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Living to Tell the Tale

Written by Gabriel García MárquezAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Gabriel García Márquez
Translated by Edith GrossmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Edith Grossman

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Synopsis

No writer alive today exerts the magical appeal of Gabriel García Márquez. Now, in the long-awaited first volume of his autobiography, he tells the story of his life from his birth in 1927 to the moment in the 1950s when he proposed to his wife. The result is as spectacular as his finest fiction.

Here is García Márquez’s shimmering evocation of his childhood home of Aracataca, the basis of the fictional Macondo. Here are the members of his ebulliently eccentric family. Here are the forces that turned him into a writer. Warm, revealing, abounding in images so vivid that we seem to be remembering them ourselves, Living to Tell the Tale is a work of enchantment.

Excerpt

1

My mother asked me to go with her to sell the house. She had come that morning from the distant town where the family lived, and she had no idea how to find me. She asked around among acquaintances and was told to look for me at the Librería Mundo, or in the nearby cafés, where I went twice a day to talk with my writer friends. The one who told her this warned her: “Be careful, because they’re all out of their minds.” She arrived at twelve sharp. With her light step she made her way among the tables of books on display, stopped in front of me, looking into my eyes with the mischievous smile of her better days, and before I could react she said:

“I’m your mother.”

Something in her had changed, and this kept me from recognizing her at first glance. She was forty-five. Adding up her eleven births, she had spent almost ten years pregnant and at least another ten nursing her children. She had gone gray before her time, her eyes seemed larger and more startled behind her first bifocals, and she wore strict, somber mourning for the death of her mother, but she still preserved the Roman beauty of her wedding portrait, dignified now by an autumnal air. Before anything else, even before she embraced me, she said in her customary, ceremonial way:

“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?

For reasons of poverty rather than taste, I anticipated what would be the style in twenty years’ time: untrimmed mustache, tousled hair, jeans, flowered shirts, and a pilgrim’s sandals. In a darkened movie theater, not knowing I was nearby, a girl I knew told someone: “Poor Gabito is a lost cause.” Which meant that when my mother asked me to go with her to sell the house, there was nothing to prevent me from saying I would. She told me she did not have enough money, and out of pride I said I would pay my own expenses.

At the newspaper where I worked, this was impossible to arrange. They paid me three pesos for a daily commentary and four for an editorial when one of the staff writers was out, but it was barely enough to live on. I tried to borrow money, but the manager reminded me that I already owed more than fifty pesos. That afternoon I was guilty of an abuse that none of my friends would have been capable of committing. At the door of the Café Colombia, next to the bookstore, I approached Don Ramón Vinyes, the old Catalan teacher and bookseller, and asked for a loan of ten pesos. He had only six.

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.

Before adolescence, memory is more interested in the future than the past, and so my recollections of the town were not yet idealized by nostalgia. I remembered it as it was: a good place to live where everybody knew everybody else, located on the banks of a river of transparent water that raced over a bed of polished stones as huge and white as prehistoric eggs. At dusk, above all in December, when the rains had ended and the air was like a diamond, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and its white peaks seemed to come right down to the banana plantations on the other side of the river. From there you could see the Arawak Indians moving in lines like ants along the cliffs of the sierra, carrying sacks of ginger on their backs and chewing pellets of coca to make life bearable. As children we dreamed of shaping balls of the perpetual snow and playing war on the parched, burning streets. For the heat was so implausible, in particular at siesta time, that the adults complained as if it were a daily surprise. From the day I was born I had heard it said, over and over again, that the rail lines and camps of the United Fruit Company had been built at night because during the day the sun made the tools too hot to pick up.

The only way to get to Aracataca from Barranquilla was by dilapidated motor launch through a narrow channel excavated by slave labor during colonial times, and then across the ciénaga, a vast swamp of muddy, desolate water, to the mysterious town that was also called Ciénaga. There you took the daily train that had started out as the best in the country and traveled the last stretch of the journey through immense banana plantations, making many pointless stops at hot, dusty villages and deserted stations. This was the trip my mother and I began at seven in the evening on Saturday, February 19, 1950—the eve of Carnival—in an unseasonable rainstorm and with thirty-two pesos that would be just enough to get us home if the house was not sold for the amount she had anticipated.

