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Living to Tell the Tale

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November 14, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

A teasing ambiguity is embedded right in the name of the first volume of Gabriel García Márquez’s projected trilogy of autobiographies. Living to Tell the Tale, its English title, is a canny half pun that suggests a story of survival against bitter odds, a sort of ”Angelo’s Ashes” about one writer’s humble beginnings in the tiny and melodiously named Colombian town of Aracataca. Both the title and the comparison are not completely inaccurate, given the clear-eyed look at hard times that animates García Márquez’s account of his early years as one of 11 siblings and then as a fledgling newspaper journalist whose income could be counted, swiftly, peso by peso.

But the book’s Spanish title, ”Vivir para contarla,” can be translated more literally, if less elegantly, as ”To live in order to tell it” — and that, really, is what García Márquez is up to in his richly entertaining, exquisitely spun, and just slightly opaque memoir. To read ”Living to Tell the Tale” is to submit to the narrative thrall of an author who believes that there is no human experience that cannot be turned into a gorgeously composed story.

That’s a surprise, coming from a writer who has built his deservedly monumental reputation on novels that plant one foot in the roiling swamps of Macondo (his version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County) and the other outside the realm of any human experience. As one of the fathers of magical realism, García Márquez has created worlds in which ghosts matter-of-factly commune with the living, in which time-and-belief-bending anomalies of weather, geography, lineage, and life span coexist with passages of dirt-under-the-fingernails passion and verismo. The result has won him a Nobel Prize, influenced scores of writers (it’s hard to imagine the work of his closest North American contemporary, Toni Morrison, without him), and, with the ever-growing reputation of his 1970 masterpiece, ”One Hundred Years of Solitude,” elevated his status to the canonical.

But living legends don’t always thrive as autobiographers; even Johnsons need Boswells. ”Living to Tell the Tale” isn’t evasive or coy; García Márquez sheds plenty of light on his life (you’ll learn of his deflowering by a prostitute), on his work (though this installment ends with the author still in pre-fame adulthood, he offers pleasurable insights into the origins of character names and plotlines), and, most important, on how his life shaped his work. But the book is, in many ways, a performance: It’s a well-calibrated one-man show by a novelist who knows just how to make every anecdote glittery with language and humid with atmosphere, and who has burnished his account of himself to a perfect bronze glow. Except for some illuminating, lengthy discussions of mid-20th-century Colombian politics, this is a mid-19th-century memoir. Its portrait of young Gabo — wide-eyed absorber of everything around him, eager devourer of literature, independent-minded son, and plucky, guileless journalist — owes more to Dickens than to Freud.

It may not bother many readers that this carefully shaped, linguistically lush book reads exactly, on many pages, like a Gabriel García Márquez novel. Given the author’s penchant for sprinkling shrewd disclaimers like ”I could not distinguish between life and poetry” and ”Life with my entire family…lies in the domain not of memory but imagination,” that may be exactly what he intends. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, surely a kindred spirit, García Márquez doesn’t want realism, he wants magic. ”Living to Tell the Tale” suggests that the fascinating compromise he forged between the two in his fiction is, quite simply, the way he sees the world.

Living to Tell the Tale

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
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Living to Tell the Tale

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