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The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Gerald Martin’s Gabriel García Márquez: A Life.  The second half of the guide is intended to provide an introduction to the work of García Márquez and to provide ways of thinking about and discussing his fiction and nonfiction.


Gabriel García Márquez: A Life is the first full and authorized biography of the 1982 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—the most popular international novelist of the last fifty years.  In the nearly two decades he dedicated to the research and writing of this biography, Gerald Martin had many conversations with Gabriel García Márquez himself, as well as with more than three hundred others—among them friends and family, major writers, and political leaders from Latin America.  The result is a revelation of both the writer and the man.

Born in 1927, raised by grandparents and a clutch of aunts in a small backwater town in Colombia, García Márquez worked first as a provincial journalist and later as a foreign correspondent whose years of obscurity came to an end when, at the age of forty, he published the novel entitled Cien años de soledad—One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Within months, the book had garnered spectacular international acclaim.  Eight years later, in 1975, he published The Autumn of the Patriarch, and in 1981, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, each novel rapturously received by critics and readers alike.  With his books read by millions around the world, he had become a man of wealth and influence.  Yet, for all his fame, he never lost touch with his roots: though he had lived outside of Colombia since 1955, his Nobel Prize was celebrated by Colombians who thought, and still think, of “Gabo” as their own. 

While chronicling the particulars of the life, Martin also considers the overarching issues: the tension between García Márquez’s celebrity and his quest for literary quality, and between his politics and his writing; and the seductions of power, solitude, and love.  He explores the melding of experience and imagination in García Márquez’s fiction and examines the reasons for—and the public’s reaction to—the writer’s turning in the 1980s from the magical realism that had brought him international renown, toward the greater simplicity that would mark his work beginning with Love in the Time of Cholera.

Gerald Martin has written a superb biography: richly illuminating, as gripping as any of Gabriel García Márquez’s powerful journalism, as enthralling as any of his acclaimed and beloved fiction.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Martin points out that Márquez’s living with his grandparents was crucial to the person and the writer he became: “Gabito and [his sister] Margot were being brought up by old people and had developed quite a different world-view, obsessive, superstitious, fatalistic and fearful but also diligent and efficient. . . . [They] must have felt inexplicably abandoned by their parents . . . yet privileged to be cared for in the house of the much-respected and much-loved grandparents” (p. 56).  What did this early stage of life provide for the future writer, despite the bewilderment of his mother’s absence?  Why was the influence of his grandparents so powerful in his life and imagination?

2. Arguably the most important moment in García Márquez’s life occurred when he and his mother took a journey to Aracataca to sell the house of his maternal grandparents. “What really happened to me in that trip to Aracataca was that I realized that everything that had occurred in my childhood had a literary value that I was only now appreciating” (p. 133).  Why is this episode so crucial not only to his vocation as a writer but as a key to his whole imaginative world?

3. In Bogotá during the 1950s, García Márquez took a point of view in his journalism “which was implicitly subversive of official stories and thus challenged the ruling system more effectively than any of his more vocal leftist colleagues” (p. 170).  How did his career as a journalist help to develop his political and social conscience?  How did it shape his approach to storytelling?

4. García Márquez has often been criticized for his tendency to be drawn to men of power—Fidel Castro, General Omar Torrijos, Felipe González, Bill Clinton, and many others—and to attempt to mediate between them in international affairs.  Regarding an article García Márquez wrote in praise of his friend Torrijos, Martin asks, “Was he writing about men of power, to men of power, or for them?” (p. 380).  How would you answer this question?

5. About García Márquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale Martin says, “The book contains his public life and his ‘false,’ invented life, but it does not contain much of his ‘private’ life and very little indeed of his ‘secret’ life” (p. 524).  Throughout the biography, Martin shows how García Márquez has taken measures to control the story of his life.  If you have read Living to Tell the Tale, what is the version that comes across?  How does it differ from the story the Martin tells?  Discuss García Márquez’s directive to Martin, “Just write what you see; whatever you write, that is what I will be” (p. xxi).

6. From 1973 to 1979, García Márquez dedicated himself to political engagement and activism, mainly on behalf of Chile and Cuba (Chapter 19).  Then, in September 1981, he turned away from direct political action and declared himself “more dangerous as a writer than as a politician” (p. 390).  Is this a judgment with which you agree?  Why or why not?

