The Colombian writer, the genius of magical realism, whose writings have forever marked universal literary history, died in Mexico City on April 17, 2014 at the age of 87.
1. Born March 6, 1927 in Aracataca, Magdalena, Colombia, to a family of modest means with 16 children, Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, Gabo as he was called by his family and friends, is undoubtedly the greatest Latin American writer of all time.
2. Shortly after his birth in 1929, his parents, Gabriel Eligio García and Luisa Márquez Iguarán Santiaga were required to move to Barranquilla for professional reasons. Little Gabriel was entrusted to his maternal grandparents.
3. His grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Ricardo Márquez Mejía, nicknamed Papalelo, was a veteran of the War of a Thousand Days - a fratricidal conflict between the Liberal Party and the National Party that raged between 1899 and 1902. He was a great narrator and influenced Gabo profoundly, becoming his "umbilical cord with history and reality." A progressive, he had protested against the Banana Massacre in December 1928, in which more than 1,000 United Fruit Company farm workers had been killed by the Colombian army following threats by Washington to send in its own troops to protect the interests of the multinational. The Colonel recounted this tragedy to his grandson. He also encouraged him to discover the treasures of the dictionary. "It's hard to forget such a grandfather," confided García Márquez.
4. His grandmother, Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes, affectionately nicknamed "granny Mina" by the young Gabriel, was a "superstitious woman with a great imagination." She fascinated him with her stories and fantastical tales as well as her conviction in telling them. Thus, she became his first source of inspiration. "Since I was born, I knew I would be a writer. I wanted to be a writer. I had the will, the disposition, the motivation and the ability to be a writer. I never thought I would do anything other than that. I didn't think I could live without writing. I was ready to starve to death in order to be a writer."
5. On the death of his grandfather in 1936, the young Gabriel, then 9 years old, joined his parents in Sucre. He was sent to boarding school in Barranquilla, located on the banks of the Magdalena River, then on to the Jesuit college in San Jose in 1940. He won a scholarship and continued his secondary education at the National School in Zipaquirá, located one hour from Bogotá.
6. In 1947, he went on to study law at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá where he devoted most of his time to reading. He devoured the works of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and especially William Faulkner whom he considered his "master." He was marked by the works of Franz Kafka, especially The Metamorphosis, which was the inspiration for his first story. He also developed a passion for classic Greek tragedy, such as Sophocles' Oedipus the King.
7. The young Garcia Marquez was deeply influenced by the Piedra y Cielo poetic movement that had emerged in 1939. He later confessed that "without Piedra y Cielo I'm not sure I would have become a [good] writer. I learned not only a system for metamorphosing, but more importantly, an enthusiasm for poetry that, with each passing day, I miss more and more. It is something that makes me deeply nostalgic."
8. Inspired by the tales spun by his grandmother, he decided to begin writing and published his first story, La tercera resignación in the September 13, 1947 edition of the newspaper El Espectador.
9. On April 9, 1948, Gabriel García Márquez was caught up in the whirlwind of El Bogotazo, a bloody social explosion that followed the assassination of the socialist political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. The University itself closed and the hostel where he lived was ravaged by fire. He therefore decided to enrol at the University of Cartagena.
10. After two years of law studies, he abandoned the university to dedicate himself to his other great passion: journalism. "When I began the third year of law, I found it no longer interested me because I was completely entranced by literature and journalism." Between 1948 and 1952, he worked as a reporter for the newspapers El Universal and El Heraldo in Barranquilla. "I came to journalism because it can tell stories [...]. We must consider journalism as a literary genre."
11. In 1954, he returned to Bogotá, where he was hired as a reporter and film critic for the newspaper El Espectador. In 1955, García Márquez revealed the truth about the tragedy of Colombian warship A.R.C. Caldas. He published a series of fourteen articles about it, based on interviews with Luis Alejandro Velasco, a sailor who survived the tragedy that had claimed the lives of seven persons who fell into the sea. In the articles, García Márquez not only demonstrates his talent as a writer and storyteller, but also refutes the official version of the shipwreck that maintained that the tragedy was due to bad weather conditions. In fact, the deck was overloaded with contraband goods (appliances brought from the United States) when the snapping of a cable caused eight men to fall into the sea. The revelation of this scandal raised the ire of the Colombian military regime and García Marquez was sent to Europe as a correspondent in order to escape reprisals. In 1970, his narrative of these events was published under the title Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor.
12. Before fleeing to Europe in 1955, Gabriel García Márquez published his first novel, Leaf Storm, which, although praised by the critics, was a commercial failure. For this novel, his "most sincere and the most spontaneous," in which he writes for the first time of an imaginary village called Macondo (Bantu for banana), the young writer did not receive "even a penny in royalties."
