Solitude & Company — charming account of Gabriel García Márquez’s life

 

 

 

Gabriel García Márquez, the most famous writer in the Spanish-speaking world since Miguel Cervantes, is a difficult subject for a biographer. He contrived some elaborate autobiographical fictions, and was noted for his determination to keep secret what he wished to keep secret. Gerald Martin’s exhaustive 2008 biography, Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, took seventeen years to complete, yet the Colombian novelist remains a shadowy and elusive presence. Solitude & Company, advertised as an “oral history” of García Márquez, returns an infectious charm (and occasional self-importance) to the writer known to friends as “Gabo”.

 

 

 

 

The book (subtitled ‘The life of Gabriel García Márquez told with help from his friends, family fans, arguers, fellow pranksters, drunks, and a few respectable souls’) is made up of interviews with those who best knew Gabo, among them family, agents, fellow authors, film directors and translators. Often the male interviewees are tipsy from quantities of whiskey (“Damn. I don’t remember”), or unstoppably loquacious (“What else can I tell you about Gabo?”) Yet for all its rackety, rough-edged quality, the book captivates. Silvana Paternostro, a Colombian journalist resident in New York, began to tape-record her interviews in 2000, when García Márquez had fourteen years left to live.

 

 

The book adds the occasional interesting detail to Martin’s biography. García Márquez was born in 1927 (not 1928, as he liked to claim) in the sleepy Indian settlement of Aracataca, north of the Colombian capital of Bogota, where his father worked for the Boston-based United Fruit Company. The town’s Caribbean foodstuffs and Afro-Hispanic dialect words – each a legacy of Atlantic slavery – colour every page of the novel that made García Márquez famous and spawned countless imitations, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

 

 

 

Published in 1967, the novel became celebrated for the episode (among others) where a Colombian woman magically ascends to heaven while pegging her washing to a line. The book’s English translator, Gregory Rabassa, speaks of the fashion for “magic realism” this launched in Latin American letters. According to the experts, it really began with the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s dazzling 1949 historical novel of the Haitian slave revolt, The Kingdom of this World, but was positively galvanized by García Márquez.

 

 

Suddenly in the early 1970s the English-speaking world was deluged with phantasmagoric Latin American novels in translation. The authors – Casteneda, Cortazar, Fuentes – were fashionable but sometimes overrated. García Márquez has proved easily the most enduring among them. The musically sensuous prose and fairy-tale enchantment of his fiction can dwindle at times to morbid sensuality or (as in his last, disappointing novel, Memories of my Melancholy Whores) mere hot-house purple patchery. At his best, though, García Márquez even today has no equal.

 

Effectively, One Hundred Years “changed the world’s view of Latin American literature”, says the Spanish actress María Luisa Elío, the novel’s dedicatee. So-called “Gabologists” and “Gabolaters” took to reciting parts of the novel by heart. In 1982, as a reward for his “stubborn” dedication to the craft, García Márquez received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

 

 

He turned up at Stockholm in a man-of-the-people bush jacket and Cuban-heeled cowboy boots. “Everyone kneeled before him”, remembers a friend. Subsequently photographed in the company of President Mitterand, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and (not least) Fidel Castro, García Márquez was now a wealthy man with seven homes in five different countries. He got into a fight with the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (who gave him a black eye for reportedly flirting with his wife), and showed  an increasingly pedantic side in his dealings with the press.

 

 

Fame “attacked” Gabo “like a bull”, says his godson Santiago Mutis, adding: “And then gradually, slowly, another person begins to appear.” Paternostro’s book can profitably be read alongside Living to Tell the Tale, the first volume of García Márquez’s projected (but 

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