The official story

An authorized biography of the Latin laureate, handled responsibly and well, if a bit timidly

Novelist Gabriel García Márquez, in a playful mood with his wife Mercedes and children in the late 1960s. Novelist Gabriel García Márquez, in a playful mood with his wife Mercedes and children in the late 1960s. (From The Book)
By Ilan Stavans
June 7, 2009
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By Gerald Martin
Knopf, 648 pp., illustrated, $37.50

Official biographies have a merit: They provide the reader with an insider's look. But they are also handicapped by the proximity to, and the psychic control exerted by, their subject. That subject is often like a puppeteer, calling the shots from behind the curtain. Even when the biographee doesn't have a right of rejection, what gets said in an official biography can't always be fully trusted.

For a handcuffed guy, Gerald Martin is quite good at maneuvering like a detective in search of a clue. "Gabriel García Márquez: A Life" is an admirable example of the can't-be-with-you-can't-be-without-you paradigm: It doesn't fall flat under the sign of the "authorized" seal, although it lacks the epic sweep that a chronicle about the 1982 Nobel Prize winner and author of the magisterial "One Hundred Years of Solitude" would require. Martin is a perfectionist, but he's too careful not to offend.

I italicized the word epic because García Márquez, or Gabo, as he is known among friends, might well be said to be the grand master of the modern epic genre. As leader of the literary movement called El Boom, he helped to reinvent Latin America as a continent in Europe and the United States after it had been viewed for centuries as a mere playing field for "travesuras," a foreigner's prank.

In his fiction he stresses the universal by calling attention to the local. For example, the mythical Macondo, modeled after his childhood town Aracataca, is narrated with obvious biblical strokes: a theater where human folly and the excesses of nature are dissected. Not that Martin, an emeritus professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is unable to understand García Márquez's genius. He knows him quite well, perhaps even too well. After 15 years of research, he fills in the blanks with acumen. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'm mentioned in Martin's biography, and, engaged as I've been in writing about García Márquez's output, he and I have been in touch, on and off, through the years.)

Granted this isn't the first biography of García Márquez. Dasso Saldívar, also a Colombian, produced a voluminous one in 1997. More than 25 years before him, Mario Vargas Llosa, once Gabo's close friend and now a nemesis, published a half-biography, half-critical analysis titled "Historia de un Suicidio," or 'History of a Suicide," as his doctoral dissertation. In this bunch, Martin's shows its British manufacturing seal: The volume is not only methodical but punctilious. García Márquez, we are told, did not manipulate information, and neither did he make interviewees available, nor censor detractors. Aside from sitting for approximately a month for one-on-one conversations, he "tolerated" Martin's following his path like a shadow.

Still, his tentacles are palpable. As in the case of Saldívar's, Martin's early chapters about the family genealogy are laborious. By the writer's own account, his first decade, until he left Aracataca, was his most decisive. He was surrounded by multiple aunts and hypnotized by his grandmother's excessive stories. Those seminal experiences are at the core of "One Hundred Years of Solitude," as are his early readings and his understanding of the economics that the United Fruit Co. practiced in the region.

The biography picks up speed as García Márquez becomes a university student and a journalist. While the shaping of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" gets a fair amount of space, given the legends that surround it the delivery feels disappointing. Other novels get some attention but, as should be the case, never at the same level. The exception is "Love in the Time of Cholera," a smaller masterpiece that rotates around the story of his parents' courtship. In someone else's canon, this book would be the highlight, but in his it stands as a minor piece compared to the Buendía saga.

There are no big revelations in Martin's book, a fact for which he ought to be commended. A lot has been written about every aspect of García Márquez's odyssey. To distinguish himself from other chroniclers, Martin could have allowed his project to be driven by sensationalism. But he is far too intelligent and too good a reader of world literature to do that.

The section that arguably will attract more controversy is about García Márquez's friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the Havana regime. Martin neither celebrates nor condones the relationship. But he fails to examine its implications, in part because he doesn't want to infuriate his subject but also because we're too close to it. History has yet to offer its final judgment on them - "to absolve them," as Fidel would say.

While the absolution is prepared, to me the portion that is truly ready for full-fledged analysis is García Márquez's journey in "One Hundred Years of Solitude." It is a sublimely imperfect novel, one carrying within itself the DNA of Hispanic civilization. Everything in García Márquez's career up to 1967, when the novel was published in Buenos Aires, gets mentioned in it, including himself, his wife Mercedes, his two children, and the group of mamadores de gallo, the indefatigable young tricksters who congregated in Barranquilla around the figure of a Catalan bookseller called Ramón Vinyes.

My impression is that this summa literaria is, in and of itself, the best biography we'll get of its author: an encrypted epic tale replete with secrets that only a Rasputin-like "sabedor," a know-it-all reader, would be able to sort out.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His next book, the first of a two-volume set called "Gabriel García Márquez" (Palgrave), covering the years 1927 to 1970, will be out in January.


Knopf, 648 pp., illustrated, $37.50

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