Conservative army’s “Carazúa Division,” survived.

Two days later, shattered by the death of Carlos Alberto, José María rode out of Ciénaga towards the encampment of the defeated Liberals, where his father, among others, was nursing his wounds. José María was carrying a peace offer from the Conservatives. As his mule approached the tents of the defeated Liberals an advance party intercepted him and he rode in blindfolded to present the Conservative terms to Uribe Uribe. What took place between the nineteen-year-old illegitimate son and his rebel father on an historic occasion overshadowed for both of them by the death of the younger son, we shall never know. Uribe Uribe discussed the Conservative proposal with his senior officers. They decided to accept. The young messenger rode back to Ciénaga and arrived late at night at the railway station, where he was greeted by a delirious crowd and carried aloft to deliver the joyful news. Ten days later, on 24 October 1902, Conservative leaders and Uribe Uribe met with their respective chiefs of staff at a banana plantation called Neerlandia not far from Ciénaga, to sign the peace treaty. It was little more than a fig leaf concealing the bitter truth: that the Liberals had suffered a disastrous defeat.

Late in 1902, Nicolás Márquez went back to Barrancas and his wife Tranquilina and picked up the threads of his life. In 1905 their third child, Luisa Santiaga, was born and things appeared to have returned to normal. But in 1908 Nicolás was involved in a violent encounter which would change his family’s destiny for ever and he was forced to leave Barrancas. Everyone still knew the story when I passed through Barrancas eighty-five years later in 1993. Unfortunately everyone told a different version. Still, no one denies the following facts. Around five o’clock on the rainy afternoon of Monday 19 October 1908, the final day of the week-long Festival of the Virgin of Pilar, whilst the procession carrying her image was proceeding to the church just a few streets away, Colonel Nicolás Márquez, a respectable local politician, landowner, silversmith and family man, then in his forties, shot and killed a younger man called Medardo, the nephew of his friend and comrade in arms General Francisco Romero. Something else that no one denies is that Nicolás was a “ladies’ man” or, more bluntly, a philanderer. To readers from some other parts of the world this quality might seem to conflict with his image as a man of dignity and good standing among his neighbours. But there are at least two sorts of renown which a man prizes in such a society: one is his “good reputation” as such, the conventional respect, always mingled with fear, which he should know how to impose; and the other is his reputation as a “Don Juan” or a “macho,” which others will happily circulate for him, usually with his complaisance. The trick is to ensure that these reputations mutually reinforce one another.

The first version I heard was as convincing as any that followed. Filemón Estrada had been born in the very year the events took place. He was now completely sightless, and that long-ago story had retained for him a vividness which other testimonies had lost. Filemón said that Nicolás, who already had several illegitimate children, seduced Medarda Romero, the sister of his old friend General Romero, and then bragged about it over drinks in the square. There was a lot of gossip, most of it at Medarda’s expense but some of it involving Tranquilina. Medarda said to her son, “This slander must be washed clean with blood, my son, there’s no other way. And if you won’t see to him I’ll have to put on your trousers and you can put on my skirts!” Medardo, a skilled marksman who had ridden with Nicolás in the war, and now lived in nearby Papayal, repeatedly and publicly challenged and insulted his former commander, who took the warnings seriously and some time later lay in wait for the younger man. Medardo rode in to town on the day of the fiesta, dressed up in a white gabardine raincoat, and took a short cut down an alleyway that no longer exists. As he got down from his horse with a bunch of grass in one hand and a lighted pilgrim’s candle in the other, Nicolás said, “Are you armed, Medardo?” Medardo said “No.” “Well, you remember what I told you”—and Nicolás fired one, some say two shots. An old woman who lived down that alleyway came out and said, “So you finally killed him.” “The bullet of right has prevailed over might,” said Nicolás. “After that,” said blind Filemón, “old Nicolás Márquez charged off down the street, leaping over puddles, with his gun in one hand and his umbrella in the other, and looked for Lorenzo Solano Gómez, his compadre, who went with him to give himself up. He was jailed but later his son José María Valdeblánquez, who was very smart, and almost a lawyer, got him out of jail. Medardo being illegitimate, it wasn’t certain whether his surname was Pacheco or Romero, so Valdeblánquez said it wasn’t clear who exactly had been killed; it was a technicality, see, and that’s how Valdeblánquez got him off.”

