(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The first volume of Gabriel García Márquez’s memoirs has the Spanish title Vivir para contarla, or, translated literally, “to live to tell it.” The words have a biographical significance. In 1999, when he learned that he had lymphatic cancer, the author cancelled his engagements, closeted himself, and began gathering his recollections. It is not unusual for someone facing death to devote himself to reflecting upon his life. However, in Living to Tell the Tale, García Márquez does not focus primarily on himself and his own achievements. Instead, he writes about the people he met in his eventful life, especially those who stimulated his imagination or influenced his intellectual development.

As one might expect, he writes about the members of his large family, school friends, teachers, fellow journalists, and other writers. His world also includes politicians, visionaries, prostitutes, criminals, rebels, and eccentrics of every sort. Although in the memoir one can sometimes identify a person who inspired a character in García Márquez’s fiction, what is more important about this book is that it shows why his fiction is so captivating. Like William Faulkner, the American novelist he so admires, García Márquez is interested in the whole of humanity.

Living to Tell the Tale actually covers just five years in the author’s life. The narrative begins in 1950, when he is almost twenty-three. He has quit law school, having rarely attended classes, and lives in Barranquilla, making a meager living writing newspaper articles. His mother, Luisa Santiaga Márquez, finds him in a café there; she has come to ask him, as her oldest son, to go with her to Aracataca, where she thinks she has a buyer for the old family home. The sale falls through, but the trip so inspires García Márquez that he knows he must become a writer. Moreover, he now has some idea of what his subject matter will be.

At the end of Living to Tell the Tale, the five years have gone by, and García Márquez is on his way to Geneva, Switzerland, ostensibly to cover an international conference but in reality because his editor is concerned about the safety of the young reporter and wants him to leave Colombia, at least for a short time. García Márquez has been receiving death threats as a result of his report on a disaster at sea, exposed by him as being the fault of inept naval officers.

In Living to Tell the Tale, just as in his fiction, García Márquez enriches his account of the present by reaching back into the past. Therefore, the book’s time frame is far more extensive than it might at first appear to be. In the first chapter, for example, the run-down house in Aracataca is transformed by his memory into what it once was, the home of his mother’s parents, where Gabriel once lived with his grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Márquez. Papalelo, as García Márquez called his grandfather, was the boy’s foster father, his mentor, and his best friend. The fears and forebodings of García Márquez’s grandmother, Tranquilina Márquez, or Mina, convince the future Magical Realist that there are unseen powers in the everyday world.

In the second chapter, García Márquez is once again a young reporter in Barranquilla. In chapter three he returns to his childhood, and thereafterLiving to Tell the Tale proceeds chronologically with an account of the writer’s life up to the point when, at the beginning of chapter seven, he is again in Barranquilla and it is again 1950.

Thus, though the framing narrative of Living to Tell the Tale covers just five years when the author is in his twenties, the book really begins with his birth. Moreover, as in his novels, García Márquez enriches his work by incorporating stories about the even more distant past, for example, the account of his grandfather’s duel, which explains why the Márquez family had to leave a place where they had been happy and move to the less appealing Aracataca.

In the eighth and final chapter of Living to Tell the Tale, García Márquez also expands the time frame of the memoir by including some hints about what will be covered in the volume to follow. For example, though the conference in Geneva was to last only four days, he admits having told his mother that he would be gone for two weeks. The two weeks, he confesses, would become three years, and during his absence a troublemaker would try to make his mother believe that her son had deliberately misled her and that he was living in luxury in Paris. Though the author brands the story a lie, emergence of the facts will...

(The entire section is 1887 words.)