Philip Hensher

Hero to a continent

Gabriel García Márquez, by Gerald Martin

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Gabriel Garc

Gerald Martin

Bloomsbury, pp. 664, £

Gabriel García Márquez, by Gerald Martin

In July 1965, or so the story goes, a Colombian writer in early middle age, living in Mexico City, decided to take his wife and two young sons on a short and much needed holiday to Acapulco. He had had some small successes, and was respected in the small world of Latin American letters. Still, money was tight and imaginative writing had to be supplemented with income from other sources — journalism, the writing of advertising copy. He had driven some way on the winding road to Acapulco when suddenly, ‘from nowhere’ he afterwards said, a sentence came into his head:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía would remember the day his father took him to discover the ice.

Gabriel García Márquez, it is said — though Gerald Martin, as a respectable Anglo-Saxon mythbusting biographer, disputes the version of the story — promptly braked the car and drove back to Mexico City, where he sat down at a typewriter and did not get up until his great novel was finished.

Legends coagulated around One Hundred Years of Solitude even before it was finished, from its celebrated first sentence onwards. People were describing it as a great novel when they had seen only its first 80 pages. It was a famous work long before its publication, as García Márquez gave a reading to a spellbound audience in Mexico City. Once it was published — García Márquez’s wife, Mercedes, had to pawn her hairdryer and liquidiser to pay the postage, standing by her husband as it went off like, Martin says, ‘two survivors of a catastrophe’ — it quickly took over the world. Few people who read it at the time, and very few since, have been immune to its overpowering, torrential imaginative force. Whether its influence on world literature has been benign is a different question; many novelists have been immensely impressed by the apparition of the wrecked galleon in the jungle, overgrown with lush orchids, and tried to reproduce the effect, with limp results. It could only really be done, we might now conclude, by García Márquez.

The luxuriant effect of García Márquez’s novels is achieved with considerable technical restraint and control — The Autumn of the Patriarch consists of exactly one hundred sentences, for instance. It is important to realise that though they hold an exotic appeal for their largely foreign readership, they are not in themselves exotic, but rather examinations of experience we would consider extreme and overblown. Gerald Martin does a very good job in conveying the ways in which a violent Colombian war, the War of a Thousand Days, in which García Márquez’s grandfather fought, and a terrible violent confrontation between banana workers and bosses in Cienaga in the 1920s shaped the novelist’s imagination. It is better still on the searing heat, the extraordinarily extended family, sometimes including ghosts, and the fabulous properties of the novelist’s youth — parrots, macaws, marsupials and even a sloth in a tree in the garden, aunts who observed that they heard a witch fall off the roof in the middle of the night, and constant retelling of dreams. Of course he became a novelist.

After the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude and, even more, after the award of the Nobel Prize in 1982, García Márquez became a world figure and a hero to the entire continent. The Nobel ceremony has become the stuff of legend; the Colombian radio journalists at the ceremony appeared to be commenting on a football match, and García Márquez had to ask them to put a sock in it. García Márquez’s decision to accept the prize not in the orthodox white tie and tails but in a liquiliqui, a tropical linen suit typical of the Colombian proletariat, shocked many respectable Colombians, some of whom thought he’d turned out in his underwear, but thrilled most of a continent. And after that, he was the world’s friend. When, at his 80th birthday, he called King Juan Carlos ‘tu’ in public, no offence was taken; after all, Charles V had once stooped, in homage, to pick up Titian’s brush.

For most of us, and certainly for posterity, it was the Nobel that was given dignity by García Márquez’s acceptance of it, rather than the other way round. One of the most impressive features of his career is that, nearly uniquely, he wrote and published one of his greatest works after the award. Martin, like some other commentators, seems somewhat unenchanted by Love in the Time of Cholera, and indeed comes close to suggesting that it represents an attempt by the author to broaden his appeal by concentrating on the universal and soft subject of love.

Well, it certainly succeeded in doing so, but few readers fail to respond to the technical mastery, as well as the unparalleled flavour, of this great novel. Personally, I wonder whether lives have been ruined by readers putting too much trust in the admittedly grotesque donnée, of love resumed after decades of interruption. It is the novel of his which is furthest from expressing overt political concerns — something which fascinates commentators on his work, including Gerald Martin, but often baffles and repels the ordinary reader. García Márquez has often teased people by remarking that he thinks The Autumn of the Patriarch is his greatest novel, but I don’t think we want to take him too seriously on questions like that.

Gerald Martin has done a good job here in presenting the myths about the career, as well as debunking many of them. He promises us, in what may be a dig at ungrateful editors, that his 17 years of labour have resulted not only in this long and detailed volume, but a much longer and more detailed one which he hopes to publish in due course. This, I think, is quite good enough for most of us. His account of García Márquez’s pre-Solitude life is particularly good; indeed, after the eruption of worldwide fame, he stops giving us any account of his subject’s earnings, rather disappointingly. The detailed rendering of poverty is constantly interesting, and he should have maintained his investigations — after all, any biography of a living figure is going to be a gross invasion of privacy, so that it seems a little late to start having any scruples in that regard. He can be a little too tactful, particularly on the subject of the famous punch which Mario Vargas Llosa dealt out to García Márquez, ending their friendship permanently. And, like most people nowadays, he doesn’t know what ‘coruscating’ means. But a good, thorough job.

Only sometimes do the bones of a very different biography peep through; a satirical one, in which a novelist who is taken up worldwide for reasons, principally, of radical chic spends years wooing a ridiculous dictator, ponders the dilemma of whether to support a Latin American fascist regime like Galtieri’s, and bewilders a tiny Venezuelan groupuscule with the very public gift of $22,750. Plenty of books less reverential than this about Márquez have been written, and will be written. But you can disagree with his political stance, and still maintain passionately that he deserves the reverence.