García Márquez life misses the man

By Kevin O’Kelly
Globe Correspondent / January 15, 2010

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In 1965, Gabriel García Márquez was an obscure writer drowning in debt, a law school dropout living hand-to-mouth as a journalist and screenwriter. His early novels had garnered solid reviews but little money. Two years later he was the author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,’’ a novel that achieved immediate commercial and critical success in the Spanish-speaking world. When “Solitude’’ appeared in English in 1970, critics in the United States invoked the author’s name in the same breath as Faulkner and Günter Grass.

The transformation of a young man from Colombia’s coastal provinces into one of the greatest writers of our time is the subject of “Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years.’’ Ilan Stavans, a prominent scholar of Latin American culture at Amherst College, is an able guide to the world that shaped García Márquez, from the small towns where he spent his early years (he was born in 1928) to the often violent politics that played a pivotal role in his family’s history and radicalized his political consciousness. Stavans also recounts the family stories that provided the novelist with much of the raw material for his fiction, such as his grandparents’ disapproval of his father as a suitor and his parents’ subsequent secret courtship that was recast in “Love in the Time of Cholera.’’

Stavans is, however, at his best when describing the literary and intellectual climate of midcentury Latin America: a continent of writers, journals, and books often unknown north of the Rio Grande. Stavans is seldom less than fascinating as he discusses topics such as Spanish translations of Kafka, the boy’s adventure books of Emilio Salgari, and “el grupo de Barranquilla’’: the network of Colombian and Spanish poets, critics, and journalists that were García Márquez’s first literary colleagues. The exploration of Anglophone writers’ influence on García Márquez is equally rewarding for surprises such as the novelist’s admission that he learned to write about the tropics from Graham Greene.

But something essential is missing from these excursions into Colombian history, García Márquez’s family background, and Latin American literary culture, and that is García Márquez himself. The book is replete with dates, facts about the novelist’s life, quotes that reveal his thoughts or memories on subjects, and yet the man is strangely absent. The best literary biographers are able to convey a palpable sense of their subject’s personality as well as share a critical understanding of their works. In his preface to “The Early Years’’ Stavans specifically cites the pleasures that sort of biography provides as one of his reasons for writing this book - but then delivers more of a critical study than a portrait of a man. That’s doubly unfortunate when your subject is someone like García Márquez, whose interviews and public talks reveal him to be an earthy, passionate, intensely funny man.

Stavans also leaves us with some unfortunate gaps in reportage. At one point as I read from one paragraph to the next, I realized that three years of García Márquez’s life had simply been passed over without comment or explanation. Elsewhere Stavans tells us the novelist met his future wife, Mercedes Barcha, at a dance when he was 19 and she was 13 - and proposed to her then and there. But Stavans doesn’t tell us how Mercedes responded, how her parents reacted, or what their relationship was like during the 10-year interval between that first meeting and their wedding. Nor does Stavans address García Márquez’s friendship with Fidel Castro, how they met, or even the very fact of it.

If you want a study of García Márquez’s early work that covers influences and sources, “The Early Years’’ is a fine book for you. If you want an actual biography of the author, look elsewhere.

Kevin O’Kelly reviews for the Globe and blogs at


By Ilan Stavans

Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pp., $25