Gerald T. Cobb

The front cover of Gabriel García Márquez’s Living to Tell the Tale shows the author as a wide-eyed child of 2, while the back cover shows the Nobel laureate as a distinguished gentleman of 75. The passage from one stage of life to the other will be the subject of a three-volume memoir, and if this first installment is any indication, readers have a remarkable treat in store over the coming years.

Márquez is perhaps best known for his novels and short stories written in the mode of “magic realism,” and this book reveals the sources and inspirations for that distinctive literary approach. From his earliest days Márquez told tall tales: “My stories were simple episodes from daily life that I made more attractive with fantastic details so that the adults would notice me.” His parents were not alarmed by this trait, having been advised by a family friend, “Children’s lies are signs of great talent.” Growing up under what he calls “the torrent of oral tradition,” Márquez devoured literature, especially folk tales. He notes, “I even dared to think that the marvels recounted by Scheherazade really happened in the daily life of her time, and stopped happening because of the incredulity and realistic cowardice of subsequent generations.”

Márquez was born on March 6, 1927, in Aracataca, Colombia, amid delightfully odd relatives and unusual pets like Lorenzo the Magnificent, a 100-year-old parrot that seemingly had the power to announce minor domestic catastrophes moments before they happened. He observes, “I cannot imagine a family environment more favorable to my vocation than that lunatic house, in particular because of the character of the numerous women who reared me.” His grandmother was compulsively hospitable to transient visitors sent to their house by distant relatives or friends. She cooked tirelessly for these strangers, preparing many different dishes because, as she explained, “We have to make everything, because we don’t know what the people who are coming will like.”

Márquez vividly describes the Catholic faith of his mother and grandmother: “My mother clung to her rosary as if it were a capstan that could hoist a tractor or hold a plane in the air.” His grandmother had a gift for theological pronouncements, as when she advised a rebellious child: “God forgives everything except disobedience.” Márquez attended a Jesuit secondary school, and there he was exposed to priests who were interested in larger questions about Colombia’s unstable political situation, which served as the focal point for much of his later writing.

Although he enrolled in law school to please his parents, Márquez had a real passion for the life of the café, where he could read and listen to literary conversations. There a friend presented him with James Joyce’s novel Ulysses as “the other Bible,” and Márquez affirms that “it not only was the discovery of a genuine world that I never suspected inside me, but it also provided invaluable technical help to me in freeing language and in handling time and structure in my books.” He was also influenced by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which led him to the conviction that “[i]t was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice.”

After dropping out of law school, Márquez ended up writing a newspaper column, and journalism became what he called “essential gymnastics” for his continuing formation as a writer. Living in a rundown hotel that functioned mainly as a brothel, he experienced loneliness and poverty, but also renewed his dedication to writing as much as 10 hours a day.

Márquez considered William Faulkner “the most faithful of my tutelary demons,” and this helps explain the Faulknerian aspects of his style and characterization. He fashioned the fictional town of Macondo as the Colombian correlative to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, populating it with a wild menagerie of people and making it a stage upon which the dramas of love and civil war played. Just as Faulkner drew his characters from the bloody backdrop of the U.S. Civil War, Márquez drew upon his heritage as the grandson of a general who fought in Colombia’s own civil conflicts.

In making one’s way through this rich narrative, one wishes that the author had provided an index and clearer time markers within the text, but these are small quibbles indeed when measured against the pleasures of entering so profoundly into the formative influences of a great writer. Anyone who has enjoyed one of Márquez’s remarkable novels or short stories will treasure this book for its intimate portrayal of the formative influences in his life.

Toward the end of the book, a friend asks the young Márquez why he never told him who he really was, and Márquez replies, “I couldn’t tell you because even I don’t know who I am yet.” The volume ends in this vein, a bit up in the air, with a double drama about to unfold—in his late 20’s, Márquez sets off for a new assignment in Europe just after writing an important letter to Mercedes Barca, the woman who would eventually become his wife.

Perhaps the surest sign of the success of this book comes in the reader’s enthusiasm to await its sequel, so as to hear Márquez’s account of the subsequent episodes in his distinguished life of love and literature.

Gerald T. Cobb, S.J., is associate professor in the English department at Seattle University.