13. Garcia Márquez visited several Western European countries as well as the socialist world, publishing numerous reports in El Espectador.
14. The Colombian writer then moved to Paris in 1957. His stay in the French capital proved to be of transcendent importance. "What was important to me in Paris was the perspective that the city gave me on Latin America. There, I never ceased being a Caribbean, but rather I became a Caribbean conscious of his culture." It was in the French capital, the cradle of the Revolution, that his political commitment began: "I sat aside all of the loyalty that I felt for literature and focused rather on political commitment." Thanks to his friend Nicolás Guillén, the Cuban poet, he became interested in Fidel Castro's revolution, which was then shaking off the yoke of Fulgencio Batista's military dictatorship of Cuba.
15. In Paris, Gabriel García Márquez led a hand-to-mouth existence, resorting on occasion to dumpster diving for food. During the war in Algeria, he frequented the separatist National Liberation Front. He was even arrested and roughed up by the French police who had taken him for an "Algerian rebel."
16. In December 1957, García Márquez got a job at the newspaper Momento in Caracas. A month later, he witnessed the uprising against Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who fled to the Dominican Republic. In May 1958, he became editor of Venezuela Gráfica.
17. In 1958, he married Mercedes Barcha, whom he had known since his student days and for whom he has expressed boundless admiration. She accompanied him throughout his life. He explained the secret of marital success: "There are three lives: public life, private life and secret life. Women are present in all three. I get along better with women than I do with men. But there is a secret to matrimonial harmony: women say that problems are solved through dialogue. This is in fact the opposite of what happens: if a problem is discussed, it necessarily leads to an argument. We must trust, forget and move forward."
18. In 1959, following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, he participated in the founding of the news agency Prensa Latina and became its correspondent in Bogotá. In 1961, he was appointed correspondent in New York and moved there with his family. But due to intimidation from the authorities and threats from Cuban exiles, he was forced to leave the United States.
19. Gabriel García Márquez left for Mexico City with his family, "unknown and without a penny." It was in the Mexican capital that he came to spend a large part of his life. In 1962, his novel In Evil Hour won the literary prize of the Colombian Academy of Letters.
20. Gabriel García Márquez was also passionate about cinema: "I so loved the cinema that I threw myself into it for the same reasons I wrote novels and stories and that I've done journalism: it was another way of telling the story." He studied film in Rome at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, in the company of Cuban Julio García Espinosa and Argentine Fernando Birri, future creators of the Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano. He was strongly affected by Italian neorealism and collaborated with Cesare Zavattini. He was also the screenwriter for several films. His own first short film, La Langosta azul, was completed in 1954. Beginning in 1963, he devoted himself to cinema and wrote many scenarios for films such as Roberto Gavaldón's El gallo de oro in 1964; Alberto Isaac's En este pueblo no hay ladrones in 1965; Arturo Ripstein's Tiempo de morir in 1966, which received first prize at the Cartagena International Film Festival; Manuel Michel's Patsy, Mi amor in 1968; and Luis Alcoriza's Presagio in 1974 among others.
21. In 1986, Gabriel García Márquez became involved in the creation of the Havana-based Foundation of New Latin American Cinema, and was its president until his death. That same year, in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, he founded the International School of Film and Television, an entity that has become a worldwide cinema point of reference. A great admirer of Woody Allen, he also collaborated on numerous occasions in television projects, such as Amores difíciles in 1991.
22. In 1967, after more than a year dedicated to writing that had plunged him into total economic deprivation, García Márquez finished the masterpiece that was destined to make him the greatest Latin American writer of all time. A Hundred Years of Solitude was published in June of 1967 in Buenos Aires. Its success was immediate. The book, which reveals magical realism in all its glory, has been translated into nearly 40 languages and has sold over 30 million copies. It won numerous international awards and the Colombian writer soon acquired a global reputation. Pablo Neruda expressed his admiration for the work in these words: "Perhaps the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since the Don Quixote of Cervantes." For his part, William Kennedy wrote that it was "the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race."
23. The troublesome problem of loneliness marks most of the works of Gabriel García Márquez. The Colombian author explained that: "I think it is a problem that everyone encounters. Each person has his own way of expressing it. The feeling pervades the work of many writers." García Márquez made it the theme of his speech at his Nobel Prize in Literature award ceremony under the title The Solitude of Latin America: "The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.
