A review of Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a writer of such greatness that his autobiography has an intrinsic interest on the score both of his greatness and the skill with which he tells his own story. Living to Tell the Tale is the first volume of a projected three.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Living to Tell the Tale
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Alfred A. Knopf 2003, ISBN 1-4000-4134-1, 484 pages

The bad news first, there are no photographs and there is no index. The latter is a severe impairment in a work of this kind. The book itself is handsomely proportioned and the jacket is especially handsome but the binding except for its distinguished dark plum color is pedestrian. It would never have happened in the days of Alfred the Great.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a writer of such greatness that his autobiography has an intrinsic interest on the score both of his greatness and the skill with which he tells his own story. Living to Tell the Tale is the first volume of a projected three.

The opening is unforgettable. His mother seeks him out because she needs his company to sell the family property in Aracataca. She has to tell him who she is and we learn later that he had lived with his parents very little.

At Aracataca his memories awaken of his life there with his grandparents and he presents us with the events of his life as he remembers them and as they are important. This avoids the inevitable tedium of chronological narration and, even when his story settles into consecutive narrative, he will continue to recall or anticipate as events suggest. In the reconstruction of his life he is under no illusions about the reliability of memory. He says of one recollection which he had attempted to verify with another participant: “Years later I mentioned the incident to him and he did not remember it, of course, but by then neither he nor I was even sure that the episode was true.”

From Aracataca he leaves the home of his grandparents to attend school. Throughout there is emphasis on the unstable situation in Colombia. Later in the book he describes the history of his country as a civil war interrupted by forty years of armed peace. As a student he is shy and insecure but already shows a glibness and an ability to compose effortlessly whatever literary work any occasion required. As the oldest child in a family of eleven children he was favored and the family expectations rested on him to rescue it from its poverty. He eventually refused this burden on the terms that his father prescribed but was able to assist them at least until the end of this volume when he leaves Colombia for what proved to be a prolonged stay in Europe.

The young Garcia Marquez was cheerfully free from many restraints on his behavior. And he is forthrightly blunt about the advantages of his recreations. He quotes with approval William Faulkner’s observation “that a brothel is the best residence for a writer, because the mornings are quiet, there is a party every night, and you are on good terms with the police.” About drinking, he rhapsodizes that the “alcohol was still alive within me like a state of grace.” His sexual activities were also unrestrained although he had considerable difficulties over his propensity to be in beds where his presence was at best questionable.

As he began to exercise his talents as a writer, his interest in formal education diminished although he had some years of schooling towards his degree in law. He was passed on by the kindness of his instructors more than through his activity as a scholar but he was happy to abandon his studies. His earliest efforts as a writer were as a journalist. He combined this with some of his earliest fictional writing, some of which he left incomplete, reused later in other contexts or which he lost. But during this period his accomplishments were very respectable and include, for example, In Evil Hour, a work of considerable power and whose protagonist was based on a husband who found Gabriel in bed with his wife.

Colombia is exotic in its differences. It is rich with a literature that most of us do not know and, even though much of it must be provincial, Garcia Marquez brings it all to life and invests it with the intensity of his vision. Such a book is exquisitely rare and leaves the reader eager for the continuations.

For more information visit: Living To Tell…

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teto.com/service/Persons_Places

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