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Reliving out loud

Living to Tell the Tale, By Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Translated, from the Spanish, by Edith Grossman, Knopf, 484 pp., $26.95

"I am a slave to a perfectionist exactitude," writes Gabriel Garca Mrquez in his dazzling if morose memoir. Gabo, as Mrquez is known throughout the Hispanic world, turned 75 last year and the celebratory spirit is felt everywhere. After all, his classic "One Hundred Years of Solitude," published in 1967 in Buenos Aires, ranks, along with "Don Quixote," as the most significant and most extensively read novel of the Spanish language. Plus, after James Joyce and Franz Kafka pushed fiction to the edges of despair, Gabo is credited with almost single-handedly reinvigorating the genre of the novel and for placing Latin American fiction on the global shelf.

That exactitude, Gabo further confesses when explaining how his volumes take shape, "forces me to make a preliminary calculation of the length of a book, with the exact number of pages in each chapter and in the book as whole. A single notable mistake in these calculations would oblige me to reconsider everything, because even a typing error disturbs me as much as a creative one." So a novel is for him but a mechanism. From "Love in the Time of Cholera" on, he uses an Apple computer to revise, time and again, until every dot, every comma is in the right place and until the story line unravels without unforeseen delay, like clockwork. A formula for flatness and rigidity? Not in this case: The style might not be spontaneous, but it is built with so much care that it is utterly hypnotizing.

Fatalism does emerge in Gabo's oeuvre as a leitmotif, and it does also in "Living to Tell the Tale," the first installment of a projected autobiographical trilogy. (Apparently he has "calculated" the other two volumes already, although they are yet to materialize.) But that perfunctory quality is actually an asset: If life is rowdy and disorganized, he seems to claim, it is the function of literature to make it cohere, to extract the meaning out of it. Each of the eight chapters in the memoir is symmetrically designed: In approximately 60 pages, another period of Gabo's life is explored, from his florid, multitudinous childhood in Aracataca, on Colombia's most northern Caribbean coast (the US publisher provides a useful map), to his unwavering marriage to his beloved wife, Mercedes (he is, in my estimation, the most famous "monogamous" writer in contemporary letters), to his days as a reporter of the newspaper El Espectador in Bogot, just before he became the target of a scandal in the '50s and, in consequence, was pushed into exile in Europe.

But "Living to Tell the Tale" is not a kiss-and-tell confession. Instead, it has the smell of posterity all over it. Snippets of historical and personal information are uniformly spread across the narrative: a profile of Gabo's powerful grandmother, the source of rsula Iguarn, the gravitational center of the Buenda genealogy; or a brief explanation of how he came up with Macondo as the name for the town he invented in the spirit of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha; and a disquisition on his boredom after reading "Don Quixote" for the first time. The section about his parents falling in love explains the ethos behind "Love in the Time of Cholera." His admiration of William Faulkner's "Light in August" serves as an invaluable key to decipher his vision of a mythical town "in the margins of time." And the last chapter revisits, polemically, the Hemingwayesque reportage that led to the astonishing novella improbably titled "The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor: Who Drifted on a Life Raft for Ten Days Without Food or Water, Was Proclaimed a National Hero, Kissed by Beauty Queens, Made Rich Through Publicity, and Then Spurned by the Government and Forgotten for All Time." Released in book form in 1970, it stands as a foreshadowing of his everlasting obsession -- isolation as a form of self-awareness and a ticket to redemption -- and would be enough to justify another writer's entire career.

As the protagonist of his autobiography, Gabo is quixotic, like almost all of his characters: dreamers trapped in their own reverie. But the memoir shows him at the opposite side of the spectrum, quite in touch with the mundane: drinking, sleeping, paying the rent. The baroque style of works like "The Autumn of the Patriarch" and "The General in His Labyrinth" is absent. But beautifully crafted sentences like those in "Strange Pilgrims" are in full view. Gabo's self-portrait is that of a plebeian, ambitious and practical. His perfectionism is now turned on himself: each line of inquiry is followed with scientific meticulousness; every single sentence, every paragraph and page seems modest yet breathtaking, unique yet preternatural. And Edith Grossman's translation only adds to the treat: Soft and intuitive, her version is so accomplished, so deliberately anti-ostentatious, it might actually read better than the original. (Grossman just published a new translation of "Don Quixote" that makes the Iberian classic feel almost Mrquezian.)

Still, "Living to Tell the Tale" is a bit lethargic. Obviously, its international appeal is due to Gabo's Wizard of Oz reputation and perhaps too to the common knowledge that for years he's been fighting cancer. Millions from Asuncin to Ciudad Jurez rushed to buy it, and a few, it seems, actually stole it, since, according to reports, entire truckloads with copies were sequestered in Medelln, then resold in the black market. This, to me, is inspiring: trafficking with books in Colombia.

I'm yet to meet a reader south of the border flabbergasted by this book. People bought it, but did they read it? Unacquainted with universes beyond the one under their own nose, Americans, I fear, will find the book all the more tedious, thinking that what's left out of it is . . . well, life itself. Gabo's catalog of relatives and associates will sound endless and foreign. A first printing of 400,000 copies by the US publisher might nevertheless pay off, as it did across the border: after all, Gabo is by now less a writer than an industry. But don't let yourself be fooled: Though it may be slow, this is a veritable tour de force, as intimate and sincere an exploration of the self as one is likely to get by the man who reinvented an entire continent. Ay, if only Cervantes had left us a similar window to his imagination . . .

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book is "Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language" (HarperCollins).

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