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Made in Macondo

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Perhaps no novel is more closely associated with Latin America in the 20th century than One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Writer and book have become almost synonymous. The author once hailed as “the New Cervantes” and his best-selling work put Latin America on the world-literature map and turned the fictitious backwater town of Macondo into a household word. The book has remained a consistently brisk seller for decades, as have some of the writer’s other best-known books, including Love in the Time of Cholera, The Autumn of the Patriarch and The General and His Labyrinth, to name a few. The foremost representative of the Latin American literature “boom” of the late ’60s and ’70s (along with Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar and José Donoso) and the 1982 Nobel Prize winner in literature, García Márquez would joke that any self-respecting writer had to have an English biographer. What a pleasure it is, then, to finally delve into this first authorized English biography and watch the great man come to life in the expert and sympathetic hands of Gerald Martin.

In much of the world, “Gabo” has come to be known by only this one name. He was a major 20th-century celebrity, not just as a man of letters, but as an influential political figure and friend to presidents and dissidents. His association with Cuba’s Fidel Castro is well known. García Márquez sided early on with the Cuban revolution, and despite some initial differences of opinion with certain hard-line members of Castro’s circle, he would remain a steadfast supporter of the revolution, and a lifelong friend to its leader.

García Márquez was highly critical of the United States’ embargo against Cuba, as well as the U.S. invasions of Panama, Grenada and Iraq years later. In his youth, however, he professed admiration for such American writers as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. He was also influenced by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf across the Atlantic. He read all these authors in Spanish translation. Franz Kafka was a crucial early influence as well, planting the seed for Garcia Marquez’s “magical realism,” a style also foreshadowed by Latin American writers Miguel Ángel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier and Juan Rulfo.

Not all his novels are written in that style, despite the fact that the name García Márquez and “magical realism” have become forever entwined in the public imagination. His work transcends the genre, as evidenced by several of his later books, most notably News of a Kidnapping, a realistic and harrowing account of a high-profile kidnapping in the author’s native Colombia at the height of that country’s drug cartel wars.

García Márquez has also penned numerous short stories and film scripts, and countless newspaper articles and columns. Rivers of ink have been spilled chronicling his large life. Yet his story has a humble beginning in rural Colombia, where García Márquez grew up the eldest of 11 children in an often-struggling family. He and his sister, Margot, were left in the care of their maternal grandparents for the first seven years of his life, a circumstance that would mark him. He considered his grandfather—Nicolás R. Márquez, aka “the Colonel”—to be his real father, and was doted on as only a first male grandchild can be. His grandparents’ home, the small village of Aracataca, their eccentric relatives and visitors and their lush tropical milieu would later serve as the basis for Macondo. It would take García Márquez two decades to articulate that vision in One Hundred Years of Solitude. He was 40 years old when it was published.

Martin does a wonderful job of summarizing the author’s major works in just a few paragraphs, providing the literary context for each and highlighting its importance, to García Márquez as well as to his readers. He gives us just enough information, whether we’ve read the book in question or not, achieving a pitch-perfect balance between scholarly rigor and engaging prose.

And there are some juicy tidbits here, such as the news that García Márquez had a penchant for destroying his notes and earlier drafts of his manuscripts. He believed that a writer should present work in its finished form—that no one should be allowed to peek behind the curtain to study the tricks of the trade. We’re the poorer for it, perhaps.

We learn that García Márquez had a significant love affair with a Spanish woman nicknamed Tachia while he was living in Paris and formally engaged to his future wife, Mercedes. All three parties would remain friends over the years. We also hear the story of the great woman behind the great man: Mercedes, to whom he proposed when she was 9—according to family lore he had to wait for her to grow up before marrying her. She stood by him in the early days as they endured periods of poverty and uncertainty as a young family of four. He held jobs as a journalist and as a copy writer for U.S. advertising agencies while living in Mexico, but once it became clear that he was ready to write the novel he had been wanting to write all along, he quit his day job and began writing full-time, pawning everything of value and falling behind on the rent for several months. Mercedes and many friends had faith in him, and that faith was rewarded handsomely when the book, originally titled The House, later published as One Hundred Years of Solitude, catapulted onto the best-seller lists, solving the family’s money problems overnight, and for life.

García Márquez’s later role as a behind-the-scenes political negotiator can hardly be overstated. By virtue of either luck or political instinct, he befriended many of the leaders of the day, including François Mitterrand before he became president of France, Felipe González before he became president of Spain and several presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, where he lived for long stretches of his life. In addition to his not insignificant personal charm, he seems to have had an enormous capacity for forging and nurturing friendships that would advance his career and his political ambitions.

Once he became an international celebrity, he didn’t hesitate to use his power and influence to steer the course of events as an unofficial presidential adviser and prominent member of international human rights commissions, always with the survival of Cuba and its revolutionary dream foremost in his mind. He used his fortune to support various causes, including donating his 1972 Rómulo Gallegos prize money to MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), a tiny fringe group in Colombia, amid a storm of criticism. He invested during the 1970s in Alternativa, a leftist magazine in Colombia where he published some of his most militant journalism. He established the Foundation for New Latin American Cinema in Havana, and the International School for Cinema and Television in Cuba, where “he would put his capitalist money where his revolutionary mouth was.” In 1978 he and friends on the political left organized a human rights movement called Habeas, the main goal of which was to “defend political prisoners,” but also to provide counterpoint to President Carter’s human rights policy, which considered Cuba and Panama dictatorships. And in 1994 he launched the Foundation for a New Ibero-American Journalism in Cartagena and Barranquilla, Colombia, in response to the cartel assassinations of journalists, and as a signal of renewed commitment to his homeland.

After two decades of openly political activity in the ’60s and ’70s, García Márquez went back to literature, famously declaring that he was “more dangerous as a writer than as a politician.” He had already explored two of his big themes—solitude and power—and was ready in the ’80s to explore love.

His works will endure, not only as the products of “an artist with the rare quality of producing works of the highest order” who “reaches and bewitches a mass audience,” in Salman Rushdie’s words, but as “part of a world-wide phenomenon which marks the ending of all ‘modernity’ with the post-colonial arrival of the Third World and its literatures on the global stage,” according to his biographer. One Hundred Years of Solitude became not only the axis of Latin American literature, but also the catalyst for a new way of perceiving the world.

Poet and literary translator Liliana Valenzuela was born and raised in Mexico City. She was recently honored with four first-prize awards by the Austin Poetry Society. She lives in Austin.