García Márquez, Fighting Cancer, Issues Memoirs

By Juan Forero
October 9, 2002
The New York Times
ARACATACA, Colombia, Oct. 6 -- He had always been the most disciplined of writers, sitting early in the morning before his trusty Macintosh, the magical, poetic words that have defined Latin America spilling from his head. That part never changed.
But then Gabriel García Márquez, the 1982 Nobel laureate from Colombia and the foremost author in Latin America, learned in 1999 that he had lymphatic cancer. He promptly cloistered himself with a single-minded pursuit not seen perhaps since he wrote the 1967 masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, in a little more than a year, his only vice a steady supply of cigarettes provided by his wife, Mercedes.
"I reduced relations with my friends to a minimum, disconnected the telephone, canceled the trips and all sorts of current and future plans," the author told El Tiempo, the Colombian newspaper, in rare comments about an illness he usually declines to discuss. "And I locked myself in to write every day, without interruption."
Now, after three years of researching and writing, García Márquez, 75, who underwent chemotherapy in a Los Angeles hospital and is recovering at his Mexico City home, is poised to release what may be his most-awaited book, Vivir Para Contarla, or To Live to Tell It.
The first volume of the author's memoirs, it is an emotional, sometimes bittersweet account of the early years of a man so beloved in Latin America that he is universally known by his nickname, Gabo. Much of it is focused on this former banana boom town in northern Colombia that, despite its poverty and isolation, held mysteries and magic that inspired the storyteller.
The 579-page book, published by the Colombian editorial house Norma, is being released in Colombia on Wednesday and across much of Latin America and Spain on Thursday. It may appear in German, Dutch and Italian by the end of this year, and in the United States as early as the end of next year.
For his followers, To Live to Tell It is a treasure-trove unlocking the secrets of what inspired Mr. García Márquez and explaining how a rich life populated by colorful characters fueled a vivid imagination that led to some of the world's most important contemporary literature.
"It reads like a novel, but it's at the same time a chronicle of the author's life and a reportage of half a century of Colombia's reality," said Roberto Pombo, a close friend and editor of the Mexican edition of Cambio, the Colombian news magazine owned by García Márquez.
Many readers, of course, already know that this sleepy, oven-hot hamlet of almond trees and multicolored wood-plank homes is Macondo, the fictional town where the abundant, fantastical Buendía family wandered in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a town of war and peace, revenge and violence, love and despair and unending isolation -- a paradise lost and a metaphor for Latin America.
And they know that the hair-raising stories of Col. Nicolás Márquez, Mr. García Márquez's grandfather -- tales of the War of a Thousand Days and fatal duels and country-hewn grudges -- haunted the budding writer and provided him with endless grist for his writing.
To Live to Tell It, though, goes deep.
The reader learns the precise moment when the 23-year-old García Márquez, then a struggling newspaper reporter, realizes on an emotional journey back to his childhood home that his calling is the pen. "What you discover is that all of García Márquez's works are in the memories that come to him when he stands in front of that house," Mr. Pombo said.
Indeed, Mr. García Márquez recounts, he realized that he would be "nothing else but a writer" who would complete a first novel "or die."
The author explains how some of Colombia's most harrowing history, like the 1928 army massacre of striking United Fruit Company banana workers, became engrained in his consciousness, not only inspiring his writing but his left-leaning views. And how the loss of loved ones pained him.
"Today it is clear: A piece of me had died with him," Mr. García Márquez writes, recalling the death of his beloved grandfather. He goes on to say: "But I also believe, without the slightest doubt, that in that moment I was already a beginning writer who only needed to learn to write."
Mr. García Márquez has spoken little about the book and did not respond to requests for an interview, in part, friends said, because he is ill at ease speaking about his illness.
That has helped generate a flurry of delicious speculation in Latin American literary circles, as García Márquez's followers wondered what writing style he would use and how he would structure the work.
"People just want to know about this man -- it's the magic of Macondo, you know," said Gerald Martin, who is completing a biography of Mr. García Márquez. "This man is so famous and everybody knows him so well, and yet they cannot imagine how he is going to tell this story."
The memoir, an early reading indicates, is written in a straightforward, journalistic style with a few touches of the magic realism that defines much of his work. The book covers Mr. García Márquez's life to the mid-1950's as the elder son of an itinerant pharmacist and telegraph operator drops out of law school to become a journalist.
He is shaped by the often violent history around him, experiencing the chaos of the Bogotazo, the 1948 riots in the Colombian capital after the murder of the populist politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. "I believe I became conscious," Mr. García Márquez writes, "that on that day of April 9 of 1948 Colombia began the 20th century," a reference to the violence that has gripped the country since.
