Gabriel José García Márquez was born on March 6, 1928 in Aracataca, Colombia, although his father contends that it was really 1927. Because his parents were still poor and struggling, his grandparents accepted the task of raising him, a common practice at the time. Unfortunately, 1928 was the last year of the banana boom in Aracataca. The strike and its brutal reprisal hit the town hard; over one hundred strikers were shot one night in Aracataca and dumped into a common grave. It was a sad start to his life, one that would later resurface in his writing.
Nicknamed Gabito, "little Gabriel" grew up as a quiet and shy lad, entranced by his grandfather's stories and his grandmother's superstitions. Aside from the Colonel and himself, it was a house of women, and García Márquez would later remark that their beliefs had him afraid to leave his chair, half terrified of ghosts. And yet all the seeds of his future work were planted in that house -- stories of the civil war and the banana massacre, the courtship of his parents, the sturdy practicality of the superstitious matriarch, the comings and goings of aunts, great aunts, and his grandfather's illegitimate daughters.... Later García Márquez would write: "I feel that all my writing has been about the experiences of the time I spent with my grandparents."
His grandfather died when he was eight years old, and due to his grandmother's increasing blindness, he went to live with his parents in Sucre, where his father was working as a pharmacist. Soon after he arrived in Sucre, it was decided that he should begin his formal schooling. He was sent to a boarding school in Barranquilla, a port city at the mouth of thez Magdalena River. There, he acquired a reputation as being a shy boy who wrote humorous poems and drew cartoons. So serious and non-athletic was he that he was nicknamed "the Old Man" by his classmates. In 1940, when he was twelve, he was awarded a scholarship to a secondary school for gifted students, run by Jesuits. The school — the Liceo Nacional — was in Zipaquirá, a city 30 miles to the north of Bogotá. The journey would take a week, and in that time he came to the conclusion that he did not like Bogotá. Exposed to the capital city for the first time, he found it dismal and oppressive, and his experience helped confirm his identity as a costeño.
In school, he found himself growing quite stimulated by his studies, and in the evening, he often read books aloud to his companions in the dormitory. And much to his amusement, even though he had yet to write anything significant, his great love of literature and his cartoons and stories helped him acquire a reputation as a writer. Perhaps this reputation provided him with a star by which to steer the ship of his imagination; and he would need it, for after graduation in 1946, the eighteen year old "writer" followed his parents' wishes and enrolled in the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá as a law student rather than as a journalist. It was during this time that García Márquez met his future wife. While visiting his parents, he was introduced to a 13 year old girl named Mercedes Barcha Pardo. Dark and silent, of Egyptian decent, she was "the most interesting person" he had ever met. After he graduated from the Liceo Nacional, he took a small vacation with his parents before leaving for the University. During that time, he proposed to her. Agreeing, but first wishing to finish school, she put off the engagement. Although they wouldn't be married for another fourteen years, Mercedes promised to stay true to him.
The Hungry Years
Like many great writers attending college for a subject they despised, García Márquez found that he had absolutely no interest in his studies, and he became something of a consummate slacker. He began to skip classes and neglect both his studies and himself, electing to wander around Bogotá and ride the streetcars, reading poetry instead of law. He ate in cheap cafés, smoked cigarettes, and associated with all the usual suspects: literate socialists, starving artists, and budding journalists. One day, however, his life changed — all from reading just a simple book. As if all the lines of fate suddenly converged in his hands, he was given a copy of Kafka's The Metamorphosis. The book had a profound affect on García Márquez; making him aware that literature did not have to follow a straight narrative and unfold along a traditional plot. The effect was liberating: "I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago." He also remarked that Kafka's "voice" had the same echoes as his grandmother's — "that's how my grandmother used to tell stories, the wildest things with a completely natural tone of voice."
One of the first things he set out to do was "catch up" on all the literature he had been missing. He began reading voraciously, devouring everything he could get his hands on. He also began writing fiction, and to his surprise, his first story, "The Third Resignation," was published in 1946 by the Liberal Bogotá newspaper El Espectador. (The enthusiastic editor even hailed him as "the new genius of Colombian letters!") García Márquez entered a period of creativity, penning ten more stories for the newspaper over the next few years.