The trade winds were so fierce that night that I had trouble at the river port convincing my mother to board the boat. She was not being unreasonable. The launches were abbreviated imitations of the steamships out of New Orleans, but with gasoline motors that transmitted the tremors of a high fever to everything on board. There was a small salon that had hooks for hanging hammocks at different levels, and wooden benches where people elbowed their way to a seat with all their baggage, bundles of merchandise, crates of chickens, and even live pigs. There were a few suffocating cabins, each furnished with two army cots, almost always occupied by threadbare little whores who offered emergency services during the crossing. Since by now none of the cabins was free, and we had not brought hammocks, my mother and I took by storm two iron chairs in the central passageway, and there we prepared to spend the night.

Just as she had feared, the squall lashed the reckless ship as we crossed the Magdalena River, which has an oceanic temperament so close to its estuary. In the port I had bought a good supply of the least expensive cigarettes, made of black tobacco and a cheap paper that could have been used to wrap packages, and I began to smoke the way I did in those days, using the butt end of one cigarette to light the next, as I reread Light in August: at the time, William Faulkner was the most faithful of my tutelary demons. My mother clung to her rosary as if it were a capstan that could hoist a tractor or hold a plane in the air, and as always she requested nothing for herself but asked for the prosperity and long life of her eleven orphans. Her prayer must have gone where it was supposed to, because the rain became gentle when we entered the channel and the breeze almost was not strong enough to keep the mosquitoes away. Then my mother put away her rosary and for a long while observed in silence the tumultuous life going on around us.

She had been born to a modest family but grew up in the ephemeral splendor of the banana company, from which she at least had retained her rich girl’s good education at the Colegio de la Presentación de la Santísima Vírgen in Santa Marta. During Christmas vacations she would embroider with her friends, play the clavichord at charity bazaars, and, with an aunt as chaperone, attend the purest dances given by the timid local aristocracy, but as far as anyone knew she had no sweetheart until she married the town telegraph operator against her parents’ wishes. Since that time her most conspicuous virtues had been a sense of humor and an iron good health that the sneak attacks of adversity would never defeat over the course of her long life. But her most surprising trait, and also since that time the least likely to be suspected, was the exquisite skill with which she hid her tremendous strength of character: a perfect Leo. This had allowed her to establish a matriarchal power whose domain extended to the most distant relatives in the most unexpected places, like a planetary system that she controlled from her kitchen with a subdued voice and almost without blinking, while the pot of beans was simmering.

Seeing her endure that brutal trip with equanimity, I asked myself how she had been able to subordinate the injustices of poverty with so much speed and mastery. That awful night tested her to the limit. The bloodthirsty mosquitoes, the dense heat, the nauseating reek of the channel mud churned up by the launch as it passed, the frantic back-and-forth of sleepless passengers who could find no place to sit in the crush of people—it all seemed intended to unhinge the most even-tempered nature. My mother bore everything, sitting motionless in her chair, while the girls for hire, dressed up as men or as manolas,* reaped the harvest of Carnival in the nearby cabins. One of them had entered and left her cabin, which was right next to my mother's chair, several times, and always with a different client. I thought my mother had not seen her. But the fourth or fifth time in less than an hour that the girl went in and came out, she followed her with a pitying eye to the end of the passageway.

“Poor things,” she said with a sigh. “What they have to do to live is worse than working.”

This is how matters stood until midnight, when the unbearable vibration and the dim lights in the passageway made me tired of reading, and I sat down beside her to smoke, trying to free myself from the quicksands of Yoknapatawpha County. I had left the university the year before with the rash hope that I could earn a living in journalism and literature without any need to learn them, inspired by a sentence I believe I had read in George Bernard Shaw: “From a very early age I’ve had to interrupt my education to go to school.” I was not capable of discussing this with anyone because I felt, though I could not explain why, that my reasons might be valid only to me.