7. Martin provides a great deal of insight into the cultural divide between coastal and upland Colombia (Chapters 4 and 5).  What does it mean to be from the Caribbean coast, as García Márquez is, and from Bogotá and the interior?  How does the biography help you to understand how deeply Latin American, and more specifically a costeño Colombian, García Márquez is, and how he brings that sensibility to his writing?  Why did Gabriel García Márquez make such a point of displaying his native culture and dress at the Nobel Prize ceremony (pp. 418-21)?

8. García Márquez said, after winning the Nobel, “I was always famous, from the time I was born.  It’s just that I was the only one who knew it” (p. 430).  The second half of the biography describes the process whereby García Márquez adapted to his immense popularity.  He fiercely protected his private life and destroyed all letters and drafts of his work, while on the other hand, he seems to have exploited his fame and actively sought attention on the world political stage.  This is the story of a cultural phenomenon as well as that of a great writer.  How do you understand the relationship between these two personas?

9. One of the notable elements of García Márquez’s work is the strong presence of prostitution alongside love and marriage.  García Márquez’s first sexual experience was with a prostitute at a local brothel, and his father seems to have arranged the situation.  García Márquez said, “It was the most awful thing that ever happened to me, because I didn’t know what was going on” (p. 71).  How do you see the effect, in his work, of the extensive early sexual experiences detailed by Martin in Chapter 4?  Discuss, too, García Márquez’s family situation; his difficult relationship with his father Gabriel Eligio, who “kept his long-suffering wife locked inside the home on a strict, patriarchal basis, yet . . . betrayed her sexually—even scandalously—on numerous occasions” and produced four illegitimate children as well (p. 434).

10. What do you see as the key moments in García Márquez’s long and varied artistic career?  Which books, for you, are clearly great works?  What are the elements of his imaginative world that are unique, appealing, unforgettable?

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About this Author

Gerald Martin is Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Professor in Caribbean Studies at London Metropolitan University. For twenty-five years he was the only English-speaking member of the “Archives” Association of Twentieth-Century Latin American Literature in Paris, and he is a recent president of the International Institute of Ibero-American Literature in the United States. Among his publications are Journeys Through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century, a translation and critical edition of Miguel Angel Asturias’s Men of Maize, and several contributions to the Cambridge History of Latin America. He lives in England.

