6 DECEMBER 2003, Page 48

Being prodigal with the truth

Raymond Carr

LIVING TO TELL THE TALE by Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cape, £18.99, pp. 483, ISBN 0224072781 Gabriel Garcia Marquez, according to a recent poll of prominent literati, is the most admired author in the world. His One Hundred Years of Solitude, published in 1967 and rapidly translated, not only won him the Nobel Prize, it gave him a readership far beyond that of the aspiring haute bourgeoisie of Notting Hill, for whom the book represented a rite de passage on the path towards attendance at the Duff Cooper prize-giving. His success came in the years of the 'Latin American Boom' of the 1960s. It embraced established writers, for example Borges and Neruda, who had made their reputations in the 1920s and 1930s. But its distinctive voice was that of a younger generation: the savage social satire of the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and what was described as the 'magic realism' of Garcia Marquez.

Magic realism has been defined as the blending of the 'reality' of everyday life with the 'exotic and mysterious'. It was geographically and socially determined. 'What is the story of Latin America,' wrote the great Cuban novelist Alejo Carperitier, 'if not the chronicle of the marvellous?' Zola's dreary mining towns, the polite society of Jane Austen's rural vicarages and country houses, the drawing-rooms of Henry James, are worlds removed from the vast swamps, impenetrable jungles and lofty mountains of Latin America. Buried in them are lost paradises and living hells where whites, blacks and half-castes seem in Garcia Marquez's novels as exotic and violent as the nature that surrounds them. Academic literary critics have made a minor industry of the search for models in real life of the characters and locations of his fiction. This autobiography gives at first hand the raw reality Garcia Marquez transforms in his fiction. It is a prolonged exercise in nostalgia, as it tracts his life from the days of his childhood in his grandfather's rambling house in the tropical Caribbean township of Aractaca, through his school days and his struggles as a penniless journalist in the lively port towns of Barranquilla and Cartagena seemingly peopled with the golden-hearted tarts and frustrated housewives who gave Gabriel his sexual education and a dose of the clap. It ends with his employment as a reporter in Bogota, a 'lugubrious' capital city after the accordion-playing troubadours of the Caribbean.

Loneliness is the fate of the aged, in our society, where they are bundled off to institutional retirement homes or abandoned to 'carers'. In Latin societies the family remains the social and emotional centre of life. The Marquez house is full of aged, sometimes wildly eccentric, aunts, uncles and grandparents: the regiment of Marquez bastards are taken in as honorary members of the extended family. The family is ruled by Colonel Marquez, a veteran of the Thousand Days' War between liberals and conservatives. Prominent generals and neighbours enjoy the generous hospitality of the house. The servants vanish, one by one, the food becomes inedible, the guests cease to drop in, It is a story of decay, a descent from shabby gentility into unimaginable poverty when the purchase of a newspaper means fewer potatoes in the soup. The mother is the much-loved heroine of this book. She is a 'lioness' who fights a long battle with her family to marry a violin-playing telegraph clerk. She fights poverty when her husband abandons her and her 11 children, to wander off in vain efforts to make a living as a homeopathic pharmacist. Gabriel sleeps rough in Barranquilla parks, in cheap doss-houses. Only in Bogota did he earn enough as a reporter to have a square meal and an apartment of his own.

The central theme of this book is the author's determination to fulfil his destiny as a writer that entails a long tussle with his father, determined that he should get a university degree, while his son wants to get on with his writing. Already as a child he invents fantastic versions of family life, A friend remarks, 'Children's lies are a sign of great talent.' At his secondary school he writes poems for the school mag, at home celebratory poems for local festivals. His career as a writer is incomprehensible unless we recognise the extraordinary prestige that literature — especially poetry — enjoys in Latin American societies. It was institutionalised in the tertulia. The master presides at the nightly café table at which his disciples have their appointed places. Attempts to present the Gargoyle or the old Café Royal as British equivalents are wide of the mark. At Barranquilla, journalists and poets form a group of like-minded literary aspirants engaged in dethroning the 'indigestible purism' of the establishment poet and statesman, Guillermo Valencia, an early modernist and translator of Oscar Wilde. It is impossible to imagine Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell or Peter Quennell as paid-up members of such a serious, introverted group. The fleeting success of the Barranquilla group's Cronica was due to an article on a football match. T. S. Eliot's Criterion was not noted for sporting journalism.

I may be wrong in that I sense Marquez was not one of nature's political animals. The primacy of literature over politics is inevitable in a book that is concerned with the writer's development. Lenin wrote, 'If you don't become involved in politics, politics will eventually become involved with you.' With the assassination of the populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948, an event he describes somewhat misleadingly in this book, and the descent into authoritarian regimes which censored the newspaper articles he turned out by the hundred, he became involved. He had started on the road that was to lead him, when the most famous writer of the continent, to become the close friend of its most famous politician, Fidel Castro. It is not to his credit that he was unwilling to use this friendship to save homosexuals and his fellow writers from a vile persecution at the hands of a tyrant.

I return to my starting point, the relation of Marquez's writings to 'reality'. Marquez is remarkably frank about the fallible nature of memory and the perils of nostalgia. Events that he professes to have witnessed are not childhood memories but the memories of later family conversations in his 'lunatic' house. Did he really see a horned faun in a bus? Does it matter? But the rub comes when the novelist uses historical events. The Colombian historian Eduardo Posada, to whom I am deeply indebted, has examined Garcia Marquez's treatment of the strike of the banana workers in 1928. Marquez himself was to confess he had written an apocalyptic version of the strike, exaggerating the subsequent repression in order to discredit the conservative government and the army. His fictional version of events has become accepted as history.

This book is a bit of a curate's egg. Parts of it are excellent; its wonderful descriptive passages, the Dickensian capacity to create unforgettable characters are the work of a great writer. Parts of it I found tedious: the literary gossip, the affectionate tributes to friends who mean nothing to an English reader. The translation is heavy-handed. But Alejo Carpentier, the father of Caribbean magic realism and a fellow insomniac, once told me that the boring passages of Proust were the best sleeping pill in the world. So they have proved to be.