Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Living to Tell the Tale" (2003), Gabriel Garcia Marquez

(Bellemeade Books is on vacation during August. Here is a post from the archives originally published September, 2008)

The tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude was based on the way my grandmother used to tell stories. She told things that were supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness ... what was most important was the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.

-- from Living to Tell the Tale

Gratefully, the old fabulist is still with us. Now 80 and suffering from lymphatic cancer since 1999 (he called the diagnosis "a stroke of luck," he said, because it finally gave him the time to write his memoirs), master storyteller Gabriel Garcia Marquez has woven together the early threads of his family history and writing career in Living To Tell the Tale. It's the first volume in a projected trilogy and covers the author's first twenty-eight years, a time of Colombian political turmoil, family, and the ghosts of the past which surrounded him and provided the rich material for his novels.

It's remarkable that the writer who has achieved such acclaim for the magical realism of his novels found so much inspiration from the hot, dusty streets of Aracataca on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Early on, Garcia Marquez was intrigued by the power of imagination to transform life --"to render our lives believable," as he put it in his Nobel lecture. Even more remarkable is the similarity of contemporary Colombia to the writer's recollection of it from sixty years ago; many of the forces that shaped Garcia Marquez as a writer continue today. As one reviewer notes, the memoir shows the reader that

what seems so fantastical in
One Hundred Years of Solitude is in fact a reasonable description of Colombia, where ghosts are central to everyday life and the successor to the civil war depicted in the novel rages to this very day. The ghosts and the guerrillas benefit from an hallucinatory topography that keeps reality at bay.

The ghosts and the guerrillas created in Garcia Marquez an "outsized reality," in his own words, "a reality not of paper but one that lives within us." The unrest and violence marking Colombian politics forms more than the complex backdrop for One Hundred Years of Solitude. An assassination attempt in 1948 on a popular politician propels the young writer, Gabo, to make a choice: he can participate in the real world, or by writing create his own. When in 1950 he becomes a writer for a daily newspaper, he fills blank pages with his own stories composed on the spot. His desire to write -- which he had always shared with family, the church, to anyone who would listen -- became his vocation.

Like all great storytellers, Garcia Marquez knows to keep the action moving, and the craft of his prose, even at 80, is undiminished. A breathless succession of people, memories, and events are recalled with the sure writer's hand, and with remarkable detail. Sexual conquests are told with as much relish as the historical events; petty jealousies, rivalries, and chance meetings are equal parts of the young writer's education.

Don Ramon received me like one more disciple because he had read my stories in El Espectador. But I never would have imagined I would have become close enough to him to ask to borrow money for my trip to Aracataca with my mother. A short while later, in an inconceivable coincidence, we had our first and only conversation in private when I went to pay him, without witnesses, the six pesos he had lent me.
"Cheers, Genius," he greeted me as usual. But something in my face alarmed him. "Are you sick?"
"I don't believe so," I said with some uneasiness. "Why?"
"You look all in, but don't pay attention to me ...
" He put the six pesos into his wallet with a reluctant gesture, as if the money were ill-gotten gains.
"I accept this," he explained, blushing, "as a memento of a very poor young man who was capable of paying a debt without being asked." I did not know what to say, submerged in silence like a leaden wall that I endured in the chatter of the room. I never dreamed how fortunate that meeting was.

When Garcia Marquez reaches his hometown with his mother -- a real-life return at the age of 20 to sell his grandmother's house that frames the opening section of the memoir -- he is stunned to see how little has changed. The first thing that struck me was the silence. A material silence I could have identified blindfolded among all the other silences of the world, he writes. Smaller and poorer, and levelled by a windstorm of fatality.

That Garcia Marquez escapes this desolation through his writing is the triumph of the memoir. His return to Aracataca begins the flood of recollection that turns into a torrent, and promises more in subsequent volumes. His memories, his family history, his ghosts are there to sustain him; Fidel Castro (that sometime book-reviewer and political figure, who was a spectator to the 1948 assassination melee along with Garcia Marquez) praises Living to Tell the Tale as "a work that conjures up nostalgia for the thunder at four in the afternoon, which was the time of lightning and magic."

"Man does not die when he should, but when he can," Garcia Marquez writes in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The memoir's Spanish title -- Vivir Para Contarla -- means "to live to tell it," and with such gusto and intent, Garcia Marquez intends to live long enough to complete telling his own magical tale; he eventually traveled to the United States and received treatment for his lymphoma, which has since been in remission. It's a fairly magical aspect to the life of a writer who once described himself as "a roving and nostalgic Colombian (who is) but one cipher more."

No comments: