In his novels and stories, he used his fecund imagination and exuberant sleight of hand to conjure the miraculous: storms raging for years, flowers drifting from the sky, tyrants surviving for centuries, a swamp of lilies oozing blood, a cluster of grapes containing the secret of death, corpses failing to decompose—and more plausibly, lovers rekindling their passion after half a century apart.
The Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez drew on the folk tales and ghost stories he had heard as a child on Colombia's poor, sun-baked Caribbean coast. In a career spanning more than 60 years, he wrote some of the Spanish language's most revered books that illuminated Latin America's passions and social inequality and became best sellers worldwide.
Critics called him the magus of magical realism. He pointed out that elements of it had appeared before in Latin American literature. “Reality is also the myths of the common people,” he said.
His 1967 epic novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” tantalized millions in more than 25 languages. Pablo Neruda called it “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since 'Don Quixote.'
The author with the bushy grey eyebrows and white mustache was rattled by the praise. He grew to hate the novel, he said in interviews, because he feared his subsequent work would not measure up to it in readers' eyes. He need not have worried. Almost all his 15 other novels and short-story collections were lionized by critics and devoured by readers.
Marquez or Gabo as his friends called him had humble beginnings, born in the sleepy town of Aracataca on March 6, 1927 and raised for much of his early years by his maternal grandparents. His father, a pharmacist insisted he study law but he dropped out, bored, and dedicated himself to journalism. "I'm a journalist. I've always been a journalist," he told the AP. "My books couldn't have been written if I weren't a journalist because all the material was taken from reality."
In 1958 he married Mercedes Barcha, a neighbour from childhood days, with whom he had two sons.
Like many Latin American intellectuals and artists, Marquez spoke out on the political issues of his day, bitterly opposing General Pinochet, the right-wing Chilean dictator, and unswervingly supporting Fidel Castro who became such a close friend that Marquez showed him drafts of his unpublished books.
He was less impressed by the Old World, considered by many of his peers the cultural fountainhead. He thought that Europeans were patronizing toward Latin America even though their own societies were in decline. He echoed his convictions in his Nobel address in 1982. “Europeans,” he said, “insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest for our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them.”
A world citizen, he never forgot his roots. The mythical village of Macondo in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” draws heavily on Aracataca where he was born—much like William Faulkner, whom Marquez admired, invented Yoknapatawpha County as the Mississippi setting for some of his own novels. In his 2002 memoir, “Living to Tell the Tale,” Marquez recalled a river trip back to Aracataca in 1950, his first since childhood. “The first thing that struck me,” he wrote, “was the silence. A material silence I could have identified blindfolded among all the silences in the world.”
Before he was famous Marquez eked out a living writing for newspapers in Cartagena and then Barranquilla, where he lived in the garret of a brothel and dreamed of making it big in literature. “It was a bohemian life: finish at the paper at 1 in the morning, then write a poem or a short story until about 3, then go out to have a beer,” he said in an interview in 1996. “When you went home at dawn, ladies who were going to Mass would cross to the other side of the street for fear that you were either drunk or intending to mug or rape them.”
Marquez lost his job when his newspaper was shut down by the Rojas Pinilla regime. Stranded in Paris, he scavenged and sold bottles to survive, but he managed to begin a short novel, “In Evil Hour.”
While working on that book he took time off in 1957 to complete another short novel, “No One Writes to the Colonel,” about an impoverished retired army officer, like his own grandfather, who waits endlessly for a letter replying to his requests for a military pension.
In 1973, when General Pinochet overthrew Chile's democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, he vowed never to write as long as Pinochet remained in power. Eventually he released himself from his vow. “Time convinced me I was wrong. What I was doing was allowing Pinochet to stop me from writing, which means I had submitted to voluntary censorship,” he said in a 1997 interview with The Washington Post.
In 1975 he published his next novel, “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” about a dictator in a fictitious Latin American state who rules for so many decades that nobody can recall what life was like before him. Some critics faulted the work for not matching the artistry of “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” But others raved about it, and it became a global best seller. He called it his best novel.
“Love in the Time of Cholera,” published in 1985, was his most romantic novel, the story of the resumption of a passionate relationship between a recently widowed septuagenarian and the lover she had broken up with more than 50 years ago.
“The General in His Labyrinth,” is a free-form improvisation on the life of the 19th-century revolutionary Simon Bolivar as a spoiled dreamer, torn between martyrdom and hedonism, extravagant ambitions and crashing disillusion. Marquez said that his depiction had been drawn from a careful perusal of Bolivar's personal letters.
The celebrated author turned down offers of diplomatic posts and spurned attempts to draft him to run for Colombia's presidency, though he did get involved in behind-the-scenes peace mediation efforts between Colombia's government and leftist rebels.
For more than three decades the State Department denied him a visa to travel in the United States. The ban was rescinded in 1995 after Bill Clinton invited him to Martha's Vineyard.
Dozens of television and film adaptations were made of his works, but he declined requests for the movie rights to “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” “The novel's readers,” he said, “always imagine the characters as they want, as their aunt or their grandfather, and the moment you bring that to the screen, the reader's margin for creativity disappears.”
In the end, it's not politics, but time and memory and love that stand at the heart of his work. Marquez wanted to create “a new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”
Now that's magical.