Suggested Reading

Suggestions for Reading Gabriel García Márquez
It is generally agreed that the three most important works of García Márquez are the novels One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, and Love in the Time of Cholera.  It is best to begin with a consideration of these acclaimed masterpieces, though The Autumn of the Patriarch is far less reader-friendly than the other two.  Depending on what kinds of stories and issues you prefer, choose related works from below.
One Hundred Years of Solitude was inspired by García Márquez’s childhood in Aracataca, and despite the label of “magical realism” that the book has been given, García Márquez insists that the way events are told in the book reflects the way his grandmother Tranquilina thought and spoke.  Her mind was like that of other people from the Caribbean coast, whose blood is mixed with the descendants of African slaves and native Indians, and who are used to seeing and sensing the presence of phenomena and of spirits that Western rationalism cannot comprehend.  The history of the Buendía family, from its origins to its demise, is filled with such phenomena and with impossible events, but they are narrated in a tone that makes them appear normal in the context of the story.  
         Martin writes that this novel “begins and ends in biblical style and contains some of the universal myths of anthropology, the characteristic mythemes of Western culture and the peculiar negative thrust of Latin America’s own specific experience of grandiose aspiration and humiliating failure. . . . Yet almost everything in the book would be the result of García Márquez’s own lived experience”(291) or that of his family—like the massacre of the banana workers in Aracataca.  The alchemist and sage Melquíades stands in the novel as the image of the writer whose uses his solitude to inscribe, on his parchment, the future history of the Buendías, which the last Aureliano will decipher as apocalyptic winds destroy the house.  One Hundred Years of Solitude is a great novel that deserves its comparison with Cervantes’ Don Quixote; it is filled with extraordinary characters, unforgettable images, and is an immense pleasure to read.  
Related works: García Márquez’s first novel, Leaf Storm, which is set in Macondo and deals with the exploitation of workers by the American company United Fruit; No One Writes to the Colonel, in which a colonel who was on the losing Liberal side in the civil war waits endlessly for his pension from the Conservative government; In Evil Hour, also set in Macondo, which is being destroyed by civil wars between the Conservatives and the Liberals.
The Autumn of the Patriarch is the most experimental of the three major novels in style and form—indeed, even some García Márquez scholars find its extremely long sentences and its lack of paragraphs hard going.  It is the result of García Márquez’s belief that Latin American literature must enter the stream of twentieth-century modernist writers like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner.  Here García Márquez returns to ideas about Latin America’s political history—dictatorship, corruption, the loneliness of power—that were strengthened by seeing Stalin’s corpse when he was visiting Moscow (p. 217).  Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch reflects the influence of William Faulkner.  Related works: The General in His Labyrinth; the story “Big Mama’s Funeral,” which García Márquez wrote on his return from Europe and which was his “furious reaction to the national situation” (p. 248).
Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera is rooted in García Márquez’s family history—this time the romance of his parents—and is set in Cartagena de Indias, the ancient Spanish colonial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.  As Martin writes, this novel’s subjects are announced in its title: “it speaks of both love and of time: love, as so often in García Márquez, as an irresistible sickness or disease; and time, as both mere duration and history but also as the worst disease of all, the one that gnaws away at everything” (p. 440).  In this extraordinary tale of unrequited love over half a century, Florentino Ariza maintains his original love for Fermina Daza, despite his six hundred and twenty-two affairs.  Like much of García Márquez’s work, this novel asks us to think about what love is, whether love without sex means something different, something more ideal or more delusional than consummated love.  This novel is, like so much great literature, a meditation on love in the face of time and mortality.  Martin writes that given the scope of its ambition, its similar themes, and its accessibility, “in some ways this is the sequel to One Hundred Years of Solitude that The Autumn of the Patriarch never quite became” (p. 441). Thomas Pynchon called it a “shining and heartbreaking novel” (p. 444). Related works: Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Innocent Eréndira, Of Love and Other Demons, for their exploration of love, sexuality, and prostitution.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold is the fictionalized version of an actual event: In 1951 Cayetano Gentile, a close friend and neighbor of the García Márquez family, was hacked to death in the public square in Sucre. His killers were the brothers of Margarita Chica Salas, whose new husband returned her to her father’s house the morning after their wedding, declaring that her ex-boyfriend Gentile had taken her virginity.  Transforming this event into a novel thirty years later, García Márquez focused on the fact that everyone in the town knew what would happen and did nothing to stop it.  In a tour de force of pacing and narrative style, García Márquez critiques the culture of honor, shame, machismo, and fatalism that caused the townspeople to allow the murder to go ahead.  García Márquez implicitly condemns the absurdity of this waste of human life: as Martin writes, “irony functions at every level” (p. 397).   The novel can be compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude in its interest in fatalistic ways of thinking, as well as in the question of whether human beings can change the course of their history.
