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The book of the year

When a memoir packs as much of a punch as Marquez's autobiography does, you know that you are in the presence of a life lived to the hilt.

books Updated: Dec 31, 2003 12:28 IST

When a memoir packs as much of a punch as a work of fiction of the very highest order, you immediately know that you are in the presence of a life lived to the hilt. But more than anything else, such a book would indicate that what lies between its covers is a personal account penned by a storyteller endowed with genuine mastery over the medium besides, of course, communicating to the reader the not often comprehended fact that the writer's own life and the fictional universe he conjures up are not all that far removed from each other.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Living to Tell the Tale, his long-time translator Edith Grossman's English-language rendition of last year's best-selling Spanish autobiography, Vivir Para Contarla, is scintillating all the way through. To be told that this only the first installment of a proposed three-part memoir enhances manifold the pleasure of reading this magically vivid record of the people, places and incidents that have shaped Marquez's vision as a writer. You can never enough of such top-draw storytelling.

What makes Living to Tell the Tale the undisputed book of the year is the characteristic Marquezian blend of heightened reality and fevered hallucinations that fills its pages from end to end. Pick up any passage and you are likely to encounter the magic of Marquez's prose in all it miraculous splendour and craftsmanship. Reading this memoir is a bit like visiting a familiar place armed with a detailed map only to encounter shocks, surprises and bewildering new discoveries at every turn.

Writing about his arrival in his birthplace, Aracataca, at the end of an exhausting boat and train journey in the company of his strong-willed mother, Luisa Santiaga, he writes: "The first thing that struck me was the silence. A material silence I could have identified blindfolded among all the other silences in the world. The reverberation of the heat was so intense that you seemed to be looking at everything through undulating glass… Who else but Marquez can turn something as commonplace as a homecoming into a voyage of such great import?

That is true of the book over all of its 480-odd pages. It begins in 1950, when Marquez, as a twenty-something student, flits without much apparent intent over the civil war swirling around him in the wake of the assassination of the liberal politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948. The incident - Gaitan was shot dead in broad daylight in the city of Bogota -- triggered the worst spiral of death and destruction witnessed on the American continent in the last 100 years. The violence, which lasted well over a decade, left over 200,000 people dead.

Marquez's mission in life was unambiguous: though starving and rather out of his elements, he was firmly focused on pursuing his passion for writing. But here, too, it was a life of bitter struggle. The obstacles that he encountered made things extremely difficult, but it injected a lot of steel into the young writer's soul. Even as he barely made ends meet by contributing commentaries to a newspaper for a pittance, the daily grind of meeting deadlines helped him tide over any vestiges of a writer's block, a syndrome that many struggling writers have to confront.

Marquez was born in the peaceful interim between the War of a Thousand Days, the bloody turn of the century civil war that provides the backdrop to One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the current civil war which has torn Colombia asunder for over half a century. Living to Tell the Tale provides glimpses into the genesis of One Hundred Year of Solitude - fictional elements that come across as a figment of a creative writer's imagination in the classic 1970 novel are revealed for what they really are, an integral part of daily Colombian life.

The lost village of Macondo made famous by One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez reveals, is really the name of a banana plantation that lies abandoned on the rail route to Aracataca but the board announcing the name still stands tall at the site. It is a name that fascinated him since his childhood and resurfaced on his mental landscape when he settled down to write One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The high points of the Marquez memoir are the parts devoted to his parents and grandparents and the voyage he makes with his mother from Barranquilla to Aracataca to sell the ancestral property where Marquez lived till the age of eight is the absolute apogee. The ghost stories and accounts of the War of a Thousand Days that his grandfather narrated to him still reverberated in his ears and mind. They are the reference points that still guide the young writer, but his mother is determined to steer Marquez out of his wayward ways, help him return to law school and prevent the family from sliding further into poverty.

As the people and places that one encounters in a Marquez novel spring to life in reality in the memoir, it lends an added dimension to Living to Tell the Tale. It is much more than a mere autobiography: it is a remarkably engaging story that is no less magical because of its unmistakable grounding in reality. Both as a Colombian exposed to human life in all its complexities and a writer able to reorder everything he sees and grasps in gloriously inventive ways, Marquez lays little store by the virtues of reality as the rest of the world knows it. No wonder even his memoir has the power to take a reader into its thrall and transport him to a world that appears to exist somewhere between the here and now and an imaginary realm.

If you didn't manage to read another book in 2003, no worries. Living to Tell The Tale was the one book that could make anybody's year.

First Published: Dec 31, 2003 11:11 IST