None other than Ana Ríos, the daughter of Nicolás’s partner Eugenio, who surely had better reason to know than most, told me that Tranquilina was closely involved in the entire tragedy. She recalled that Tranquilina was intensely jealous, and with good reason because Nicolás was always deceiving her. Medarda was a widow and there is always talk about widows in small towns. It was widely rumoured that she was Nicolás’s regular mistress. Tranquilina became obsessed with this possibility, perhaps because Medarda was from a higher class, and therefore more dangerous, than his other conquests. It was said that Tranquilina consulted witches, brought water from the river to clean her threshold and sprinkled lemon juice around the house. Then one day— it is said—she went out into the street and shouted, “There’s a fire at widow Medarda’s place, fire, fire!,” whereupon a boy she had paid to wait in the tower of the the church of San José began to ring the alarm bells, and shortly thereafter Nicolás was seen sneaking out of Medarda’s house in broad daylight (presumably while his friend the General was away).

When he gave his statement to the authorities Nicolás Márquez was asked whether he admitted killing Medardo Romero Pacheco, and he said: “Yes, and if he comes back to life I’ll kill him again.” The Mayor, a Conservative, resolved to protect Nicolás. Deputies were despatched to collect Medardo’s body. He was placed face down in the rain and his hands were tied together behind his back before they carried him away. Most people accept that Medardo sought the confrontation and “asked for” what happened; this may be, although the bare facts seem to demonstrate that it was Nicolás who chose the time, the place and the manner of the final showdown. There is not enough information to appreciate how justified or reprehensible his action may have been; what is crystal clear is that there was nothing remotely heroic about it. Nicolás was not some sedentary farmer but a seasoned war veteran; and the man he killed by stealth was both his military inferior and his junior.
Gerald Martin

About Gerald Martin

Gerald Martin - Gabriel García Márquez

Photo © Gail Martin

Gerald Martin is Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Professor in Caribbean Studies at London Metropolitan University. For twenty-five years he was the only English-speaking member of the “Archives” Association of Twentieth-Century Latin American Literature in Paris, and he is a recent president of the International Institute of Ibero-American Literature in the United States. Among his publications are Journeys Through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century, a translation and critical edition of Miguel Angel Asturias’s Men of Maize, and several contributions to the Cambridge History of Latin America. He lives in England.


“A revelation. . . . Martin does a masterful job of tracing the continuing evolution of a man, his work and the world that surrounds him. . . . Extraordinary.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Could any biographer have been better suited to this gargantuan undertaking? Absolutely not: Mr. Martin is the ideal man for the job. . . . An intensive, assured, penetratingly analytical book.”
The New York Times

“Martin’s biography, a towering achievement of Latin American literary studies, reads beautifully, almost like a novel. . . . This enjoyable, impressive book will be mined for decades to come.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Terrific. . . . Crisp, clear, compelling. . . . A biography that is fresh and insightful about one of the most popular and influential writers of the 20th century.”
USA Today

“A masterful, admiring (but far from fawning) biography. . . . A marvel of investigation, clarity and just plain sorting things out from the myths García Márquez has himself propagated, the book is particularly fascinating in charting the writer’s arduous climb from utter obscurity to fame.”
The Chicago Sun-Times
“Abounds with fresh discoveries. . . . Will delight anyone interested in a novelist whose acclaim and appeal have been matched by his transforming influence on contemporary literature. . . . Martin’s book is proof that the literary biography is a genre in which scholars of Latin American literature have made remarkable contributions.”
The Houston Chronicle
“If Martin has left any stone unturned it’s hard to imagine what that might be. . . . Meticulous.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“Martin has made the most of the opportunities that García Márquez’s life offers. . . . He skillfully shows how a long journalistic apprenticeship led to the incredible creative explosion that produced One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Washington Post Book World
“[A] masterful and sensitive account—balanced, judicious, yet clearly also a stirringly enthusiastic labour of love. . . . It is and will be the authoritative work on the ‘new Cervantes,’ Latin America’s perhaps only truly global writer. . . . Very subtle and revealing.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)
“A rich and resourceful biography.”
“A riveting account not just of one man’s life, but of the time and place in which it was lived. . . . An absorbing book on one of the most beloved masters of modern literature.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Readers might feel as if they’ve picked up one of the magical realist’s novels, for here are the family, friends and folktales that the writer fictionalized. . . . Accounts of the life dovetail with brilliant précis of Latin American literature and politics. . . . Its scholarship is peerless. Every poem, newspaper editorial and novel receives masterful analysis.”
Time Out New York
“Richly detailed. . . . Martin’s lucid, swiftly paced study treats both the writer and his works with equal care, showing that it is impossible to separate one from the other —and showing as well that the world would be much the poorer without them.”
St. Petersburg Times
“Márquez once remarked that ‘every self-respecting writer should have an English biographer.’ He could have asked for none more accomplished than Gerald Martin. . . . A monumental work.”
Financial Times
“Martin uses this biographical material to generate consistently first-rate readings of García Márquez’s work. . . . Sensitive and often courageous.”
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“Richly detailed. . . . A judicious and occasionally juicy examination of Gabo’s life, his politics and work. . . . Perceptively and persuasively, Martin lays out the literary antecedents of García Márquez’s ‘magical realism.’”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“García Márquez’s life story is just as magical as anything in his fiction. . . . It is both a fine tribute to a remarkable artist and a fascinating cultural history of the region he helped to find its voice.”
—New Statesman
“[Martin is] extremely knowledgeable about Latin American literature in general, providing context and enthusiastic critical analysis of the kind that usually gets lost in a scoop of this size.”
The Guardian (London)
“[Martin has a] profound knowledge of Latin American fiction [and] eloquently shows the extent to which [García Márquez’s] deeply personal obsession became irreversibly intertwined with his need to write. . . . Martin’s detailed analysis of García Márquez’s political life leaves no controversy or criticism untouched. Instead, with perceptiveness and lyricism, he offers his readers insight into the complexities of a subtle diplomat.”
New Review
“A superbly well-researched book. . . . Consistently engaging and sympathetic.”
Sunday Times (London)
“The rags-to-riches tale of Gabriel García Márquez is rich biographical territory. . . . An engaging tribute to a much-loved author. . . . Entertaining.”
“As a piece of investigation alone Martin’s book is an outstanding achievement unlikely ever to be bettered. . . . It is a rags-to-riches tale as absorbing and at times bizarre as anything in Márquez’s fiction. . . . In refreshing contrast to other literary biographers, Martin has managed to study his subject in intimate detail without ever wavering in his faith either in the man or in the writer. Martin’s passionate enthusiasm for Márquez gives the book much of its power and impetus. . . . His analyses of the novels are unfailingly perceptive. . . . Martin is a brave and superhumanly persistent biographer.”
Literary Review
“Masterful. . . . Martin’s book, the product of 17 years of research, is an astonishing feat: a subtle tribute to a very complex man and an indispensable key to his life’s work.”
Sunday Telegraph (London)
“Lucid. . . . [Martin] blends the stories and novels superbly into his narrative. . . . He is acute on Márquez’s solid marriage and on his protective friends. . . . [This book] helps readers to ground his exceptional fiction in history.”
The Independent (London)

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Gerald Martin’s Gabriel García Márquez: A Life.  The second half of the guide is intended to provide an introduction to the work of García Márquez and to provide ways of thinking about and discussing his fiction and nonfiction.

About the Guide

Gabriel García Márquez: A Life is the first full and authorized biography of the 1982 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—the most popular international novelist of the last fifty years.  In the nearly two decades he dedicated to the research and writing of this biography, Gerald Martin had many conversations with Gabriel García Márquez himself, as well as with more than three hundred others—among them friends and family, major writers, and political leaders from Latin America.  The result is a revelation of both the writer and the man.