The young Gabo as a journalist.
As a humanist from a Liberal family, the 1948 assassination of Gaitán had profound effect on García Márquez, and he even participated in the rioting of el Bogotázo, having his own quarters partially burned down. The Universidad Nacional was closed, precipitating his move to the more peaceful North, where he transferred to the Universidad de Cartagena. There he half-heartedly pursued law while writing a daily column for El Universal, a Cartagenan newspaper. Deciding finally to abandon his attempts at law in 1950, he devoted himself to writing, moving to Barranquilla. Over the next few years, he began associating with a literary circle called el grupo de Barranquilla, and under their influence he began to read the work of Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, and most importantly, Faulkner. He also embarked on a study of the classics, finding tremendous inspiration in the Oedipus Rex cycle by Sophocles.
Faulkner and Sophocles would become his two biggest influences throughout the late forties and early fifties. Faulkner amazed him with his ability to reformulate his childhood into a mythical past, inventing a town and a county in which to house his prose. In Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha, García Márquez found the seeds for Macondo; and from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Antigone he found the ideas of a plot revolving around society and the abuses of power. García Márquez began to grow dissatisfied with his earlier stories, believing them to be too abstracted from his true experiences. They were "simply intellectual elaborations, nothing to do with my reality." Faulkner taught him that a writer should write about what is close to him; and for years García Márquez had been struggling with his muse -- what did he really want to say?
These thoughts would find form when he returned with his mother to his grandfather's house in Aracataca. Preparing it for sale, they found the house in ill repair, and yet the "haunted house" evoked such a swirl of memories in his head that he was overwhelmed. Indeed, the whole town seemed dead, frozen in time. He had already been sketching out a story based on his experiences there, a tentative novel to be called La casa, and although he felt that he was not yet ready to perfect it, he had found part of what he was after — the sense of place. Inspired by his visit, upon returning to Barranquilla he wrote his first novella, Leaf Storm, With a plot device adapted from Antigone and relocated to a mythical town, the book was completed in an energetic rush of inspiration. He bestowed the name of "Macondo" on his Latin American Yoknapatawpha, the name of a banana plantation near Aracataca that he used to explore as a child. (Macondo means "banana" in the Bantu language.) Unfortunately in 1952 it was rejected by the first publisher he sent it to, and seized by self-doubt and self-criticism, he tossed it in a drawer. (In 1955, while García Márquez was in Eastern Europe, it was rescued from its hiding place in Bogotá by his friends and sent to a publisher. This time, it was published.)
Despite his rejection and his near poverty, however, he was essentially happy. Living in a brothel, he was surrounded by friends, and he had a steady job writing columns for El Heraldo. In the evening he worked on his fiction and talked with his companions over cigarettes and coffee. Then in 1953, he was seized by a sudden restlessness. Packing up and quitting his job, he set out to sell encyclopedias in La Guajira with a friend. He travelled around a bit, worked on some story ideas, and finally became formally engaged to Mercedes Barcha. In 1954, he moved back to Bogotá and accepted a job on the staff of El Espectador as a writer of stories and film reviews. There, he flirted with socialism, avoided the notice of the current dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, and pondered about his duty as a writer in the time of la violencia.
