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NBCC Featured Review: Marcela Valdes on Gerald Martin

By Eric Banks

Critical Mass regularly features an exemplary review by a National Book Critics Circle member critic. Here, from the Los Angeles Times, NBCC member Marcela Valdes reviews Gerald Martin’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life.

“Everyone has three lives,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez once told Gerald Martin. “A public life, a private life and a secret life.” With little help from the novelist himself, who merely “tolerated” him for years before embracing him as his “official” biographer in 2006, Martin has picked through this tangle of myths and deflections in his engrossing new biography, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life, a feat that has taken 17 years of research and more than 300 interviews. The result is nothing short of a revelation.

The first hint that Garcia Marquez would become arguably the most celebrated Latin American novelist of the 20th century occurred in 1967, soon after his fourth book of fiction, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was published. Garcia Marquez and his enigmatic wife, Mercedes Barcha, who had pawned almost all their possessions (refrigerator, jewelry, hair dryer) as he worked on the book, traveled to Buenos Aires to celebrate its publication there. One night, as they attended a theater performance, a spotlight flicked on and followed them to their seats. “Bravo!” someone yelled. “For your novel!” another woman chimed in. A moment later, the entire theater was on its feet and gave the 40-year-old a spontaneous ovation. “At that precise moment,” a friend recalled, “I saw fame come down from the sky, wrapped in a dazzling flapping of sheets, like Remedios the Beautiful, and bathe Garcia Marquez in one of those winds of light that are immune to the ravages of time.”

Fame has kept blowing on Garcia Marquez in the decades since, as he’s published book after extraordinary book and ascended ever higher in the ranks of celebrity, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982. By then, “Gabo,” as he is fondly called, had written two more stunners—Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) and Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981). Another pair of home runs—Love in the Time of the Cholera (1985) and The General in His Labyrinth (1989)––still lay in his future.

“Everyone’s my friend since One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Gabo once confided to a brother over drinks, “but no one knows what it cost me to get there.” Indeed, though there are thousands of nonfiction articles and volumes about Gabo’s life and writing, including his own 2001 memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, most of these are permeated with legends and half-truths—some of them disseminated by the puckish author himself. As Martin observes, “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.” It has been Martin’s Herculean labor to unearth the real story.

Seeds planted early

Gabo, we learn, was born in 1927 in Aracataca, a small town of fewer than 10,000 (mostly illiterate) people in the Banana Zone of Colombia. The key person in his life was his maternal grandfather, Nicolas Marquez Mejia, a prosperous jeweler who fought in Colombia’s most devastating civil war, the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902), and rose to the rank of colonel. (He was also famous for crafting little gold fish.) Marquez Mejia adored his clever, sensitive grandson, and Gabo lived with him until he was 9, when his long-suffering mother and his erratic, philandering father swooped down and reincorporated him into their impoverished, peripatetic nuclear family.

Martin makes a convincing argument that the seeds of One Hundred Years of Solitude and its magical realist style were sown in those early years Gabo spent abandoned in Aracataca, and not only because many of the novel’s events and characters are derived from the town’s history and inhabitants. (The fictional town Macondo, for example, is named after a nearby banana plantation, and the novel’s famous massacre is based on a real massacre that occurred in 1928.) The magic, Martin reveals, came from Gabo’s grandmother, Tranquilina, a superstitious woman who organized her daily activities according to “atmospheric signals”: thunder, black butterflies, dreams, passing funerals. Thus, little Gabo was nursed on opposing philosophies, his grandfather’s “worldly, rationalizing sententiousness” and his grandmother’s “other-worldly, oracular declarations.”

In Technicolor detail, Martin traces Gabo’s hostile relationship with his father, his early introduction to prostitutes (at age 13), his experience as a brilliant scholarship boy in frayed hand-me-down suits, and his chivalric courtship of Mercedes (which lasted more than a decade and began when she was 9 years old). He tracks down accounts of Gabo’s early forays into journalism, his passion for Virginia Woolf, and his career as a star reporter in the mountainous capital of Bogota, where he would become a sensation for his chilling investigative reports. He follows Gabo on his 2 1/2-year tour of Western and Eastern Europe and then over to Mexico, where Gabo and Mercedes and their two sons sank deep into debt as he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude. He catches the euphoric rush of hard-won success, as well as the burgeoning and eventual implosion of the writer’s friendship with Mario Vargas Llosa.

A thorough account

On almost every page, Martin’s account is studded with acute observations. Discussing Gabo’s stay in Paris during his late 20s, for example, Martin uncovers how his premarital romance with the Spanish actress Tachia Quintana was transmuted into his first masterpiece, the underappreciated No One Writes to the Colonel. (The passionate affair ended miserably in a bungled abortion, a history that Martin recounts thoroughly and without prurience.)

As extraordinary as it is, Martin’s biography is not without flaws. It sputters through a fawning foreword and an awkward prologue before relaxing into the narrative power of its material. Occasionally, the author slips into dubiously broad statements regarding Latin American character, and he’s a bit too fond of pop psychologizing. Most grievously, Martin clings too firmly to the view that his subject is the best of all men, particularly in the biography’s final chapters, which trace Gabo’s years as a literary star turned hobnobbing diplomat who vacations with Fidel Castro.

But these are pardonable blemishes in a work that does a masterful job of tracing the continuing evolution of a man, his work and the world that surrounds him. Martin has understood, as far as it is possible for a biographer to understand, the motivations and experiences that have guided Gabo in his three lives, and all of us who love the maestro’s work are grateful for it.