Trying to convince my parents of this kind of lunacy, when they had placed so much hope in me and spent so much money they did not have, was a waste of time. My father in particular would have forgiven me anything except my not hanging on the wall the academic degree he could not have. Our communication was interrupted. Almost a year later I was still planning a visit to explain my reasons to him when my mother appeared and asked me to go with her to sell the house. But she did not mention the subject until after midnight, on the launch, when she sensed as if by divine revelation that she had at last found the opportune moment to tell me what was, beyond any doubt, the real reason for her trip, and she began in the manner and tone and with the precise words that she must have ripened in the solitude of her sleepless nights long before she set out.

“Your papá is very sad,” she said.

So there it was, the inferno I feared so much. She began as she always did, when you least expected it, in a soothing voice that nothing could agitate. Only for the sake of the ritual, since I knew very well what the answer would be, I asked:

“And why’s that?”

“Because you’ve left your studies.”

“I didn’t leave them,” I said. “I only changed careers.”

The idea of a thorough discussion raised her spirits.

“Your papá says it amounts to the same thing,” she said.

Knowing it was false, I told her:

“He stopped studying too, to play the violin.”

“That was different,” she replied with great vivacity. “He only played the violin at parties and serenades. If he left his studies it was because he didn’t have enough money to eat. But in less than a month he learned telegraphy, which was a very good profession back then, above all in Aracataca.”

“I earn a living, too, writing for newspapers,” I said.

“You say that so as not to mortify me,” she said. “But even from a distance anybody can see the state you’re in. So bad I didn’t even recognize you when I saw you in the bookstore.”

“I didn’t recognize you either,” I told her.

“But not for the same reason,” she said. “I thought you were a beggar.” She looked at my worn sandals and added: “Not even any socks.”

“It’s more comfortable,” I said. “Two shirts and two pairs of undershorts: you wear one while the other’s drying. What else does anyone need?”

“A little dignity,” she said. But she softened this at once by saying in a different tone: “I’m telling you this because of how much we love you.”

“I know,” I said. “But tell me something: wouldn’t you do the same thing in my place?”

“I wouldn’t,” she said, “not if it meant upsetting my parents.”

Recalling the tenacity with which she had broken down her family’s opposition to her marriage, I said with a laugh:

“I dare you to look me in the eye.”

But she was somber as she avoided my glance because she knew all too well what I was thinking.

“I didn’t marry until I had my parents’ blessing,” she said. “Unwilling, I grant you, but I had it.”

She interrupted the discussion, not because my arguments had defeated her but because she wanted to use the toilet and did not trust the state of its hygiene. I spoke to the bosun to find out if there was a more sanitary place, but he explained that he himself used the public lavatory. And concluded, as if he had just been reading Conrad: “At sea we are all equal.” And so my mother submitted to the law of equality. Contrary to what I had feared, when she came out it was all she could do to control her laughter.

“Can you imagine,” she said to me, “what your papá will think if I come back with a social disease?”

Some time after midnight we were delayed for three hours because clumps of anemones growing in the channel slowed down the propellers, the launch ran aground in a thicket of mangroves, and many passengers had to stand on the banks and pull it free with the cords of their hammocks. The heat and mosquitoes became excruciating, but my mother eluded them with her instantaneous and intermittent catnaps, famous in our family, which allowed her to rest without losing the thread of the conversation. When we resumed our journey and a fresh breeze began to blow, she was wide awake.

“In any case,” she said with a sigh, “I have to bring your papá some kind of answer.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said with the same innocence. “In December I’ll go myself and explain everything to him.”

“That’s ten months from now,” she said.

“Well, after all, it’s too late this year to arrange anything at the university,” I told her.

“Do you really promise you’ll go?”

“I promise.” And for the first time I detected a certain tension in her voice:

“Can I tell your papá that you’re going to say yes?”

“No,” was my categorical answer. “You can’t.”

It was clear that she was looking for another way out. But I did not give it to her.

“Then it’s better if I tell him the whole truth right away,” she said, “so it won’t seem like a deception.”

“All right,” I said with relief. “Tell him.”

We stopped there, and someone who did not know her very well would have thought it was over, but I knew this was only a pause so that she could catch her breath. A little while later she was sound asleep. A light wind blew away the mosquitoes and saturated the new air with a fragrance of flowers. Then the launch acquired the grace of a sailboat.

