|Vivir para contarla, Gabriel García Márquez. Alfred A. Knopf: 592 pp., $25
Editor's note: Recently, Alfred A. Knopf, in a move unprecedented in the U.S. book world, published the Spanish edition of Gabriel García Márquez's long-awaited memoir in the United States, a year prior to its appearance this fall in English. Without benefit of reviews or publicity, Vivir para contarla found its way onto The Times' bestseller list. Book Review has decided that a review, in Spanish with accompanying English translation, is in order.
When I opened "Vivir para contarla," the plane was climbing to 35,000 feet and fear was thrashing through my blood. Just a few pages later, however, Gabriel García Márquez's words would have sufficed to keep me flying even if the plane had succumbed to the law of gravity. I was oblivious to the fear of death.
The following day, back on terra firma, as I continued to read, such contentment came over me that I treated myself to a long and leisurely bath scented with aromatic salts while Cecilia García Amaro's sensuous music played in the background. Furthermore, I was seized by a ferocious urge to eat chocolate. My body makes no mistake, I thought; this is a great book.
The plane on which I began reading García Márquez's memoirs was taking me back to Los Angeles from Managua. I'd been in Nicaragua to celebrate New Year's with my family. I'd covered all the bookstores in the city, growing more and more disappointed because the answer I got in all of them was the same: "García Márquez's book? Uh, we're all out of it. It sold out. We haven't got a single copy left."
My last resort was my friend Salva, who runs a publishing house. "Let me see, poet, maybe I can get you one." She got on the phone, passing on the bad news from her distributors. I got up to browse through some books in the shop next to her office, and when I came back to her desk, there it was: García Márquez's book, staring at me, brand new and sealed up in its transparent protective wrapping. It seemed like some great trick of prestidigitation, more so because Salva, being her enigmatic self, refused to tell me how she had managed to produce a copy of a book that was sold out everywhere in the country. "You're taking away the last one left in Nicaragua," she told me, smiling mischievously.
Back in Los Angeles, I found out that I could have spared myself that anxious search: The book was for sale in the United States. Alfred A. Knopf, in an unprecedented move, had decided to publish it in Spanish in this country a year ahead of its publication in English as "Living to Tell the Tale." I would like to think that this wasn't just a commercial decision but a tribute to the way in which this inimitable writer transmutes the Spanish language into a metal of his own making, the purity and the glow of which reveal the splendor that the immense solitude of Latin America conceals. We Latin Americans enjoy few advantages in the world. Being able to read García Márquez -- known by his nickname, Gabo, throughout the Spanish-speaking world -- without intermediaries is one privilege we cannot forfeit.
"Vivir para contarla" is the first of what I imagine will be, to our good fortune, three or more volumes of memoirs. It flashes back to a time before his conception, continues with his birth in Aracataca, Colombia, on March 6, 1928, and takes us to the time when his first novel, "The Leaf Storm," and the success of his journalistic reportage, "Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor," in 1955 confirmed his destiny as a great writer.
García Márquez begins "Vivir para contarla" by explaining how he came upon the story that he would develop throughout his career as a writer. One day, unexpectedly, his mother asks him to go with her to sell the family home in Aracataca. "Neither my mother nor I, of course, could have possibly imagined that this simple two-day trip would so determine my life, that the longest and most diligent of lives would never be sufficient for me to finish telling it."
Through the first chapters, until his family moves to Barranquilla, Colombia, García Márquez travels with his mother and immerses us in the personal history and the geographical markers that gave rise not only to "One Hundred Years of Solitude" but also to most of the rest of his imaginary world. In "Vivir para contarla," we visit the landscape of his childhood and discover that, in common with the fictional patriarch of his most famous novel, Aureliano Buendía, his grandfather had a silver workshop where "he spent the better part of his time turning out the little gold fishes with articulated bodies and tiny emerald eyes that yielded him more joy than income"; that his grandmother Tranquilina Iguarán supported her family by selling little candy animals, as did the character Ursula Iguarán; and that nobody understood how his sister Margot, inspiring the fictional Rebeca Buendía, survived without food until they realized "that she only liked the damp soil of the garden and the lime cakes that she would tear from the walls with her fingers." This is a journey in which each family anecdote and tale brings us back to characters we've met in his books or reveals to us the promise of many stories yet to be written. Through it, we find the hidden genetic codes of the Buendías, of Remedios the Beauty and Petra Cotes, and we come to realize that we've penetrated the looking glass, thinking we would be able to separate fiction from reality only to discover that they're inseparable.