In 1955, an event occurred which would place him back on the path of literature and eventually lead to his temporary exile from Colombia. That year, the Caldas, a small Colombian destroyer, was swamped in high seas on its return to Cartagena. Several sailors were swept overboard, and all died except one remarkable man, Luis Alejandro Velasco, who managed to survive for ten days at sea by clinging to a life raft. When he was eventually washed ashore, he quickly became a national hero. Used as propaganda by the government, Velasco did everything from make speeches to advertise watches and shoes. Finally he decided to tell the truth — the Caldas was carrying illegal cargo, and they were swept overboard because of their negligence and incompetence! Visiting the offices of El Espectador, Velasco offered them his story, and after some hesitation, they accepted. Velasco told his tale to García Márquez, who acted as a ghostwriter and recast it into prose. The story was serialized over two full weeks as "The Truth About My Adventure by Luis Alejandro Velasco," and it created quite a sensation. Extremely unhappy, the Government tossed Velasco out of the Navy. Worried that Pinilla might persecute García Márquez directly, his editors sent him on assignment to Italy to cover the imminent death of Pope Pius XII. When the pontiff's untimely survival made this assignment pointless, García Márquez arranged to wander around Europe as a correspondent. After studying film awhile in Rome, he embarked on a tour of the communist bloc; and later that year his friends managed to get Leaf Storm finally published in Bogotá.
1956. The exiled Pablo Neruda (right) shares a moment with García Márquez (and a lovely Nymph) in Paris.
El Espectador; with thanks to Sean Dolan.
García Márquez travelled through Geneva, Rome, Poland and Hungary, finally settling in Paris where he found that he was out of a job -- the Pinilla government had shut down the presses of El Espectador. Settling in the Latin Quarter, he lived off credit, the kindness of his landlady, and money scraped up returning bottles for their deposits. There, influenced by the writings of Hemingway, he typed out eleven drafts of No One Writes to the Colonel and part of Este pueblo de mierda ("This Town of Shit"), the book that would later become In Evil Hour. After finishing Colonel, he travelled to London and finally returned to his home continent -- not to Colombia, but to Venezuela, the favored destination of Colombian refugees. There he finished Este pueblo de mierda, his work which most directly addresses la violencia. Even though it was obvious that he was developing his own unique style, he was still unsatisfied. His early stories were unemotional and abstract. Leaf Storm was too indebted to Faulkner, and No One Writes to the Colonel and In Evil Hour were too far away from his imagined goal, the image he had been developing for years. He knew his ultimate work would take place in the mythical town of Macondo, but he had yet to find the right tone in which to tell his tale; he had yet to discover his true voice.
In Venezuela he teamed up with an old friend, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, who was by then an editor with Elite, a Caracas newsweekly. Throughout the year of 1957, the pair toured the communist countries of Europe, searching for an answer to Colombia's ills, contributing articles to various Latin American publications. And while they saw something useful in socialism, García Márquez realized with a sense of depression that communism could be just as terrible as la violencia. After a brief stay in London again, García Márquez returned to Venezuela, where Mendoza was working for Momento, and offered his old friend another job. Then, in 1958, he risked a visit back to Colombia. Keeping a low profile, he slipped into his native country and married Mercedes Bacha, who had been awaiting him in Barranquilla for four long years. He and his new bride then slipped back to Caracas, which was having its own share of problems. After publishing pieces aimed at American perfidy and the abuses of tyrants, Momento succumbed to political pressure and took an apologist pro-USA stance after Nixon's disastrous visit in May. Angered by their paper's capitulation, García Márquez and Mendoza resigned. Soon after leaving his position at Momento, García Márquez and his wife ended up in Havana, covering the Castro revolution. Inspired by the revolution, he helped form a Bogotá branch of Castro's news agency, Prensa Latina, and began a friendship with Castro that has lasted until this day.
In 1959 García Márquez's first son, Rodrigo, was born, and the family moved to New York City, where he supervised the North American branch of Prensa Latina. Laboring under death threats from angry Americans, García Márquez resigned his position after a year, becoming disillusioned by the ideological rifts occurring in Cuba's communist party. He moved his family to Mexico City, travelling through the South on a Faulknerian pilgrimage; he would be denied entrance into the USA again until 1971.