We were in the great swamp, the Ciénaga Grande, another of the myths of my childhood. I had crossed it several times when my grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Ricardo Márquez Mejía—his grandchildren called him Papalelo—took me from Aracataca to Barranquilla to visit my parents. “You shouldn’t be afraid of the swamp, but you must respect it,” he had told me, speaking of the unpredictable moods of its waters, which could behave like either a pond or an untameable ocean. In the rainy season it was at the mercy of storms that came down from the sierra. From December to April, when the weather was supposed to be calm, the north winds attacked it with so much force that each night was an adventure. My maternal grandmother, Tranquilina Iguarán—Mina—would not risk the crossing except in cases of dire emergency, after a terrifying trip when they’d had to seek shelter and wait until dawn at the mouth of the Riofrío.

That night, to our good fortune, it was a still water. From the windows at the prow, where I went for a breath of air a little before dawn, the lights of the fishing boats floated like stars in the water. There were countless numbers of them, and the invisible fishermen conversed as if they were paying a call, for their voices had a phantasmal resonance within the boundaries of the swamp. As I leaned on the railing, trying to guess at the outline of the sierra, nostalgia’s first blow caught me by surprise.

On another night like this, as we were crossing the Ciénaga Grande, Papalelo left me asleep in the cabin and went to the bar. I don’t know what time it was when, over the drone of the rusted fan and the clattering metal laths in the cabin, the raucous shouts of a crowd woke me. I could not have been more than five years old and was very frightened, but it soon grew quiet again and I thought it must have been a dream. In the morning, when we were already at the dock in Ciénaga, my grandfather stood shaving with his straight razor, the door open and the mirror hanging from the frame. The memory is exact: he had not yet put on his shirt, but over his undershirt he wore his eternal elastic suspenders, wide and with green stripes. While he shaved he kept talking to a man I could still recognize today at first glance. He had the unmistakable profile of a crow and a sailor’s tattoo on his right hand, and he wore several solid gold chains around his neck, and bracelets and bangles, also of gold, on both wrists. I had just gotten dressed and was sitting on the bed, putting on my boots, when the man said to my grandfather:

“Don’t doubt it for a second, Colonel. What they wanted to do with you was throw you into the water.”

My grandfather smiled and did not stop shaving, and with his typical haughtiness he replied:

“Just as well for them they didn’t try.”

Only then did I understand the uproar of the previous night, and I was very shaken by the idea that someone would have thrown my grandfather into the swamp.

The recollection of this unexplained episode took me by surprise that dawn when I was going with my mother to sell the house, and was contemplating the sierra snows gleaming blue in the first rays of the sun. A delay in the channels allowed us to see in the full light of day the narrow bar of luminous sand that separates the sea from the swamp, where there were fishing villages with their nets laid out to dry in the sun and thin, grimy children playing soccer with balls made of rags. It was astounding to see on the streets the number of fishermen whose arms were mutilated because they had not thrown their sticks of dynamite in time. As the launch passed by, the children began to dive for the coins the passengers tossed to them.

It was almost seven when we dropped anchor in a pestilential marsh a short distance from the town of Ciénaga. Teams of porters, up to their knees in mud, took us in their arms and carried us to the dock, splashing through wheeling turkey buzzards that fought over the unspeakable filth in the quagmire. We were sitting at the tables in the port, eating an unhurried breakfast of delicious mojarra fish from the swamp and slices of fried green plantain, when my mother resumed the offensive in her personal war.

*The manolo was to Madrid what the cockney was to London mother’s chair, several times, and always with a different client. I thought my mother had not seen her.
Gabriel García Márquez|Edith Grossman|Author Desktop

About Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez - Living to Tell the Tale

Gabriel García Márquez, nacido en Colombia, es una de las figuras más importantes e influyentes de la literatura universal. Ganador del Premio Nobel de Literatura, es además cuentista, ensayista, crítico cinematográfico, autor de guiones y, sobre todo, intelectual comprometido con los grandes problemas de nuestro tiempo, en primer término con los que afectan a su amada Colombia y a Hispanoamérica en general. Máxima figura del realismo mágico, es en definitiva el hacedor de uno de los mundos narrativos más densos de significados que ha dado la lengua española en el siglo xx. Entre sus obras más importantes se encuentran las novelas Cien años de soledad, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, Crónica de una muerte anunciada, La mala hora, El general en su laberinto, El amor en los tiempos del cólera, Memoria de mis putas tristes, el libro de relatos Doce cuentos peregrinos, la primera parte de su autobiografía, Vivir para contarla, y sus discursos reunidos, Yo no vengo a decir un discurso.