García Márquez warned us of this in the title of the book. "Vivir para contarla" is a popular Latin American saying that synthesizes with amazing simplicity the symbiotic link between life and literature. "Art is a lie that reveals the truth," Pablo Picasso said, and "Vivir para contarla" is, from the start, an empirical argument to demonstrate both the reality of magic and the magic of reality. García Márquez brings up the idea more than once in that playful way of his, so far removed from academic parsimony. Referring to "The Arabian Nights," for example, he says: "I even dared to think that the wonders Scheherazade told about had really happened in the daily life of her time and that they stopped happening because of the disbelief and cowardice of succeeding generations."
Because this is a book that draws from the original sources of the writer's imagination, its language makes our mouth tingle with the fruity taste of words we remember from reading "One Hundred Years of Solitude." An essentially simple sentence uses sonorous adjectives and draws out unexpected conclusions that leave no room for doubt, given the writer's certainty. The credibility of these affirmations relies on our senses and intuition more than on our logic. García Márquez's mastery of the craft succeeds at making a basic sentence into an inexplicable wonder: "She went on contemplating every place we came upon along the way and I knew what she was thinking about each one by the changes in her silence" or "the crowd was penned in by panic, as they were slowly mowed down by the methodical, insatiable shears of the machine gun." In addition, the memoir's constant oscillation between present and past, far from confusing us, provides a continuous cross-referencing that proves essential in understanding his life and work.
After seducing us in the early chapters by revealing a reality as fascinating as his fiction, we follow García Márquez on our tiptoes on the journey he traveled to tell the story that lies in his origins. We could say that "Vivir para contarla" has the classical plot of a hero's mythical quest. The obstacles he must overcome range from the poverty of a family with 11 children to his extreme shyness, which, fortunately, never diminished his vital force or curiosity. As he narrates his years as a student, he continues to provide us with details of his formation as a writer. When he introduces his grandfather, he lets us know: "When Grandfather gave me a dictionary, it awakened such a curiosity about words in me that I read it like a novel, in alphabetical order, scarcely understanding it. That was my first contact with what would be the fundamental book in my destiny as a writer."
During his school years, his mentors saw that he had a great deal to say, so they broke the rules and let him take home books from the school library. "Two of them, 'Treasure Island' and 'The Count of Monte Cristo,' were my happy drugs in those rocky years."
After the vicissitudes of puberty, strengthened by women like his mother and Martina Fonseca, his forbidden lover who taught him how to study, García Márquez is initiated as a journalist. By that time, he had already written some poems, had read Kafka, who "laid out a new path in my life from the first sentence," and had published three stories in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. After the 1948 assassination of Colombian presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, he had to leave Bogotá, where he'd been studying to be a lawyer. The outbreak of violence that followed the assassination is known in the history of Colombia as the "Bogotazo."
García Márquez was an eyewitness to the murder, and his account is not only dazzling, it also reveals the origins of his political thinking. After fleeing to Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, he circulates in a group of friends and larger-than-life characters who almost tentatively introduce him to the editorial rooms of the newspaper El Universal, where he lands a job. A series of coincidences and the vitality of his friends, perhaps more than his own volition, place García Márquez from then and for many years to come behind a typewriter and in the middle of the excitement and tensions of journalism.
This section of the book may prove more difficult for readers because of the many names and different jobs and residences. Like the entire book, however, this section is laden with wonderful anecdotes and musings about the writing craft, as well as the tribulations that led to his first novel, "Leaf Storm," and later to his famous piece of reporting, "The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor," in April 1955. We leave García Márquez in July of that year on a flight to cover a summit meeting in Geneva. He's in the plane writing a love letter to the woman who will be his wife, Mercedes Barcha. He is 27 years old.
Up to this point, we have seen our hero go through his training and the blessing of his arms. With his pen unsheathed, he marches off to the conquest of his literary chimera. García Márquez has shared with us not only the clues to his life but also another secret behind his many wonders: his friends. Few people I know have had as much luck as he in finding mentors and guardian angels. Fate, it would seem, not only sowed in his path a family whose past contains all the myths of Latin America but people with pockets full of illuminated pebbles to show him the way to the fulfillment of his literature.
Reading this book, one realizes that the key to García Márquez's success -- and the reason we love his literature -- lies in his extraordinary capacity to accept and enjoy life in its multiple dimensions. His talent to blend magic and reality relieves us from the rationalist Cartesian split -- so unhealthy for the spirit -- and presents an alternative, wholesome way to embrace both. This is precisely why his writings provoke such a sensual joy. They let our imagination roam free in our bodies and infuse us with the magical powers inherent in the human condition. His writing shows us, Latin Americans, a credible version of our own history: not the academic vision of the history books that in no way resembles our experience but the version we learned by living in forsaken towns and in cities where lunatics and crocodiles roamed the streets and where dictators kept prisoners in cages alongside their pet lions and jaguars. In a world increasingly suffering the unreal, García Márquez has fooled reality once more, this time by remaining faithful to it.
Gioconda Belli is the author of "The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War." Her review was translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times