In Mexico City he wrote subtitles for films and worked on screenplays, and during this time he beagn to publish some of his fictional novellas. Rescued from moth-eaten oblivion by his friends, No One Writes to the Colonel was published in 1961, and then Big Mama's Funeral in 1962, the same year which saw the birth of his second son, Gonzalo. Finally his friends convinced him to enter the Colombian Esso literary contest in Bogotá; he revised Este pueblo de mierda, changing the title from "This Town of Shit" to La mala hora, or In Evil Hour. He submitted it, and it won. The sponsors of the prize sent the book to Madrid to be published, and it greeted the world in 1962 — to his immense disappointment. The publication was a travesty; the Spanish publisher purged it of all Latin American slang and objectionable material, bowdlerizing it beyond recognition and making the characters speak precise, dictionary Spanish. Heartbroken, García Márquez was forced to repudiate it — it would take nearly half a decade until the book would be published, restored to his satisfaction.
The next few years were a time of profound disappointment, producing nothing of much worth except a film script cowritten with Carlos Fuentes. His friends tried to cheer him up in whatever ways they could, but nevertheless, he began to feel like a failure. None of his works had sold over 700 copies. He had never received any royalties. And still, and still, the story of Macondo eluded his grasp.
And then it happened: his epiphany. On January 1965 he and his family were driving to Acapulco for a vacation, when inspiration suddenly struck him: he had found his tone. For the first time in twenty years, a stroke of lightning clearly revealed the voice of Macondo. He would later write:
"All of a sudden — I don't know why -- I had this illumination on how to write the book.... I had it so completely formed, that right there I could have dictated the first chapter word by word to a typist."
And later, regarding that illumination:
"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 sounded 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."
1981. Swamped by the media in Mexico City.
He turned the car immediately around and headed home. There, he put Mercedes in charge of the family, and he retired to his room to write. And write he did. He wrote every day for eighteen months, consuming up to six packs of cigarettes a day. To provide for the family, the car was sold, and almost every household appliance was pawned so Mercedes could feed the family and keep him supplied with a constant river of paper and cigarettes. His friends started to call his smoke-filled room "the Cave of the Mafia," and after a while the whole community began helping out, as if they collectively understood that he was creating something remarkable. Credit was extended, appliances loaned, debts forgiven. After nearly a year of work, García Márquez sent the first three chapters to Carlos Fuentes, who publicly declared: "I have just read eighty pages from a master." Towards the end of the novel, as yet unnamed, anticipation grew, and the buzz of success was in the air. As finishing touches, he placed himself, his wife, and his friends in the novel, and then discovered a name on the last page: Cien años de soledad. Finally he emerged from the Cave, grasping thirteen hundred pages in his hands, exhausted and almost poisoned from nicotine, over ten thousand dollars in debt, and perhaps only a few pages shy of a mental and physical breakdown. And yet, he was happy — indeed, euphoric. In need of postage, he pawned a few more household implements and sent it off to the publisher in Buenos Aires.
1982. Márquez with his new Nobel Prize.
AP/Wide World Photos
One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in June 1967, and within a week all 8000 copies were gone. From that point on, success was assured, and the novel sold out a new printing each week, going on to sell half a million copies within three years. It was translated into over two dozen languages, and it won four international prizes. Success had come at last. Gabriel García Márquez was 39 years old when the world first learned his name.
Suddenly he was beset by fame. Fan mail, awards, interviews, appearances — it was obvious that his life had changed. In 1969, the novel won the Chianchiano Prize in Italy and was named the Best Foreign Book in France. In 1970, it was published in English and was chosen as one of the best twelve books of the year in the United States. Two years later he was awarded the Rómulo Gallegos Prize and the Neustadt Prize, and in 1971, a Peruvian writer named Mario Vargas Llosa even published a book about his life and work. To counter all this exposure, García Márquez simply returned to writing. Deciding that he would write about a dictator, he moved his family to Barcelona, Spain, which was spending its last years under the boot of Francisco Franco. There he labored on his next novel, creating a composite monster, a Caribbean dictator with Stalin's smooth hands and the solipsistic will of an archetypical Latin American tyrant. In the meantime, Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories was published in 1972, and in 1973 he put out a collection of his journalistic work from the late fifties, Cuando era feliz e indocumentado, or "When I Was Happy and Uninformed."
