As with many writers, the seeds that bear the fruit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ fiction are found to have been planted in his childhood. Born on March 6, 1928 in Aracataca, a coastal town in northern Colombia, he was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandparents were perhaps the most important people in his life. Garcia Marquez would write: “I feel that all my writing has been about the experiences of the time I spent with my grandparents.” Both were excellent story tellers. His grandfather was a Colonel and helped found Arataca. He often took the young Garcia Marquez to the circus and introduced him to the miracle of ice at the company store of the United Fruit Company an incident closely mirrored in the opening pages of his most famous book One Hundred Years of Solitude, the story of the life and death of a remote Colombian coastal village of Macando (Macondo meaning “banana” in the Bantu Language) and its varied residents through experiences of the Buendia family. His grandmother was very superstitious and was always speaking of ghosts and premonitions and omens, of which she spoke with the utmost seriousness. Of his grandmother, Garcia Marquez has said:
The tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude was based on the way my grandmother used to tell stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness … What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.
This way of telling tale fantastical tales in deadpan style would come to be considered under the general label of ‘magical realism, along with other writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass, Ben Okri and John Fowles.
At the age of 8, Garcia Marquez’ grandfather died and he went to live with his parents in the town of Sucre, and soon after began his formal schooling. He obtained a scholarship to a Jesuit secondary school for gifted students and at 18 entered the Universidad Nacional to study Law. It was during this time that Garcia Marquez met his future wife, a 13-year-old girl of Egyptian decent named Mercedes, whom he called simply “the most interesting person I have ever met.” Before leaving for University, Garcia Marquez extracted a promise from the girl to marry him after she finished primary school.
Garcia had little interest in law and often skipped classes, while developing a love for literature. One day he was given a Spanish language copy of Kafkas Metamorphosis, and the course of his life was changed forever.
“I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago”, he said later.
He quickly made a name for himself as a journalist and after the assassination of Colombian President Gaitlan in 1948 he moved to Barranquilla and joined a literary circle known as el grupo de Barranquilla and began reading the works of Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, and particularly Faulkner, who was to become one of his literary heroes. It was from Faulkner that Garcia learned that it is best to write about what is closest to you.
Garcia Marquez spent a time living in a brothel in near poverty, but he was surrounded by friends and considered himself mostly happy. In 1955 he left Colombia after publishing a politically unpopular story in a newspaper. He spent the next several years as a foreign correspondent traveling Europe and living in Venezuela and New York City, taking more heat for unpopular political stances, before finally settling in Mexico City in 1959. It was in Mexico City that he achieved his greatest successes as a writer. No One Writes to the Colonel was published in 1961 and Big Mama’s Funeral in 1962. But it was in 1965, while driving to Acapulco with his family, he had the revelation that would become his most famous book. He immediately turned the car around and drove home to begin writing.
“All of a sudden — I don’t know why — I had this illumination on how to write the book. . . . I had it so completely formed, that right there I could have dictated the first chapter word by word to a typist”, said Garcia Marquez.
Writing every day for 18 months, consuming 6 packs of cigarettes a day, selling the family car and almost every household appliance to feed his family and keep him with a supply of paper, he produced his masterwork. Pawning a few more appliances for postage, he sent it off to a publisher and it was published in June of 1967.
One Hundred Years of Solitude won many prizes and brought Garcia Marquez instant fame and accompanying wealth. He funneled much of his newfound wealth into leftist social causes in Colombia, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Angola, and he helped found and strongly supported HABEAS, an organization dedicated to correcting the abuses of Latin American power and freeing political prisoners. In 1975, he published The Autumn of the Patriarch, fictionalizing the experience of living under a dictator, an experience all too common to Latin Americans. In 1982, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. 1986 saw the publication of Love in the Time of Cholera, which included the fictionalized tale of his playboy father’s courtship of his mother, continuing Garcia Marquez’ mining of his own experience for his writing. Among his other works are The General in his Labyrinth, Strange Pilgrims, and Love and Other Demons.
In the late summer of 1999, Garcia Marquez was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. In fall 2002, Garcia Marquez published the first volume of his projected three volume memoirs, To Live to Tell It, in Spanish, the first printing of 50,000 copies in Mexico selling out in two weeks, prompting a second printing of 100,000 books. He currently lives in Mexico City.