Mention the name Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the term magical realism is soon to follow. One would imagine then that his autobiography would employ that style. Even the title, Living to Tell the Tale conjures spellbinding narration heavy on mystical language, with the line between fact and fiction blurred. But such is the not the case.
For his autobiography, Marquez relied on his journalistic skills - acquired through his early years as a paid writer - to recount the events, people, and places, the 5 Ws of his life. More real, than magical. More reportage than editorial. Facts more than fiction. Probably why some reviewers found this book boring with its seemingly endless inventory of places –- Aracataca, Baranquilla, Bogota, Cartagena, Sucre; and people –- family members, teachers, classmates, co-writers, political figures, lovers, mentors, tormentors, and dozens and dozens of people named Guillermo, figuring in events that may or may not contribute to the whole narrative.
You will be awed at the painstakingly detailed accounts. He did not mention if he kept a journal or if he just pulled all these memories from his head. If it’s the latter, then he has an astonishing, functioning memory bank. These are not an old man's ramblings, tinted with sentimentality. These are vivid, well-preserved memories of a man who lived an amazing life and lived to tell the tale in amazing detail.
This is not to say that this work is devoid of magic. The magic comes from the clarity of writing, this from a man who acknowledges that his style is convoluted and ethereal. Good writing so clear and fresh you can imagine traveling the Cienaga swamps, and looking at his old house in Aracataca with a mix of pain and nostalgia. You’re there living Marquez’s life as a student at the colegio and the liceo, experiencing Colombia’s tumultuous politics. You feel his desperation, living on the edge of poverty, finding shelter in parks, brothels, cafes, wherever his measly pesos can buy him a bed, hammock, or chair to lie on. You feel his hunger pangs as he starves his body while his mind is being enriched by his interactions with intellectuals and the most fascinating personalities.
The magic is not contrived, not produced by hypnotic literary manipulation. Yet it’s literature that enchants, sparks the imagination of the reader. With matter-of-fact writing, Marquez recounts a life, the telling of which requires the telling of two previous generations’ tales. A life markedly influenced by an eccentric family, the daily challenge of survival, a culture of poetry. A life accented with drama, romance, crime, passion. Reading it, you can almost see the movie adaptation, almost feel the dusty heat, and hear the soundtrack, which will be marvelous because Marquez’ life is filled with music, because he loves music almost as much as he loves writing.
His writing. His writing about his writing. That’s what I loved best about this book. To discover that he has an inferiority complex about his spelling. To know who influenced him in his writing – Borges, Neruda, Woolfe, Faulkner, among many others. He talks about his aversion to adverbs ending in –mente, and having two proximate words that rhyme. He talks about the life stories that inspired his written stories. Love in the Time of Cholera, for example, was based on his parents’ forbidden relationship. It is surprising, and it makes this writing legend seem very human, to know that his natural bashfulness extends to his writing, that he is afraid to write and afraid to share what he has written. On page 393 (Vintage edition), he says “that the terror of writing can be as intolerable as the terror of not writing.”
Except for a flashback or two, the story follows a mostly linear, chronological account from his birth in 1927 to some point in the late 50s when he proposed to his wife through a letter. The book closes without saying whether his proposal is accepted or not. A cliffhanger of sorts, leaving the readers hanging on, anticipating the next installation. Dear Lord, I hope Gabriel Garcia Marquez lives on and on so he can continue to tell his tale.