24. Gabriel García Márquez traveled around the world and formed a friendship with Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban Revolution, for whom he never hid his admiration. This friendship lasted for decades: "What actually strengthened our friendship were books. I discovered he was such a great reader that before publishing a book, I would send him the original. He could spot contradictions, anachronisms, and inconsistencies that even publishing professionals fail to notice. He is a very careful and voracious reader. The books he chooses to read reflect quite well the breadth of his tastes. Nobody has been able to explain how he manages to find the time or what method he uses to read so much so quickly. He often begins reading a book in the morning and is prepared to comment on it the very next day. His vision of the Latin America of the future is the same as that of Bolívar and Martí, an integrated and autonomous community, capable of changing the destiny of the world. Here is the Fidel Castro I think I know: a man of austere customs and insatiable illusions, with a formal old-world education, with prudent words and fine manners and unable to conceive of an idea that is not disproportionate." Throughout his life, Gabriel García Márquez visited Cuba regularly.
25. This friendship with Fidel Castro and his progressive ideas aroused the hostility of the United States. He was declared persona non grata in 1961 and prohibited entry into their territory. It was not until the election of Bill Clinton, a great admirer of the Colombian writer, that this prohibition was lifted. García Márquez also developed a strong friendship with this President of the United States.
26. Gabriel García Márquez has always professed his progressive political views. He has publicly assumed them: "[My critics have] have constantly tried to divide my personality: on the one hand, they do not hesitate to call the writer great, but on the other hand, there is this ferocious communist [...]. They commit an error of principle: I am not a man to be divided, and my political positions reflect the same ideology with which I write my books." I continue to believe that socialism is a real possibility, that it is the right solution for Latin America."
27. From 1967 to 1975, Gabriel García Márquez spent most of the time in Barcelona and, inspired by the figure of the Venezuelan dictator Juan Vicente Gómez, wrote The Autumn of the Patriarch. In Spain, the Colombian writer frequented many progressive intellectuals opposed to the dictatorship of General Franco.
28. In 1974, with several other intellectuals and journalists, Gabriel García Márquez founded the revue Alternativa in Columbia, which was published until 1980. In it, the writer contributed political articles on the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, followed closely the Sandinista Revolution, denounced the Pinochet dictatorship and expressed his support for the Cuban Revolution.
29. In 1981, he took advantage of an official visit of Fidel Castro in Colombia to return to his country. However, the army and President Julio César Turbay Ayala accused him of financing the M-19 (The 19th of April Movement) guerrillas. Alerted by friends of his imminent arrest, he managed to obtain political asylum in Mexico. Deeply appreciative, he later said: "There is no better intelligence service than friendship."
30. In 1982, Gabriel García Márquez became the first Colombian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the real are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflicts."
31. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Gabriel Garcia Marquez denounced the tragic social and political reality of Latin America: "Eleven years ago, the Chilean Pablo Neruda, one of the outstanding poets of our time, enlightened this audience with his word. Since then, the Europeans of good will - and sometimes those of bad, as well - have been struck, with ever greater force, by the unearthly tidings of Latin America, that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend. We have not had a moment's rest. A promethean president, entrenched in his burning palace, died fighting an entire army, alone; and two suspicious airplane accidents, yet to be explained, cut short the life of another great-hearted president and that of a democratic soldier who had revived the dignity of his people. There have been five wars and seventeen military coups; there emerged a diabolic dictator who is carrying out, in God's name, the first Latin American ethnocide of our time. In the meantime, twenty million Latin American children died before the age of one - more than have been born in Europe since 1970. Those missing because of repression number nearly one hundred and twenty thousand, which is as if no one could account for all the inhabitants of Uppsala. Numerous women arrested while pregnant have given birth in Argentine prisons, yet nobody knows the whereabouts and identity of their children who were furtively adopted or sent to an orphanage by order of the military authorities. Because they tried to change this state of things, nearly two hundred thousand men and women have died throughout the continent, and over one hundred thousand have lost their lives in three small and ill-fated countries of Central America: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. If this had happened in the United States, the corresponding figure would be that of one million six hundred thousand violent deaths in four years. One million people have fled Chile, a country with a tradition of hospitality - that is, ten per cent of its population. Uruguay, a tiny nation of two and a half million inhabitants which considered itself the continent's most civilized country, has lost to exile one out of every five citizens. Since 1979, the civil war in El Salvador has produced almost one refugee every twenty minutes. The country that could be formed of all the exiles and forced emigrants of Latin America would have a population larger than that of Norway. I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. (...) Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions?"
32. In 1985, García Márquez published Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the history of his parents: "The only difference is that my parents were married. As soon as they got married, they ceased being interesting as literary figures."
33. Four years later, in 1989, the Colombian writer published The General in His Labyrinth, a masterpiece that treats that most iconic of Latin American figures, Simón Bolívar, the Liberator.
