The awaited memoir of Garcia Marquez

November 23, 2003|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Living to Tell the Tale, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Knopf. 496 pages. $26.95.

He is timid, even shy, but the whole country knows. The local doctor tells his grandfather, "Children's lies are a sign of great talent." A colonel looks straight into his eyes and says, "You'll go far!" Scarcely into his 20s, having published only a few short stories, Gabito already is called "maestro."

This astonishing first volume of the memoirs of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez closes with the author at age 28 leaving Colombia for Europe, a two-week assignment he stretches to three years. He is more than a decade from the string of masterpieces that will begin with One Hundred Years of Solitude.

As a child, Gabito memorizes his beloved grandfather's dictionary. As an apprentice writer, he devours Faulkner, "the most faithful of my tutelary demons." As a young law student, he is only a few blocks away when liberal lawyer Jorge Eliecer Gaitan is assassinated, igniting the violence that would leave 300,000 of his countrymen dead and the country in the throes of civil unrest that continues to this moment.

Throughout, his poverty is "absolute." He washes his two shirts in the shower. Homeless, he eats when he can. He moves restlessly from Bogota to Cartagena de Indias to Barranquilla and back: "I had no destination, not that night and not ever in my life."

The weeping manatees of Love in the Time of Cholera appear, along with the ill-fated genius-parrot. His grandfather fashions little gold fish with articulated bodies, as did Col. Aureliano Buendia, and he, too, has a crowd of illegitimate sons who arrive one day with the charcoal mark of Ash Wednesday on their foreheads. As a reporter, Garcia Marquez investigated the story behind Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Art flows from life, and life from art, as the Colombian legislature takes the number of dead in the horrendous banana massacre of striking United Fruit workers not from the annals of history, but from the fiction of Garcia Marquez.

This exquisite memoir reads like a Garcia Marquez novel. Here is Bogota, "a remote lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the sixteenth century." A radical Marxist teacher at his liceo in Zipaquira believes also in "apparitions of the dead."

Among the author's early triumphs is a speech praising "Franklin Delano Roosevelt who like El Cid knows how to win battles after death"; the unique magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been born.

The narrator is a man with greatness of heart and abounding humor. His mother takes in her husband's illegitimate children, adding to her own 11, because "the same blood that's in my children's veins just can't go wandering around out there." He fails law school with no regrets, preferring "to read the hieroglyphs of reality." It is 1955 when he bids temporary farewell to Mercedes Barcha, to whom he has been "proposing marriage since she was thirteen."

Near the end, a porter complains that "Don Gabriel" never told him who he was. "Ah, my dear Lacides," Garcia Marquez says, "I couldn't tell you because even I don't know who I am yet." For that revelation, readers will clamor for the next installment.

Joan Mellen teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. The latest of her 15 books, A Farewell to Justice, an account of Jim Garrison's investigation into the murder of President John F. Kennedy, will be published next year.

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