Living to Tell the Tale

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

You wouldn’t expect the autobiography of Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez to be just another life story. After all, this is the fellow who made “magic realism” into a literary brand. You know he has tricks up his sleeve.

The epigraph totally disarms the critic: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” This isn’t going to be just the facts. Living to Tell the Tale is a life reconstructed in the imagination.

For example: One of the more important historical landmarks that would influence his work was the bloody suppression of a banana company strike in 1928. But to this day no one is sure exactly what happened and how many people were killed. “Later, I spoke with survivors and witnesses and searched through newspaper archives and official documents, and I realized that the truth did not lie anywhere.” And so the event was incubated in the imagination. “So many contradictory versions [of how many workers were killed] have been the cause of my false memories.” If the truth does not lie anywhere, all we have are memories and stories.

And so Marquez relates his own most persistent memory, standing in the doorway of his house with a Prussian helmet and a little toy rifle while an army troop marched past.

“The memory is clear, but there is no possibility that it is true,” he admits. “Multiple incidents like this one gave me a bad name in the house for having intrauterine memories and premonitory dreams.”

Making things up, even inventing false memories, is, of course, the novelist’s stock-in-trade. Elsewhere he describes this habit as “a budding narrator’s rudimentary techniques to make reality more entertaining and comprehensible.” And so it continues to be.

Living to Tell the Tale is only the first of a projected autobiographical trilogy, beginning with the fabulous tales of Marquez’s family history and ending with his departure for Europe in 1955. As such it is the portrait of the artist as a young man, a story of finding a vocation.

Nothing in Marquez’s fiction seems as supernatural as his account of what it was like growing up in literary Colombia. Cafe arguments over Faulkner’s merits as a novelist erupted into fistfights. And poetry! Why, “the world belonged to the poets” then:

It is difficult to imagine the degree to which people lived then in the shadow of poetry. It was a frenzied passion, another way of being, a fireball that went everywhere on its own. We would open the paper, even the business section or the legal page, or we would read the coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup, and there was poetry waiting to take over our dreams. . . . We not only believed in poetry, and would have died for it, but we also knew with a certainty – as Luis Cardoza y Aragon wrote – that “poetry is the only concrete proof of the existence of man.”

Was it really like this, or is this only how the aspiring poet remembers it? One suspects Marquez the fabulist, but how to explain the story of the teacher who read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain to a dormitory of young schoolboys every night? Even now the “thundering success” of Mann’s work is beyond Marquez’s power to explain. Did it really require the intervention of the rector to keep the boys from spending the whole night awake so as “not to miss a word of the disordered philosopher duels between Naptha and his friend Settembrini”? The reading that night, or so we are told, “lasted more than an hour and was celebrated in the dormitory with a round of applause.”

Those were the days.

With its wandering narrative, confused political background (some acquaintance with the Colombian politics is a prerequisite for understanding what’s going on), and casual references to the literary personalities of the time, Living to Tell the Tale is not always easy to follow. There are graceful attempts at giving the story a shape – like beginning with his return to his hometown as a young man in the company of his mother to sell the family home, which leads into the story of the family’s history – but overall the structure is anecdotal and episodic. The most impressive of these fragments is his description of the “Bogotazo”, or period of rioting and violence that swept over Bogota after the assassination of Liberal party leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan on April 9, 1948. His first-person account of the country’s slide into violence and chaos gives some idea of his ability as a journalist, the trade he practiced during many of the years covered in this volume.

Probably the most interesting thing about the book for most readers will be finding the original biographical material from which Marquez fashioned masterworks like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. But even the stuff of life itself is only the raw material for an imagined life, which is in turn the only real life we can know. All realism is magic just because it is experience that has been put into words. And in this first volume of memories, Marquez is once again the master alchemist.

Review first published February 28, 2004.

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