Born in 1927, raised by grandparents and a clutch of aunts in a small backwater town in Colombia, García Márquez worked first as a provincial journalist and later as a foreign correspondent whose years of obscurity came to an end when, at the age of forty, he published the novel entitled Cien años de soledad—One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Within months, the book had garnered spectacular international acclaim.  Eight years later, in 1975, he published The Autumn of the Patriarch, and in 1981, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, each novel rapturously received by critics and readers alike.  With his books read by millions around the world, he had become a man of wealth and influence.  Yet, for all his fame, he never lost touch with his roots: though he had lived outside of Colombia since 1955, his Nobel Prize was celebrated by Colombians who thought, and still think, of “Gabo” as their own. 

While chronicling the particulars of the life, Martin also considers the overarching issues: the tension between García Márquez’s celebrity and his quest for literary quality, and between his politics and his writing; and the seductions of power, solitude, and love.  He explores the melding of experience and imagination in García Márquez’s fiction and examines the reasons for—and the public’s reaction to—the writer's turning in the 1980s from the magical realism that had brought him international renown, toward the greater simplicity that would mark his work beginning with Love in the Time of Cholera.

Gerald Martin has written a superb biography: richly illuminating, as gripping as any of Gabriel García Márquez’s powerful journalism, as enthralling as any of his acclaimed and beloved fiction.

About the Author

Gerald Martin is Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Professor in Caribbean Studies at London Metropolitan University. For twenty-five years he was the only English-speaking member of the “Archives” Association of Twentieth-Century Latin American Literature in Paris, and he is a recent president of the International Institute of Ibero-American Literature in the United States. Among his publications are Journeys Through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century, a translation and critical edition of Miguel Angel Asturias’s Men of Maize, and several contributions to the Cambridge History of Latin America. He lives in England.

Discussion Guides

1. Martin points out that Márquez's living with his grandparents was crucial to the person and the writer he became: “Gabito and [his sister] Margot were being brought up by old people and had developed quite a different world-view, obsessive, superstitious, fatalistic and fearful but also diligent and efficient. . . . [They] must have felt inexplicably abandoned by their parents . . . yet privileged to be cared for in the house of the much-respected and much-loved grandparents” (p. 56).  What did this early stage of life provide for the future writer, despite the bewilderment of his mother’s absence?  Why was the influence of his grandparents so powerful in his life and imagination?

2. Arguably the most important moment in García Márquez’s life occurred when he and his mother took a journey to Aracataca to sell the house of his maternal grandparents. “What really happened to me in that trip to Aracataca was that I realized that everything that had occurred in my childhood had a literary value that I was only now appreciating” (p. 133).  Why is this episode so crucial not only to his vocation as a writer but as a key to his whole imaginative world?

3. In Bogotá during the 1950s, García Márquez took a point of view in his journalism “which was implicitly subversive of official stories and thus challenged the ruling system more effectively than any of his more vocal leftist colleagues” (p. 170).  How did his career as a journalist help to develop his political and social conscience?  How did it shape his approach to storytelling?

4. García Márquez has often been criticized for his tendency to be drawn to men of power—Fidel Castro, General Omar Torrijos, Felipe González, Bill Clinton, and many others—and to attempt to mediate between them in international affairs.  Regarding an article García Márquez wrote in praise of his friend Torrijos, Martin asks, “Was he writing about men of power, to men of power, or for them?” (p. 380).  How would you answer this question?

5. About García Márquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale Martin says, “The book contains his public life and his ‘false,’ invented life, but it does not contain much of his ‘private’ life and very little indeed of his ‘secret’ life” (p. 524).  Throughout the biography, Martin shows how García Márquez has taken measures to control the story of his life.  If you have read Living to Tell the Tale, what is the version that comes across?  How does it differ from the story the Martin tells?  Discuss García Márquez’s directive to Martin, “Just write what you see; whatever you write, that is what I will be” (p. xxi).

