In his sparkling 1985 novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez describes the unforgettable scent of bitter almonds in a room, the result of a depressed chess player's suicide by aromatic fumes of cyanide.
The heart of the novel, though, centers on an irredeemable romantic named Florentino Ariza. He falls hopelessly in love with Fermina Daza, whose tormented heart can't overcome social pressure. Though Florentino serenades her with mournful violin melodies, she marries a doctor. As the novel continues, Florentino, by way of distraction, engages in 622 long-term liaisons but never forgets the love of his youth. After 50 years, nine months and four days, Fermina's passionless marriage to the town's doctor ends with his death. Florentino is at the wake, ever the charming rake, ready to resume a courtship undimmed by the ravages of a half-century. Like so many of García Márquez's novels, Love in the Time of Cholera seduces, but seems so magical and lush that it can't resemble reality. Or can it?
The author, forever described in shorthand as the creator of magic realism, lets his fertile imagination soar over Latin America once again -- but leavens it with a bit more reality than one might think. García Márquez, as he makes evident in his new memoir, Living to Tell the Tale (Alfred A. Knopf), draws as much from his parents' real-life courting, down to the serenades and the almond-tinged suicide scene, as he does from fictional creations.
Its honesty is what makes Living to Tell the Tale so satisfying. Most authors, especially a Nobel laureate with a reputation for unparalleled imaginary characters and settings, reject links between reality and fiction. Any lasting bond between author and reader, though, is like romance. The infatuation propels the ardent reader to seek more information on what has gripped his imagination, what has seized his heart. Whether the writer responds is, of course, up to the writer.
García Márquez's response proves satisfying. Born in 1928 (the book jacket mistakenly lists his birth date a year earlier) in the Colombian banana town of Aracataca (a massacre of striking banana workers the year of his birth is a frequent set piece), García Márquez spent much of his boyhood living with his grandparents. His grandmother's blend of fact and fiction in her stories -- a desire to will certain unpleasant aspects of life true or false through tailored editing -- and adherence to fantastical superstition informed García Márquez's imagination from his earliest memories. As a boy, Gabito, as he is invariably called, enjoys the benefits of extended family. He is young enough to be allowed into the house's female sanctuaries, where colorful lore is mined while chores are dispatched; as a male, he also observes the less-voluble, but just as ritualistic, ways of the men.
Eccentrics in his own house, and throughout his principal childhood homes of Aracataca and Sucre, abound. Of his Aunt Francisca, García Márquez writes: "One day she sat down in the doorway of her room with several of her immediate sheets and sewed her own made-to-measure shroud with such fine marksmanship that death waited for more than two weeks until she had finished it." Such breathtaking sentences course through the memoir.
García Márquez began his writing career as a wayward, penniless law student. He found writing jobs with newspapers and weeklies, forcing himself to develop prolific work habits. Writer's block is not a problem for García Márquez, who hammers out text with the determination of a reliable, if brilliant, craftsman. Living to Tell the Tale marks the first volume in a projected trilogy. García Márquez, 75, began the novel at the same time he began a battle with lymphatic cancer, since vanquished.
The memoir opens with García Márquez loitering in a cafe. He has no money and fewer prospects and, in his gloom, is surprised by the appearance of his mother. She asks her son to accompany her on a voyage to Aracataca, where she plans to sell the family's dilapidated ancestral home -- and, along the way, prod García Márquez to pursue a law career.
It is a quixotic endeavor, on both counts. But not for García Márquez, who rediscovers the torpid sensuality of his childhood home. The collision of depressing sameness and colorful, dramatic people ignites the budding writer's creativity. His father, an itinerant pharmacist with a penchant for extramarital affairs, and his mother, a woman whose sheer will sees her family through struggle and humiliation, provide ample novelistic inspiration. García Márquez neither ignores faults and misdeeds nor does he consider them fatal character flaws. Such humanity buoys his memoirs and fiction alike.
Beyond carnal and ancestral love, the novelist drenches his memoir in literary passion. Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Alexandre Dumas and Scheherazade herself are among the many authors cited as inspirations. After reading Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the indelible tale of a bureaucrat-turned-insect, García Márquez writes, "I never again slept with my former serenity."
Those restless nights gave the world a magnificent series of fact, fiction and fabrication. Living to read such tales is good fortune, indeed, for García Márquez remains, in the end, magically real.