Imagine that Mark Twain had been born on the equator, raised on a diet of William Faulkner and James Joyce, and turned loose to make books out of his picaresque experiences in the tropical backwoods. Imagine that Edgar Allan Poe had translated Honoré de Balzac into English, and Melville and Hawthorne had run with his literary discovery to produce a new kind of literature that we might call transcendental-plus.
Our equatorial, modernist Twain, cigar and all, our conjurer of the genre called magical realism, is the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez — who, at 82 years old, belongs to the world and to world literature. Just as the modernists (Faulkner, Woolf, Joyce, Hemingway) dominate the literature of the first half of the 20th century, García Márquez towers over that of the second, more influential and more universal than any of his contemporaries.
So suggests biographer Gerald Martin, and rightly so. "It is probably not an exaggeration," he adds of García Márquez's most famous book, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), "to claim that it was the world's first truly 'global' novel."
One of the best moments of Martin's long, richly detailed life of García Márquez comes at a moment that will make acrophobics sweaty at the palms. An aficionado of Latin America's scary highways, "Gabo" is motoring along the mountain track to a beach in Mexico, where he has long lived.
"The road down to Acapulco," writes Martin, "is one of the most tortuous and testing in a country of terrifying twists and turns, and García Márquez, who has always enjoyed driving, was delighting in the piloting of his little white Opel through the ever-changing panorama of the Mexican road." Half-attentive to the vertiginous road, he was, as always, thinking up stories, and all of a sudden a phrase popped into his head: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad . . ."
The phrase, the opening of Solitude, is as well known to readers today as "Call me Ishmael" and "It was the best of times. . . ." From there, the novel tumbles into an odd epic full of crowd-pleasing sex and violence, visitations by spirits and strange sights in a mossy, humid jungle settlement far from any place in particular — and all very much the ingredients of the author's own life, so much so that it, and much of García Márquez's other fiction, can be read as a carefully constructed autobiography.
The facts of that life are sometimes sad, sometimes surreal, a microcosm of Colombia itself. Born into a family torn apart by politics and essentially abandoned, García Márquez spent his early years with his grandparents in a small town bracketed by mountains and banana plantations — one of the latter of which was called Macondo, a name well known to his later readers.
He lived a determinedly bohemian early adulthood, rejecting his parents' wishes that he become a doctor or at least a lawyer and instead settling on journalism, a field in which he remains active. He lived in places he did not care for, ardently opposed to the right-wing politics and strongmen that characterize South America to the point of caricature. He wrote with pencil stubs, and he lived on air, as poor as any campesino.
And of all these things he made art. One of Martin's great contributions is to reveal the autobiographical components of books such as No One Writes to the Colonel and Love in the Time of Cholera, with their endlessly intertwining genealogies that recapitulate García Márquez's confusion when "as a child, he tried to make sense of the tangled historical networks of family lore," lore that danced around uncomfortable hints of illegitimacy and even incest — hard stuff for one aspiring to, say, national office, but wonderfully mealy grist for a storyteller's mill.
García Márquez's arrival on the international literary scene five decades ago opened the door for many other Latin American writers (Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Donoso, Cortázar) and spawned many lesser imitators, who tried without success to imitate the master's magical realism.
That arrival also ushered in contradictions, mostly wrought by the money that he had never known — he once could afford to send only half a manuscript at a time to his publisher — but that suddenly came pouring in. For, as Martin notes, it would be difficult for lesser souls to retain the fierce leftism for which García Márquez is renowned (and suspect, in some circles) while surrounded by all the good things wrought by millions of dollars, yen, francs, euros, pesos and escudos in royalties, and ringed by friends who include not only Fidel Castro but also Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire.
Ah, well: Lunch with the Zapatistas and dinner on the Champs-Elysées seems perfectly in keeping with the unlikely, but very real, worlds that Gabriel García Márquez has been fashioning for the last half century. 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.
Gregory McNamee writes about world literature and cultures for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and many other publications.