6. From 1973 to 1979, García Márquez dedicated himself to political engagement and activism, mainly on behalf of Chile and Cuba (Chapter 19).  Then, in September 1981, he turned away from direct political action and declared himself “more dangerous as a writer than as a politician” (p. 390).  Is this a judgment with which you agree?  Why or why not?

7. Martin provides a great deal of insight into the cultural divide between coastal and upland Colombia (Chapters 4 and 5).  What does it mean to be from the Caribbean coast, as García Márquez is, and from Bogotá and the interior?  How does the biography help you to understand how deeply Latin American, and more specifically a costeño Colombian, García Márquez is, and how he brings that sensibility to his writing?  Why did Gabriel García Márquez make such a point of displaying his native culture and dress at the Nobel Prize ceremony (pp. 418-21)?

8. García Márquez said, after winning the Nobel, “I was always famous, from the time I was born.  It’s just that I was the only one who knew it” (p. 430).  The second half of the biography describes the process whereby García Márquez adapted to his immense popularity.  He fiercely protected his private life and destroyed all letters and drafts of his work, while on the other hand, he seems to have exploited his fame and actively sought attention on the world political stage.  This is the story of a cultural phenomenon as well as that of a great writer.  How do you understand the relationship between these two personas?

9. One of the notable elements of García Márquez’s work is the strong presence of prostitution alongside love and marriage.  García Márquez’s first sexual experience was with a prostitute at a local brothel, and his father seems to have arranged the situation.  García Márquez said, “It was the most awful thing that ever happened to me, because I didn’t know what was going on” (p. 71).  How do you see the effect, in his work, of the extensive early sexual experiences detailed by Martin in Chapter 4?  Discuss, too, García Márquez’s family situation; his difficult relationship with his father Gabriel Eligio, who “kept his long-suffering wife locked inside the home on a strict, patriarchal basis, yet . . . betrayed her sexually—even scandalously—on numerous occasions” and produced four illegitimate children as well (p. 434).