The General in His Labyrinth is a work in which García Márquez returns once again to the history of Latin America and of Colombia itself.  This time he writes a novel based in actual history, for which he immersed himself in research about the life of “the Liberator” of South America, Simón Bolívar.  He sets the story in the year 1830, when Bolívar is dying of fever as he makes a final journey down the Magdalena River.  While Bolívar has liberated the continent from Spanish rule, his dream of a continent as “one nation, free and unified” has failed.  For Martin, this is another work in which García Márquez captures the Latin American character, and “the great Liberator is here revealed as the template for countless Latin Americans suffering, striving and sometimes succumbing in the arduous kingdom of this world” (p. 463).  “The central subject,” he says, “is power, not tyranny” (p. 460) and the work can be compared to The Autumn of the Patriarch.
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor began as a series in fourteen parts for the newspaper El Espectador, and is evidence of García Márquez’s skill as an interviewer and investigative reporter.  The story García Márquez told reversed the heroic narrative of this event that was promoted by the military government, and instead revealed that the men went overboard because the ship, stocked with contraband, was dangerously overloaded.  It is, says Martin, “a sustained and brilliant demonstration of the power of the story-teller’s art and of the power and central importance of the imagination even in the representation of factual material” (p. 170).  Compare with The General in His Labyrinth, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and News of a Kidnapping, all of which are also based on factual material.
Strange Pilgrims is a collection of stories begun mainly between 1976 and 1982 and completed in April 1992; they focus on the experiences of Latin Americans living in Europe.  “They all have a somewhat autobiographical air about them,” says Martin (p. 483), and appeared at the time of García Márquez’s recovery from lung cancer.
Of Love and Other Demons is set, like Love in the Time of Cholera, in Cartagena, where a tomb has revealed a “skull with a torrent of bright red hair that has continued growing for almost two centuries” (p. 489).  The protagonist is a young journalist who discovers that during the colonial period, a rabid dog has bitten a girl called Sierva María.  The local clergy believe she is possessed by the devil; she is to be exorcised by a theologian called Cayetano Delaura.  A brilliant and chilling story about dreams and about a grown man sexually obsessed with an adolescent, it was highly praised.  Peter Kemp, in the London Sunday Times, called the book “a further marvellous manifestation of the enchantment and the disenchantment that his native Colombia always stirs in García Márquez” (p. 491).  Compare with Love in the Time of Cholera and Innocent Eréndira.
News of a Kidnapping is a nonfiction story written at the request of García Márquez’s friend Maruja Pachón, who was kidnapped by the Pablo Escobar drug cartel.  While she survived, many others were murdered during the waves of violence that swept Colombia during the 1980s and 90s, with drug lords openly defying the law and intimidating journalists, lawyers, and judges with frequent assassinations and kidnappings.  García Márquez called the kidnappings “only one episode in the biblical holocaust that has been consuming Colombia for more than twenty years.”  As elsewhere, García Márquez uses the first-person plural form “we” in narrating, aligning himself with the Colombian people on whose behalf he undertakes this act of witness to the suffering caused by narcoterrorism.  Related works: The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, for its factual and journalistic origin.
Living to Tell the Tale is García Márquez’s own telling of the first stage of his life story, a tale as rich in humor and fantastic incident as any of his unforgettable novels.  It takes the reader from his birth in Aracataca, through his childhood and school years in Barranquilla and Bogotá, through his early years as a journalist, and up to the moment in 1955 when he leaves for Europe with a promise from the woman he will eventually marry.
Memories of My Melancholy Whores revisits the theme of an old man’s obsession with the adolescent girl, and was reviewed perceptively and with high praise by John Updike in The New Yorker.  For Martin, it is García Márquez’s “least-accomplished novel,” but also has “as many levels of ambiguity, ambivalence and complexity as any of his others . . . because this book has both an unashamed and unattenuated flirtation with fantasy and a conventional moral dimension that most of the others quite deliberately lack.  It is a fairy tale, albeit a disconcertingly lurid one” (p. 534).  Related works: Love in the Time of Cholera, Innocent Eréndira, and Love and Other Demons.
On the style and substance of García Márquez’s writing:
“He is a master of physical observation: Surfaces, appearances, external realities, spoken words—everything that a truly observant observer can observe. He makes almost no allusion to states-of-mind, motivations, emotions, internal responses: Those are left to the inferential skills and deductive interests of the reader.  In other words, García Márquez has turned the fly-on-the-wall point of view into a crucial aspect of his narrative style in both fiction and non-fiction, and it is a strategy that he uses to stunning effect.  It not only obliges readers to participate in the narration by placing them up on the wall, right next to the fly, but I believe it is also one of the techniques he employs to abrogate sentimentality, leaving only actions driven by emotions, and sometimes passions.”  —Edith Grossman, from “On Translation and García Márquez,” a speech delivered at the 2003 PEN Tribute to Gabriel García Márquez, held in New York City on November 5, 2003.

Suggested Further Reading
Jon Lee Anderson, “The Power of García Márquez,” The New Yorker (September 27,1999); Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, ed., The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez; Michael Bell, Gabriel García Márquez; Roberto Bolaño, 2666; Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World; Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch; William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!; Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz; Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo; John Updike, “Dying for Love,” The New Yorker (November 7, 2005); Michael Wood, García Márquez: “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
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