About Edith Grossman

Edith Grossman - Living to Tell the Tale
Edith Grossman, the winner of a number of translating awards, most notably the 2006 PEN Ralph Manheim Medal, is the distinguished translator of works by major Spanish-language authors, including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mayra Montero, and Alvaro Mutis, as well as Carlos Fuentes. Her translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was published to great acclaim in 2003.

Author Q&A

Talking with the translator: Edith Grossman

Translation is an art and behind every great foreign-language author, there is a great translator capturing the tone, energy, and nuances of the work. For twenty-three years, Edith Grossman has been working with Gabriel García Márquez. As an award-winning translator of poetry and prose by several Spanish-language writers, she has mastered the skill of representing different tones and dialects, many of which we are not familiar with in America. Here, she talks about the experience of translating García Márquez's most recent work, this long-awaited memoir.


Interview conducted by Luba Ostashevsky

Q: How did you come to translate Gabriel García Márquez?

A:
Lee Goerner, who was García Márquez's editor at Knopf in the 1980s, was looking for a translator for García Márquez's new book, at that point tentatively titled Love in the Time of Plague, and the word went out for a submission of sample chapters. I sent in 20 pages or so. I’m not sure how many other translators submitted samples,but mine was chosen.

Q: What do you find to be most challenging and most rewarding about translating García Márquez's books?

A: The challenges and the rewards are the same: to recreate for an English-speaking reader the artful language that a good writer uses, and García Márquez is more than a good writer. This requires a deep familiarity with English and its levels of discourse. You have to decide what level of English to use. You have to decide whether you’re going to use, for example, “teacher, master, instructor, or professor.” In The General in his Labyrinth, Bolívar used a very elevated language when with ladies but an often vulgar one with his soldiers. One of the reviews of my translation said I made Bolívar sound like a cop from the Bronx. I was concerned and told García Márquez, but he laughed and said that was exactly the effect he wanted to produce.

Q: What is different about translating this book of non-fiction as opposed to translating the novels?

A: I don’t think there is much difference. García Márquez keeps pointing out that fiction and journalism are essentially the same genre. For example, the British press couldn’t believe that the events depicted in News of a Kidnapping, which is an investigative report about murder and kidnapping in Colombia, actually happened, and it ended up listed as fiction.

García Márquez prides himself on writing every book as though he were a reporter. The same goes for this book of memoirs. As a matter of fact, he usually hires assistants to research background material. As opposed to writers who see their writing through the prism of their inner life, he tends to view himself and others more objectively, focusing on the external as the key to emotional life.

Q: What do you learn about Spanish-language/Latin American literature when you translate García Márquez?

A: English has a variety of pronounciations and languages, ranging from the West Indies to the East Indies, and a number of places in between. Similarly, during the age of discovery, Spain colonized vast territories in Latin America, and these versions of Spanish have been evolving for a good 500 hundred years; you can imagine the range and breadth of vocabulary and usage. Because García Márquez’s Spanish is predominantly Colombian, I am obliged to learn a number of words that exist nowhere else. He uses regionalisms, expressions that are limited to a particular class, words confined to a small town or a particular district. I consulted with three Colombians on some lexical puzzles in this book, and even they had trouble with some of them. One excused himself by saying this was a phrase from the mountains whereas he came from the coast.

Q: How has being García Márquez’s translator changed your life?

A: Translating a good writer deepens my perception of good writing in English because it obliges me to sharpen my own writing skills. I’ve been very lucky in my translating career because I admire the authors whose work I have brought over into English, and García Márquez is certainly outstanding among them.

Awards

Awards

WINNER 1982 Nobel Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“Must be counted among the masterworks of the world’s greatest living novelist. . . . Bold, high-spirited, self-mocking, powerfully evocative and deeply revealing.” —The Washington Post Book World

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Living to Tell the Tale, the first volume of Gabriel García Márquez’s proposed three-part memoir. We hope they will provide useful ways of thinking and talking about the life story of one of the greatest Latin American writers of our time.