10. What do you see as the key moments in García Márquez’s long and varied artistic career?  Which books, for you, are clearly great works?  What are the elements of his imaginative world that are unique, appealing, unforgettable?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Suggestions for Reading Gabriel García Márquez
It is generally agreed that the three most important works of García Márquez are the novels One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, and Love in the Time of Cholera.  It is best to begin with a consideration of these acclaimed masterpieces, though The Autumn of the Patriarch is far less reader-friendly than the other two.  Depending on what kinds of stories and issues you prefer, choose related works from below.
One Hundred Years of Solitude was inspired by García Márquez’s childhood in Aracataca, and despite the label of “magical realism” that the book has been given, García Márquez insists that the way events are told in the book reflects the way his grandmother Tranquilina thought and spoke.  Her mind was like that of other people from the Caribbean coast, whose blood is mixed with the descendants of African slaves and native Indians, and who are used to seeing and sensing the presence of phenomena and of spirits that Western rationalism cannot comprehend.  The history of the Buendía family, from its origins to its demise, is filled with such phenomena and with impossible events, but they are narrated in a tone that makes them appear normal in the context of the story.  
         Martin writes that this novel “begins and ends in biblical style and contains some of the universal myths of anthropology, the characteristic mythemes of Western culture and the peculiar negative thrust of Latin America’s own specific experience of grandiose aspiration and humiliating failure. . . . Yet almost everything in the book would be the result of García Márquez’s own lived experience”(291) or that of his family—like the massacre of the banana workers in Aracataca.  The alchemist and sage Melquíades stands in the novel as the image of the writer whose uses his solitude to inscribe, on his parchment, the future history of the Buendías, which the last Aureliano will decipher as apocalyptic winds destroy the house.  One Hundred Years of Solitude is a great novel that deserves its comparison with Cervantes’ Don Quixote; it is filled with extraordinary characters, unforgettable images, and is an immense pleasure to read.  
Related works: García Márquez’s first novel, Leaf Storm, which is set in Macondo and deals with the exploitation of workers by the American company United Fruit; No One Writes to the Colonel, in which a colonel who was on the losing Liberal side in the civil war waits endlessly for his pension from the Conservative government; In Evil Hour, also set in Macondo, which is being destroyed by civil wars between the Conservatives and the Liberals.
The Autumn of the Patriarch is the most experimental of the three major novels in style and form—indeed, even some García Márquez scholars find its extremely long sentences and its lack of paragraphs hard going.  It is the result of García Márquez’s belief that Latin American literature must enter the stream of twentieth-century modernist writers like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner.  Here García Márquez returns to ideas about Latin America’s political history—dictatorship, corruption, the loneliness of power—that were strengthened by seeing Stalin’s corpse when he was visiting Moscow (p. 217).  Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch reflects the influence of William Faulkner.  Related works: The General in His Labyrinth; the story “Big Mama’s Funeral,” which García Márquez wrote on his return from Europe and which was his "furious reaction to the national situation” (p. 248).
Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera is rooted in García Márquez’s family history—this time the romance of his parents—and is set in Cartagena de Indias, the ancient Spanish colonial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.  As Martin writes, this novel’s subjects are announced in its title: “it speaks of both love and of time: love, as so often in García Márquez, as an irresistible sickness or disease; and time, as both mere duration and history but also as the worst disease of all, the one that gnaws away at everything” (p. 440).  In this extraordinary tale of unrequited love over half a century, Florentino Ariza maintains his original love for Fermina Daza, despite his six hundred and twenty-two affairs.  Like much of García Márquez’s work, this novel asks us to think about what love is, whether love without sex means something different, something more ideal or more delusional than consummated love.  This novel is, like so much great literature, a meditation on love in the face of time and mortality.  Martin writes that given the scope of its ambition, its similar themes, and its accessibility, “in some ways this is the sequel to One Hundred Years of Solitude that The Autumn of the Patriarch never quite became” (p. 441). Thomas Pynchon called it a “shining and heartbreaking novel” (p. 444). Related works: Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Innocent Eréndira, Of Love and Other Demons, for their exploration of love, sexuality, and prostitution.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold is the fictionalized version of an actual event: In 1951 Cayetano Gentile, a close friend and neighbor of the García Márquez family, was hacked to death in the public square in Sucre. His killers were the brothers of Margarita Chica Salas, whose new husband returned her to her father’s house the morning after their wedding, declaring that her ex-boyfriend Gentile had taken her virginity.  Transforming this event into a novel thirty years later, García Márquez focused on the fact that everyone in the town knew what would happen and did nothing to stop it.  In a tour de force of pacing and narrative style, García Márquez critiques the culture of honor, shame, machismo, and fatalism that caused the townspeople to allow the murder to go ahead.  García Márquez implicitly condemns the absurdity of this waste of human life: as Martin writes, “irony functions at every level” (p. 397).   The novel can be compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude in its interest in fatalistic ways of thinking, as well as in the question of whether human beings can change the course of their history.