34. In 1994, García Márquez created the Ibero-American New Journalism Foundation in Cartagena de Indias in order to train young students and create a new type of journalism closer to the social realities of the people.
35. In 1996, the Nobel Prize laureate published News of a Kidnapping, in which he recounts the tragic reality of Columbia, a reality marked by violence and kidnappings. Violence is a recurring theme in the work of García Márquez.
36. Profoundly affected by the bloody civil conflict that had wreaked havoc upon Colombia for more than half a century, Gabriel García Márquez repeatedly played the role of mediator during peace talks between the guerrilla movements and the central government, especially the governments of Belisario Betancourt and Andrés Pastrana. "I have conspired for peace in Colombia almost since I was born," he liked to recall.
37. In 1997, as Cuba was being struck by a wave of terrorist attacks orchestrated by Cuban exiles based in Florida, Fidel Castro charged Gabriel García Márquez with delivering a secret message to Bill Clinton concerning the activities of these violent groups. Cuba had managed to gather the necessary information through undercover agents in Miami. The Colombian writer recalled this episode: "In my conversations with Fidel Castro, I mentioned to him the possibility of my speaking with President Clinton. This was the genesis of the idea that Fidel would submit a confidential message exposing a sinister terrorist plan that Cuba had just uncovered."
38. In 1999, Gabriel García Márquez was stricken with lymphatic cancer. Fearing not to have time to finish his memoirs and two projected volumes of short stories, the author went into self-imposed isolation in order to dedicate himself exclusively to writing: "I minimized relations with my friends, unplugged the phone, cancelled trips and all kinds of commitments, and locked myself away every day from eight in the morning until two o'clock in the afternoon in order to write without interruptions."
39. In 2002, García Márquez published Living to Tell the Tale, the first volume of his autobiography: "It begins with the life of my maternal grandparents and the loves of my father and mother and ends in 1955 when I published my first book, Leaf Storm, and made my trip to Europe as a correspondent for El Espectador."
40. In 1994, Gabriel García Márquez played a key role in the restoration of diplomatic relations between Colombia and Cuba, relations that had been broken off in 1981.
41. In 2004, the Colombian writer published his final novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores.
42. In 2006, Gabriel García Márquez signed, along with many Latin American intellectuals, The Panama Proclamation, calling for the independence of Puerto Rico.
43. Gabriel García Márquez has always rejected the use of a specific style in his writings. According to him, it is the theme of the book that determines the style: "In each book, I try to take a different path. We do not choose the style. Critics build theories about it and see things that I had not seen, but I answer only to our lifestyle, our life in the Caribbean."
44. The writer has also expressed reservations about the interpretation of his works by scholars: "[Critics], in general, have a scripted right to pontificate, but they fail to realize that a novel like One Hundred Years of Solitude is devoid of seriousness and full of nods to my most intimate friends, winks that these friends alone discover. Still, the critics claim responsibility of decoding the book, thereby covering themselves in ridicule."
45. Along with the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias, García Márquez is considered to be a genius of the literary genre known as "magical realism," something that combines fantasy elements and everyday reality. But García Márquez claims first and foremost to be a realistic writer: "There is not a single line that is not based on reality. The first condition of magical realism, as its name suggests, is that it is a fact that is rigorously true, but nonetheless appears to be fantastical. In Latin America, reality surpasses literature, fiction, and novels."
46. Gabriel García Márquez has received numerous awards and accolades worldwide. In addition to the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was awarded the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, the French Legion of Honor, the Aguila Azteca of Mexico, and was named doctor honoris causa by several universities including the prestigious Columbia University in the United States.
47. Gabriel García Márquez is the main figure of the Latin American Boom, which includes writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa.
48. His books have been translated into dozens of languages worldwide. In total, they have sold a total of more than 50 million copies.
49. García Márquez was also passionate about music, his "favourite vice." He even admits that he "loves music more than literature."
50. Gabriel García Márquez is likely to retain his place in history as the most universal of all Twentieth Century writers. He was an intellectual attached to the fate of the most humble among us, someone who has always claimed that his roots lie in popular culture: "All of my training was based in popular culture. What keeps me, what moves me and what motivates me, is popular culture."
Translated from the French by Larry R. Oberg.
Docteur ès Etudes Ibériques et Latino-américaines at the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, Salim Lamrani is a Lecturer at the University of La Réunion, and a journalist, specializing in relations between Cuba and the United States.
His latest book is The Economic War Against Cuba (New York, Monthly Review Press, 2013) with a prologue by Wayne S. Smith and a preface by Paul Estrade.
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