About the Guide

With Living to Tell the Tale, Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez offers the first volume 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, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, through his childhood and school years in Baranquilla and Bogotá, into 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.

Living to Tell the Tale has the shape, the quality, and the vividness of a conversation with the reader—a tale of people, places, and events as they occur to him: the colorful stories of his eccentric family members; the great influence of his mother and maternal grandfather; the myths and mysteries of his beloved Colombia; personal details, undisclosed until now, that would appear later, transmuted and transposed, in his fiction; and, above all, his fervent desire to become a writer. As in his fiction, the narrator here is an inspired observer of the physical world, able to make clear the emotions and passions that lie at the heart of a life—in this instance, García Márquez’s own.

Living to Tell the Tale is a radiant, powerful, and beguiling memoir that gives us the formation of Gabriel García Márquez as a writer and as a man.

About the Author

Gabriel García Márquez was born in Colombia in 1927. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Autumn of the Patriarch, The General in His Labyrinth, and News of a Kidnapping. He lives in Mexico City.

Discussion Guides

1. The book’s multilayered title—Living to Tell the Tale—is given greater significance because García Márquez has been fighting lymphatic cancer since 1999. He has called this misfortune “an enormous stroke of luck” since it gave him the impetus to write his memoirs. The Spanish title—Vivir para contarla—means “to live to tell it.” What other shades of meaning might the title suggest?

2. The memoir begins, “My mother asked me to go with her to sell the house” [p. 3], and then weaves a story of how and why that day was unforgettable: “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” [p. 5]. The sentence is reminiscent of many moments in One Hundred Years of Solitude, when an event is identified as setting in motion the story and the meanings that flow from it. If García Márquez is deliberately tying a moment in his own life to certain moments in his fiction, where a decisive, unforgettable experience is illuminated and obsessively returned to, what is he suggesting about the nature of his own story?

3. What is the tone in which García Márquez recounts his life? How intimate is his relationship with the reader? What is his own attitude toward his younger self?

4. The story opens with a family crisis. At twenty-three, Gabriel has left the university and has no intention of returning. “My father . . . would have forgiven me anything except my not hanging on the wall the academic degree he could not have” [p. 9]. At one point his father tells him, “You hold the fate of the family in your hands” [p. 425]. How is this difficulty negotiated, and what does it tell us about the rights and responsibilities of family members in Caribbean culture? Is García Márquez’s early life determined by the wishes of his parents and the economic needs of his family or by his own desires?

5. The epigraph states, “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” In Living to Tell the Tale, how does memory shape meaning and identity?

6. The child Gabriel has memories that could not have taken place, which gives him “a bad name in the house for having intrauterine memories and premonitory dreams” [p. 70]. What is the role of prophecies, dreams, and irrational fears in the story of García Márquez’s life?

7. García Márquez writes, “I needed this old age without remorse to understand that the misfortune of my grandparents in the house in Cataca was that they were always mired in their nostalgic memories, and the more they insisted on conjuring them the deeper they sank” [p. 70]. He suggests that nostalgia does not play a significant role in his own life. How important is the concept of nostalgia to his fiction? What is the difference between nostalgia and the creative mining of memory?

8. Unforgettable and fantastic incidents of life in Aracataca—the exorcism of his Aunt Wenefrida [p. 82], the violence of the “Black Night of Aracataca” [p. 46], the massacre of the banana workers [pp. 62–63]—are narrated in the second chapter. These events, and many others, became a part of García Márquez’s personal mythology and made their way into his fiction. But, as he says of the “Black Night of Aracataca,” “there is no certain evidence it ever really happened” [p. 46]. How does the memoir address this question of the way the imagination contributes to individual and collective history?

9. García Márquez writes, “I believe that the essence of my nature and way of thinking I owe in reality to the women in the family and to the many in our service who ministered to my childhood” [pp. 74–75]. Why were women so important to him? How are the women different, in roles or in attitudes, from the men in García Márquez’s life? How does he portray his relationship with his mother?

