A review of Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, by Gerald Martin

There aren't many 20th-century novelists whose lives are as interesting as their novels, but Gabriel García Márquez's is certainly among the few. Born in a tropical backwater of Colombia in 1927, he endured crushing poverty throughout most of his childhood and adult life-until the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. Quickly he went from being a virtually unknown writer—eight months behind on his rent—to being the voice of a continent, becoming the most celebrated Spanish-language author since Cervantes.

Just how much of his fiction had merely been lifted from life—as he has always claimed—was something of a mystery. But now, thanks to Gerald Martin's Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, we know the sources of at least some of his stories. Many readers of García Márquez are familiar with his early life as it relates to his seminal novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude: how Aracataca, the town of his childhood, became the mythical Macondo, and how his maternal grandfather, Colonel Nicholás Márquez, became Colonel Aureliano Buendía. But few readers know why Nicholás Márquez moved his family to the remote town—or that on the night when our author wrote the death of Aureliano Buendía, he went up to his bedroom and wept for two hours, mourning, as Martin tells it, "the end of an entire era of his life and of a person he had been, and the end of a particular inexpressible relationship with the most important person in his life, his grandfather."

Martin's book is full of anecdotes and solid, well-researched history that not only grounds some of the novelist's "magical realism" in reality, but also pulls back the curtain on the magician himself: a writer whose celebrity and acclaim forced him to create a carefully managed public persona in order to preserve his private—and secret—selves. The public life is already well known; what Martin gives us is much of the private life and a few glimpses into the secret life.

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A professor of modern languages at the University of Pittsburgh, Martin spent 17 years researching and writing this hefty volume, which he used to describe as a "tolerated" biography until García Márquez began calling him his "official" biographer. Indeed, the resulting work is a detailed account of García Márquez's life, including—as if in homage to the fictional genealogy of Aureliano Buendía—seven tedious pages of genealogy and family origins. Even so, the book is apparently an abridgment of a longer one that Martin intends to publish later, for truly fanatical García Márquez fans.

But trouble emerges about half-way through this otherwise thoughtful and meticulous biography, as it gradually takes on the aspect of hagiography, particularly when it comes to the novelist's complicated, troubling relationships with Latin American dictators.

Of course, the elephant in the room is García Márquez's famous friendship with Fidel Castro. Here Martin is strangely incurious—and often apologetic and defensive, as if taking the opportunity to answer García Márquez's critics rather than addressing the far more important question of why the novelist worked so hard to befriend the dictator in the first place. Why would García Márquez, at the height of his celebrity, wait for a month in Havana's Hotel Nacional hoping for Castro to call? "It is easy to imagine," answers Martin, "how fascinating the thought of getting to know Castro must have been for a man as obsessed from an early age with the theme of power as García Márquez." Perhaps it's easy for Martin to imagine; he seems to share most of García Márquez's political views, and the bias is distracting.

There are many signs throughout the book that Martin has gotten too close to his subject. A fine example is his account of the infamous Padilla affair, which divided many artists and writers on the question of Cuba, and in which García Márquez came down on the wrong side—twice. The first time involved a 1968 exchange between García Márquez and the novelist Juan Marsé, who was invited to Cuba to judge a national literary competition that awarded the poetry prize to Herberto Padilla, an alleged counter-revolutionary. The award set off a national crisis of sorts and the judges were sequestered for weeks until the government relented. Afterward, Marsé told his tale to García Márquez and other friends at a party in Barcelona. Marsé told Martin that García Márquez was furious with him:

He said that I was an idiot, that I didn't understand anything about literature and even less about politics. Politics always came first. It didn't matter if they hanged all us writers. Padilla was a bastard who worked for the CIA and we should never have given the prize to him. It was an extraordinary display. He didn't actually abuse me but he made it clear that we inhabited totally different intellectual and moral universes.

But Martin isn't interested in exploring the differences between those universes, and in the very next paragraph goes to bat for his subject, explaining "what Marsé didn't know" was that García Márquez had favored a "direct behind-the-scenes approach to Castro," which apparently involved sending the Cuban dictator a letter kindly asking him not to punish Padilla. Castro did not reply.

Three years later, Cuban authorities arrested Padilla and forced him to sign a letter of self-criticism, which prompted a group of Latin American and French writers in Paris to issue an open letter to Castro condemning his "Stalinist" persecution of writers and intellectuals. Though the letter included the name of Gabriel García Márquez-as well as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beavoir, Mario Vargas Llosa, and many others—he had not actually signed it. A friend and fellow writer, Plinio Mendoza, wrongly assumed that García Márquez would lend his support to the cause and signed for him. Incensed, he demanded that his name be removed, and in a staged interview, defended Castro, claiming "if there were Stalinist elements in Cuba Fidel Castro would be the first to say so and to start to root them out." Martin calls this interview "the coolest and most measured public response" to the situation, and although he allows that this was a difficult time for the novelist, he quickly shuffles us along to García Márquez's other adventures—accepting an honorary doctorate from Colombia University, insulting 1967 Nobel Prize winner Miguel Angel Asturias, etc., etc.

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Such a cursory, apologetic treatment of García Márquez's political activities is frustrating, because Martin can often be insightful. He's at his best when analyzing the novels themselves, especially connecting certain aspects of them to people, places, and episodes that fired the young writer's imagination. And because so much of what shaped García Márquez took place early in his life and career, the first half of Martin's book proves the more interesting. Martin suggests that perhaps the most formative experience for the young García Márquez was a trip with his mother in 1950 to his childhood home in Aracataca. Here, the 22-year-old realized his literary vocation and began to develop his masterpiece: "The visit not only triggered his memory and changed his attitude towards his own past; it also showed him how to write the new novel." This was the house, "full of ghosts," where García Márquez's mother left him in the care of his grandparents shortly after he was born, alone in a house full of people—"grandparents, aunts, transient guests, servants, Indians."

If Aracataca and the bygone world of his grandparents formed a kind of creative template for Macondo and the "magical" universe of One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez's own meteoric rise to fame, his now-public persona, and his increasing political consciousness informed his next book, The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), which chronicles the life and death of a fictional Caribbean tyrant. García Márquez dedicated the first copies of his dictator novel to Fidel and Raúl Castro.

Martin tells us that Vargas Llosa once referred to García Márquez as Castro's "lackey," and though Martin goes out of his way to explain that the Peruvian writer must have been jealous of García Márquez's success, it's difficult not to think there's some truth in the insult. In 1989, seven years after he had won the Nobel Prize and achieved unparalleled fame throughout Latin America—having published, to much acclaim, Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), and, that very year, The General in His Labyrinth—García Márquez would somehow have nothing to say when his good friend Castro executed his other good friend (and a colonel in the Ministry of Interior), Tony de la Guardia, on trumped-up drug charges. Martin doesn't have much to say about it either, and the reader is left to wonder why.

But because the biographer is as obsequious toward García Márquez as García Márquez is toward Castro, the second half of the book gets bogged down recounting, in tedious detail, high-profile hob-nobbing with presidents, celebrities, and the super-rich. From that point, power becomes the central theme of the biography. And it's too bad, because it feels like there could have been more to say, even in a volume this thick, about García Márquez's inner struggles, motivations, and artistic vision. Here is a writer whose literary imagination drew again and again from the deep well of his own experience, an experience rich and varied enough for him to mythologize into a body of work that is among the greatest in 20th-century literature. His novels will live despite his politics. But the latter strains his life even as it vitiates this biography.