Autumn of the Patriarch was published in 1975, and it was a drastic departure from both the subject and tone of One Hundred Years of Solitude. A labyrinthine book with long, winding sentences, it was initially considered a disappointment by the critics, who were most likely expecting another Macondo. Opinion has changed over the years, however, and many now consider this novel of shifting realities to be a minor masterpiece all on its own right.
Living in a dictatorship and getting inside the mind of a tyrant took their emotional toll. By the end of the novel, García Márquez had decided that he would write no more fiction until the American-supported Pinochet stepped down from his control of Chile, a decision he would later rescind. Now a famous writer, he was becoming more aware of his own political power, and his increased clout and financial security enabled him to pursue his interests in political activism. Returning to Mexico City, he purchased a new house and stepped up his personal campaign to influence the world around him. Building on his actions of the last few years, he continued to funnel some of his money into political and social causes. Through his writings and donations, he supported leftist causes in Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Angola. He helped found and support HABEAS, an organization dedicated to correcting the abuses of Latin American power and freeing political prisoners, and he struck up friendships with such leaders as Omar Torrijos of Panama, and continued his relationship with Fidel Castro of Cuba. Needless to say, these activities did not endear him to the hearts of politicians in either the United States or Colombia; all his visits to the US were on a limited visa and had to be approved by the State Department. (This travel restriction was finally lifted by President Bill Clinton.) In 1977 he published Operación Carlota, a series of essays on Cuba's role in Africa. Ironically, although he claims to be quite good friends with Castro — who even helped him edit Chronicle of a Death Foretold — he spent the late seventies writing a "very harsh, very frank" book about the shortcomings of the Cuban Revolution and of life under Castro's regime. This book has not yet been published, and García Márquez claims that he is holding it until relations between Cuba and the United States are normalized.
1982, Paris. Márquez with his son, Gonzalo,and his wife, Mercedes.
In 1981, the year in which he was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal, he returned to Colombia from a visit with Castro, only to find himself once again in trouble. The Conservative Government was accusing him of financing the M-19, a Liberal group of guerrillas. Fleeing Colombia, he asked for and received political asylum in Mexico, where he maintains a household to this day. Colombia would soon regret their anger at their famous son, however: in 1982 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Embarrassed, and having just elected a new President, Colombia invited him back, and President Betancur personally saw him off to Stockholm.
In 1982 he assisted a friend in publishing El odor de la guayaba, or "The Fragrance of Guava," a book of conversations with his long time colleague Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, and in the same year he wrote Viva Sandino, a screenplay about the Sandanistas and the Nicaraguan Revolution. Politics, however, would be far from his mind for his next work of fiction, which would be a love story. Turning again to his rich past for inspiration and material, he reworked his parent's strange courtship into the form of a decades-spanning narrative. The story would be about two frustrated lovers and the long time between their second courtship, and in 1986 Love in the Time of Cholera was unveiled to the anxiously waiting world. It was amazingly well received, even pulling Thomas Pynchon out of seclusion to write a review for the New York Times. There was no question that Gabriel García Márquez had become a writer with universal and lasting appeal.
By now one of the most famous writers in the world, he eased into a lifestyle of writing, teaching, and political activism. With residences in Mexico City, Cartagena, Cuernavaca, Paris, Barcelona, and Barranquilla, he finished the decade by publishing
El otoño del patriarca
Unfortunately, in 1999 García Márquez was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, and to this day he suffers under a regimen of treatments, often taking him from Cartagena or Mexico City to clinics in Los Angeles, where his son, filmmaker Rodrigo García, lives.
From the jacket of News of a Kidnapping.
Setting aside fiction for the time being, Gabo is concentrating on writing his memoirs, the first volume of which was published in 2001 as Vivir para contarla, or To Live to Tell It. Instantly selling out its first print run in Latin America, the volume quickly became the best selling book ever in the Spanish-speaking world. (It was recently published in the United States by Knopf, who will bring out an English translation sometime in late 2003.) The first of a promised set of three volumes, Vivir para contarla details Gabo's life up until 1955. He is currently at work on Volume II, which will focus on the writing and publication of his major works, including One Hundred Years of Solitude.