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Chronicle of a life told

books Updated: Mar 28, 2009 23:38 IST

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Book:Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A life
Author:Gerald Martin
Publication:Bloomsbury
Rs 1,395 pp 664

Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” In this epigraph to his riveting memoir Living to Tell the Tale (2003), Gabriel Garcia Marquez identifies memory, and its narration, as the twin anchors in a writer’s life.

This is the key, perhaps, to an understanding of how Marquez transmutes the wild gamut of his experiences in various corners of the world — from an anxious childhood in strife-convulsed Colombia to a passionate but eventually tragic love affair with Tachia Quintana in Paris in his youth, to intimate friendships with Fidel Castro and Mario Vargos Llosa in his later life — through a series of literary, sensory, emotional and intellectual metamorphoses that not merely serve to transfix the memories, but also to determine how one might even bear to recall and recount them afterwards.

The world knows, of course, that Marquez has patented his very unique brand of remembering and retelling: a fantastical literary acrobatics bearing the approbation of ‘magic realism’, which functions through a dis-membering and re-membering of the very volatile body of memory. We tend to overlook, however (by the writer’s canny intention?), that what is generally considered Marquez’s singular Nobel Prize-winning stylistic contribution to the long and multi-hued tradition of the novel is as much to forget as it is to remember.

And this, I think, is the colossal challenge that Gerald Martin takes on in this most meticulously and arduously researched 664-page chronicle of a life as it unfolds: to make Marquez’s life, mind and fiction meet and talk to each other in the most fruitful conversation possible, for our edification.

To say that Martin is largely, and yet not wholly, successful in harnessing the complete coalescing of the writer’s life and times and mind and work, is a testament not to the futility of his 17-year-long enterprise but to the stretch and sweep and multi-layered depth of the object of his attention. Here is a biography in the true tradition of the greats — Ellmann’s on James Joyce, to name one — which satisfies and teases all at once, in fitting tribute to its overreaching ambition to pin down the un-pindownable.

For ‘Gabo’ Marquez is a living subject who clearly resists probing and interrogation: “Why do you want to write a biography? Biographies mean death,” he told Martin. Martin, however, conducted over 300 interviews for this biography, many with the writer himself and the rest with his wife and family, friends, ex-lover and acquaintances, and has managed to stitch together a formidably rich and textured fabric, telling the story of how a prismatic life’s seemingly impossible vagaries have been immortalised in fiction.

Far more than the wealth of minute historical, political, social and cultural detail that Martin provides, the most delightful sections of the book are those that seamlessly connect the active, almost-melodramatic life with the fiction — the catalyst behind Leaf Storm, significant because from that moment “I knew that I wanted to be a writer and that nobody could stop me and the only thing left for me to do was to try and be the best writer in the world”; the sources of ‘The House’, his first novel, that formed the genesis of One Hundred Years of Solitude; how his grandmother Tranquilana’s nocturnal confabulations with dreams and her surreal, oracular declamations following them could possibly have germinated his magic realist method; the psychedelic town of Sucre that was peopled by models for Innocent Erendira and Chronicle of a Death Foretold; and indeed, how Macondo, that fictional town we have all entered and inhabited so easily, was born.

Marquez’s most remarkable life story begins with the almost-apocryphal birth of the baby ‘Gabito’ in an unseasonal rainstorm in the tiny town of Aracataca in Colombia’s Caribbean region, quickly handed over to his grandparents’ care for the first seven years of his life. Equally impelling is the tale of Mercedes Raquel, the woman he decided would be his conjugal mate when she was “nine or perhaps eleven”.

Among the many disturbances and influences that have marked Gabo’s sensational life, the absent presence of his mother Luisa Santiaga in his childhood, his lifelong sense of abandonment and instability, and the explosive, violent, mercurial climate of his native land have been crucially responsible for the writer he sculpted himself into, searching continually for ways in which the incredible, and the phantasmagorical, take wing and soar into a story, making the starkness of truth bearable by re-fashioning it into astonishing new shapes.

There is, of course, absolute poetic justice in the fact that a writer who twists out of all existing contours the sinews of imagination finally eludes all attempts to map the secret places of his life and mind. As he says succinctly to his earnest biographer, “everyone has three lives”, public, private and secret, and the last is permanently encrypted. The clue he provides Martin for its exhumation is pivotal, that one should go back to his fiction. “And anyway,” he assures Martin, “Don’t worry. I will be whatever you say I am.”

One can almost imagine the now-ageing Marquez transforming before our very eyes into a huge bird — or perhaps even an automobile.

Brinda Bose teaches in the Department of English at Hindu College, Delhi University