The General in His Labyrinth is a work in which García Márquez returns once again to the history of Latin America and of Colombia itself.  This time he writes a novel based in actual history, for which he immersed himself in research about the life of “the Liberator” of South America, Simón Bolívar.  He sets the story in the year 1830, when Bolívar is dying of fever as he makes a final journey down the Magdalena River.  While Bolívar has liberated the continent from Spanish rule, his dream of a continent as “one nation, free and unified” has failed.  For Martin, this is another work in which García Márquez captures the Latin American character, and “the great Liberator is here revealed as the template for countless Latin Americans suffering, striving and sometimes succumbing in the arduous kingdom of this world” (p. 463).  "The central subject," he says, "is power, not tyranny” (p. 460) and the work can be compared to The Autumn of the Patriarch.
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor began as a series in fourteen parts for the newspaper El Espectador, and is evidence of García Márquez’s skill as an interviewer and investigative reporter.  The story García Márquez told reversed the heroic narrative of this event that was promoted by the military government, and instead revealed that the men went overboard because the ship, stocked with contraband, was dangerously overloaded.  It is, says Martin, “a sustained and brilliant demonstration of the power of the story-teller’s art and of the power and central importance of the imagination even in the representation of factual material” (p. 170).  Compare with The General in His Labyrinth, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and News of a Kidnapping, all of which are also based on factual material.
Strange Pilgrims is a collection of stories begun mainly between 1976 and 1982 and completed in April 1992; they focus on the experiences of Latin Americans living in Europe.  “They all have a somewhat autobiographical air about them,” says Martin (p. 483), and appeared at the time of García Márquez’s recovery from lung cancer.
Of Love and Other Demons is set, like Love in the Time of Cholera, in Cartagena, where a tomb has revealed a “skull with a torrent of bright red hair that has continued growing for almost two centuries” (p. 489).  The protagonist is a young journalist who discovers that during the colonial period, a rabid dog has bitten a girl called Sierva María.  The local clergy believe she is possessed by the devil; she is to be exorcised by a theologian called Cayetano Delaura.  A brilliant and chilling story about dreams and about a grown man sexually obsessed with an adolescent, it was highly praised.  Peter Kemp, in the London Sunday Times, called the book “a further marvellous manifestation of the enchantment and the disenchantment that his native Colombia always stirs in García Márquez” (p. 491).  Compare with Love in the Time of Cholera and Innocent Eréndira.
News of a Kidnapping is a nonfiction story written at the request of García Márquez’s friend Maruja Pachón, who was kidnapped by the Pablo Escobar drug cartel.  While she survived, many others were murdered during the waves of violence that swept Colombia during the 1980s and 90s, with drug lords openly defying the law and intimidating journalists, lawyers, and judges with frequent assassinations and kidnappings.  García Márquez called the kidnappings “only one episode in the biblical holocaust that has been consuming Colombia for more than twenty years.”  As elsewhere, García Márquez uses the first-person plural form “we” in narrating, aligning himself with the Colombian people on whose behalf he undertakes this act of witness to the suffering caused by narcoterrorism.  Related works: The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, for its factual and journalistic origin.
Living to Tell the Tale is García Márquez’s own telling of the first stage of his life story, a tale as rich in humor and fantastic incident as any of his unforgettable novels.  It takes the reader from his birth in Aracataca, through his childhood and school years in Barranquilla and Bogotá, through his early years as a journalist, and up to the moment in 1955 when he leaves for Europe with a promise from the woman he will eventually marry.
Memories of My Melancholy Whores revisits the theme of an old man’s obsession with the adolescent girl, and was reviewed perceptively and with high praise by John Updike in The New Yorker.  For Martin, it is García Márquez’s “least-accomplished novel,” but also has “as many levels of ambiguity, ambivalence and complexity as any of his others . . . because this book has both an unashamed and unattenuated flirtation with fantasy and a conventional moral dimension that most of the others quite deliberately lack.  It is a fairy tale, albeit a disconcertingly lurid one” (p. 534).  Related works: Love in the Time of Cholera, Innocent Eréndira, and Love and Other Demons.
On the style and substance of García Márquez’s writing:
“He is a master of physical observation: Surfaces, appearances, external realities, spoken words—everything that a truly observant observer can observe. He makes almost no allusion to states-of-mind, motivations, emotions, internal responses: Those are left to the inferential skills and deductive interests of the reader.  In other words, García Márquez has turned the fly-on-the-wall point of view into a crucial aspect of his narrative style in both fiction and non-fiction, and it is a strategy that he uses to stunning effect.  It not only obliges readers to participate in the narration by placing them up on the wall, right next to the fly, but I believe it is also one of the techniques he employs to abrogate sentimentality, leaving only actions driven by emotions, and sometimes passions.”  —Edith Grossman, from “On Translation and García Márquez,” a speech delivered at the 2003 PEN Tribute to Gabriel García Márquez, held in New York City on November 5, 2003.

Suggested Further Reading
Jon Lee Anderson, “The Power of García Márquez,” The New Yorker (September 27,1999); Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, ed., The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez; Michael Bell, Gabriel García Márquez; Roberto Bolaño, 2666; Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World; Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch; William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!; Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz; Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo; John Updike, “Dying for Love,” The New Yorker (November 7, 2005); Michael Wood, García Márquez: “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

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