When he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer four years ago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez gamely declared to the world the disease was an “enormous stroke of luck,” since it forced him to finally write his memoirs. Living to Tell the Tale is the result of this impetus, and it certainly does not read like the work of a man who for some time—Marquez is healthy again—thought he was racing against time.
Weighing at nearly 500 pages—full of richly researched anecdotes from the writer’s childhood in a small Colombian village—the book has all the weight and exquisite storytelling prowess of his two masterpieces, Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. In a world full of memoirs stuffed with hagiography and boring publishing footnotes, Living to the Tell the Tale is a unique example of a writer dealing directly and intimately with his past.
The tale, as Marquez aptly calls this book, begins in the 1950s, when he was a struggling writer and journalist so poor he could only afford two pairs of pants, two shirts and some sandals. As the book begins, Marquez joins his mother for a trip back to the Colombian village of Aracataca, where he was born, to support her in selling her parents’ old house, which they discover is so dilapidated as to call into question the validity of their memories of the place. After concluding the visit home, Marquez returned to the big city in excitement and told a friend, “I’m writing the novel of my life.” It would be many years before Marquez, now one of the world’s most revered and recognized literary writers, could live comfortably off his income as a writer.
From this journey unfolds the story of Marquez’s early life, and, by extension, that of his family. Born in 1928, Marquez grew up as a coddled child in a large household full of relatives whose mythic pasts became fodder for his later novels. His parents’ romance, lovingly told here, reads like something out of the writer’s great novels. Forbidden to marry, they carried on a clandestine affair until their own parents realized the seriousness of their passion.
It’s a common mistake to plunder a writer’s memoir in search of clues to their fiction, but with Living to Tell the Tale that instinct proves justified. Reading about Garcia Marquez’s childhood, it’s clear that this writer’s family—and his memory of it—made him a writer. He recalls fabulous stories of bulls getting loose and terrorizing his family courtyard—”the revelry of the drama had already begun in the house and would last more than a week, with endless pots of coffee and sponge cakes to accompany the tale”—as well as more painful recollections of his family’s desire to move.
Many writers as they age enter the twilight of their powers, but Marquez appears not to be among them. Through Living to Tell the Tale, his prose is as sumptuous and lyrical as ever. It helps that nostalgia—and nostalgia’s pitfalls—is the topic. Marquez is a maximalist writer, and these backward-looking glances at the past allow him the chance to riff on the redolent madelines that take him back.
One of the beautiful things about Living to Tell the Tale is that Marquez finds a way to both capture the heady days of his youth—when he started a magazine out of sheer willpower, and later, went back to law school to please his father—but also pay tribute to the wellspring of characters and people that he was beginning to turn toward. Certain figures loom larger than others—especially the author’s grandfather, Col. Marquez, a stern yet loving man—but the presence that looms largest is that of Marquez himself, the young writer who dropped out of college to pursue writing, almost impatient for his talent to catch up with his vision.
The first of a projected trilogy, Living to Tell the Tale reveals how dangerous a gamble that was for Marquez then. As with J.M. Coetzee’s recent Youth, this book brings brutally home how lonely and taxing a career in writing can be. Looking back on it, Marquez is surprised he survived it—the loneliness, the whoring and drinking and smoking (60 cigarettes a day). Stuffed with sentences as beautiful as he has ever written, and an inspiration to readers who either want to write or merely want to transcend their own provincial roots, Living to Tell the Tale also reveals how handsomely that long-ago wager paid off for Marquez: He is a maestro.
LIVING TO TELL THE TALE, By Gabriel Garcia Marquez