10. García Márquez says of his father, “Papá was a difficult man to see into or to please. He was always very much poorer than he seemed and considered poverty a hateful enemy he could never accept and never defeat” [p. 56]. How does the memoir portray García Márquez’s relationship with his father, and what situations were crucial in determining his feelings about his father?

11. In light of the rootlessness of contemporary American middle-class life and the loosening of bonds among members of extended families, discuss García Márquez’s immersion in community, family, and friendships. Do you see his extraordinary connectedness as determined by his own temperament, by Latin American culture, or both?

12. Critic Michael Wood has noted that the book suggests “again and again, that the world this writer grew up in was effectively a García Márquez novel before he even touched it” [London Review of Books, 3 June 2004, p. 3]. García Márquez himself comments on this phenomenon when he writes, “It was not one of those [stories] that are invented on paper. Life invents them” [p. 528]. Is it true that the sense of fecundity, the density of inspiration, and the frequent occurrence of improbable happenings provided García Márquez with exactly what he needed for his art? Discuss a few events in his novels that you now know have their origins in the author’s life.

13. The memoir conveys the boy’s immense love of books and his hunger for learning. He could memorize long passages of poetry and countless songs, and his teachers were very much aware of his gifts. How important to his formation as an artist were the various schools he attended? Does the memoir suggest that his education served and shaped his vocation or that García Márquez would have become the writer he is regardless of his schooling?

14. “The truth of my soul was that the drama of Colombia reached me like a remote echo and moved me only when it spilled over into rivers of blood” [p. 401]. What does the memoir convey about Colombia’s troubled political history? How critical to García Márquez’s formation as an adult was the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the violence that followed [pp. 312–13]? How is the experience of political upheaval here reflected in the historical or political consciousness of his fiction?

15. “I would light a cigarette without finishing the one before, I would breathe in the smoke with the longing for life seen in asthmatics gulping down air, and the three packs I consumed each day were evident on my nails and in an old dog’s cough that disrupted my youth. In short, I was shy and sad, like a good Caribbean, and so jealous of my intimate life that I would answer any question about it with a rhetorical digression. I was convinced my bad luck was congenital and irremediable, above all with women and with money, but I did not care, because I believed I did not need good luck in order to write well. I did not care about glory, or money, or old age, because I was sure I was going to die very young, and in the street” [p. 401]. Consider the various elements of this quotation in which García Márquez describes the young man he was on the day his mother came to ask him to help sell the house. How did his journey up the Magdalena River that day change him?

16. How important was journalism to García Márquez’s formation as a writer, and how does it relate to his fiction? If you have read The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, News of a Kidnapping, or Chronicle of a Death Foretold, how is his style of narration in these books influenced by the journalist’s craft? He writes, “The novel and journalism are children of the same mother” [p. 290]. What does he mean by this?

17. García Márquez writes of his maternal grandparents’ house, where he spent the first eight years of his life, “I cannot imagine a family environment more favorable to my vocation than that lunatic house” [p. 90]. Which aspects of this household, and which people in it, have the strongest impact on the creative life of the child?

18. The structure of the memoir and the movement of time within it are unique. Is the story given in a strictly chronological order? What is the effect of the use of time?

19. In his Nobel Prize lecture entitled “The Solitude of Latin America,” García Márquez wrote, “Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.” The memoir is one of the “conventional means” by which writers render reality believable; what role does this memoir play in rendering Latin American—particularly Colombian—life believable and thus in lessening its isolation from the rest of the world?

20. Regarding the countless interviews he has given throughout his career, García Márquez says, “An immense majority of the ones I have not been able to avoid on any subject ought to be considered as an important part of my works of fiction, because they are no more than that: fantasies about my life” [p. 489]. In a memoir, as opposed to an interview, an author controls the way he is viewed by the public. What truth about himself and his life does García Márquez seem to want to convey?

Suggested Readings

Jon Lee Anderson, “The Power of Gabriel García Márquez,” The New Yorker, 27 September 1999; Joseph Conrad, Nostromo; Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo; William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying; Carlos Fuentes and Julio Ortega, editors, The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories; Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables; Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis; Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez; Mary Roldan, Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia, 1946–1953; Frank Safford and Marco Palacios, Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society; Sophocles, Oedipus the King; Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway.

  • Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • October 12, 2004
  • Biography & Autobiography - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9781400034543

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