At the time I was too young to understand the significance of the Nobel Prize, and it was only a few years later that I became familiar with the varied characters and mythical settings in García Márquez’s novels. Over the years, family members would send me copies of his books and I would devour them with the same sense of awe felt by Aureliano Buendía the first time he saw ice in One Hundred Years of Solitude. If there were English translations, I would read those, too, for the sake of comparing the effects of the written word in dissimilar languages. Hence my enthusiasm when my sister sent me the Colombian edition of García Márquez’s latest book, Vivir Para Contarla, or Living to Tell the Tale, his memoir of growing up in Colombia amid florid landscapes, civil chaos, rampant poverty, lost loves and the many characters that were to shape his imagination and form the basis of his literary accomplishments.
Living to Tell the Tale has been long awaited by García Márquez readers seeking insight into the early life of an artist considered one of the 20th century’s most influential writers—not only in Latin America, but around the world. The book—written in the same colorful and intensely narrative style that distinguishes much of García Márquez’s fictional work—does not disappoint.
García Márquez begins with an epigraph that leaves the reader unsure as to the strict historical accuracy of his chronicle: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” If there is any one enduring characteristic in the novels of García Márquez, it is his astonishing ability to take the fantastic and tell it with such ordinary honesty and casual simplicity that it becomes almost believable. But much of what is contained in Living to Tell the Tale is factual, historical material that has been meticulously researched in the manner of News of a Kidnapping, Márquez’s reportage on the kidnappings of several journalists in 1990 by the Medellin drug cartel. The fact that the epigraph throws one off does not invalidate any of the events told, and leaves no reason to believe that anything in Living to Tell the Tale might not have actually happened.
The oldest of 11 children, García Márquez was born in 1928 in the small town of Aracataca near the Caribbean Sea in northern Colombia. As a teenager, he was sent by his parents to study at a boarding school located an hour away by train from Bogotá, in the interior of the country, where he acquired a reputation as an introverted poet who composed “lyrical prose and sonnets of imaginary love,” and captured the respect of his classmates and teachers.
Upon graduation, García Márquez moved to Bogotá to study law at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia—mostly in an effort to satisfy his parents’ wishes—and there his first short story, “The Third Resignation,” was published by the newspaper El Espectador in 1947. When indiscriminate violence erupted in Bogotá a year later, after a popular liberal presidential candidate was assassinated three blocks from where Márquez was staying, the writer left Bogotá in a frantic rush on a plane en route to Cartagena de Indias. There he accepted his first job as a journalist, writing a column for the daily newspaper El Universal.
Among the events and relationships Márquez recounts in intimate detail are his parents’ forbidden love (the basis of his fifth novel, Love in the Time of Cholera) and the series of newspaper articles he wrote to fulfill his dream of being a hard-hitting reporter for El Espectador in 1955—when he learned that “the novel and journalism are children of the same mother.” The series formed the foundation of The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, chronicling the experiences of a young soldier who survived 10 days at sea after his ship sank in the Atlantic Ocean, killing seven of the other crew members. The story was so controversial at the time—since it blamed the disaster on the government—that it was published anonymously to evade the censorship imposed by the military dictatorship then in power. When word got out that García Márquez had written the articles, he received several death threats and his editors decided to send him to Europe as a foreign correspondent. The entire series was later published in book format in 1970 under Márquez’s own name.
Living to Tell the Tale is not only the autobiography of a voracious young reader who stumbles into journalism and blossoms into a master novelist; it is also the story of a young country whose historical precedents send it spinning violently out of control in the second part of the 20th century. And who better than Gabriel García Márquez—the standing witness, the interpreter—to tell that tale?