He develops into a street-smart chronicler at newspapers in the coastal cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla. It is a world of world-wise editors with good advice to a young, impressionable writer, and a collection of literary friends who frequent a bar called La Cueva where they mull over writers like William Faulkner, Daniel Defoe and James Joyce.
"We had so much in common," the author writes, "that it was said we were the sons of the same father." The memoir ends as Mr. García Márquez publishes his first book, Leaf Storm, and leaves for Europe as a newspaper correspondent.
At least two other volumes are on the way, one perhaps taking the reader through 1982, when he is awarded the Nobel, and the other about his relationships with world figures like Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton and François Mitterrand.
For Mr. García Márquez, writing To Live to Tell It allowed him to re-explore his childhood while clearing up the myths and inaccuracies written about him since he achieved spectacular fame with One Hundred Years of Solitude.
"He has wanted to tell that story himself, growing up with his grandfather in that small, nowhere place that was nevertheless magical," Mr. Martin said. "He's been waiting to do this a long time, and now is the time."
As in previous books, Mr. García Márquez depended on an army of relatives, friends and in some cases journalists contracted for the occasion to help gather the details and factoids to help him reconstruct events. "One must capture impressions, memories, go to friends and acquaintances, match statements with memory," Mr. García Márquez told a Brazilian reporter this year.
Renowned for his journalism, Mr. García Márquez dug up mundane details, like the background of the Dominican baseball player he briefly knew 50 years ago, the history of a coastal bordello where he lived, the name of a typesetter who worked at one of his first newspapers.
A friend, Jaime Abello, and Jaime García Márquez, one of the author's brothers, would often find themselves writing detailed reports for Mr. García Márquez, even though the arcane details were only peripheral to the narrative. "Gabo, like a good journalist, always collects a lot of information but he only uses a bit of it," explained Mr. Abello, director of the foundation in Cartagena that Mr. García Márquez created to tutor young journalists.
Mr. García Márquez reread his old newspaper columns and novels and studied books about him and his family, like Silvia Galvis's interviews with the García Márquez clan. He also conducted scores of interviews, many with relatives. "I had the sensation when he would call and ask for a detail that he just wanted our interpretation, that he was perhaps just looking for our angle," said Jaime García Márquez, 62.
Not surprisingly, much of the author's interest focused on reconstructing Aracataca, which has a reputation as a place full of fanciful, imaginative characters with a gift for gab and an appreciation for storytelling.
"That is something innate with the people," explained Robinson Mulford, a writer and literature teacher here. "We sit with our children and tell them stories of our grandparents. We tell them the myths and the legends of the Caribbean."
The young García Márquez seemed to be especially fascinated by stories of death. In the memoir he writes of seeing his first body: a man shot dead trying to break into a home, resulting in a "vision that chased me for many years."
To be sure, this is a writer famously obsessed with death, some say afraid of it. It is evident in his books; nearly all start with a death or a similar theme. Mr. García Márquez's avoidance of funerals is legendary, and the deaths of those close to him -- two brothers and his mother died during the writing of his memoirs -- deeply affect him.
"He once said, 'It is not that I am afraid of death, it is that I have a rage toward death,' " said Jaime García Márquez.
Gustavo Tatis, a journalist in the coastal city of Cartagena, said the author once expounded on his fear of death in an interview. "He said, 'The problem with death is that it lasts forever,' " Mr. Tatis recalled.
Not surprisingly, then, Mr. García Márquez's fixation with death has produced endless conjecture that the author embarked on his memoirs because he feared he would die soon.
To be sure, Mr. García Márquez sacrificed to finish this first volume. The author is a man who loves being close to power, and he is friends with world leaders and has caroused with rebels and diplomats, even playing a behind-the-scenes role in peace talks here. But he forced himself to stay home and he cut back on the journalism that he has said is his first professional love.
Still, those who know Mr. García Márquez said that from his days as a young reporter he had contemplated telling the story of his upbringing and Colombia's tumultuous history. Real life events, some personal, are laced through his fiction. His parent's courtship was the inspiration for Love in the Time of Cholera and a small-town murder was the model for Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
Several friends simply said that the cancer prompted Mr. García Márquez to buckle down. One friend said Mr. García Márquez perhaps "saw a necessity of writing at all times as a form of confronting the illness with force."
Those close to him said Mr. García Márquez's latest work should simply be seen as a celebration of his life, not as a harbinger of death. Indeed, Mr. Abello said that the memoir's title alone tells the story.
"All his motivation is contained in that title, To Live to Tell It -- it is the pleasure of telling the story," he said. "It is like saying life has been worth living."

--Juan Forero, Copyright 2002,
New York Times

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