"Living to Tell the Tale" by Gabriel García Márquez

Translated by Edith Grossman.

      Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 

      2003

      484 pp., 

      $26.95.

 

Disrobing the King:

The False Starts and True Scars of Gabriel García Márquez

Review by Urayoán Noel

 

Gabriel García Márquez is, of course, a modern master. Like Picasso or Chaplin or J-Lo, García Márquez is by now a brand name; he is one of the few living writers (and certainly the only living Latin American) whose name encapsulates a universal "experience" of literature, complete with its own worldwide stylistic, ideological, and marketing apparatus. Whenever a literary writer of García Márquez' s stature publishes a book, we expect that said book will live up to the brand name: we look forward to reading that writer "at his best, doing what only he can do, at the top of his form." Yet, whenever a writer of such stature publishes his or her memoirs, our expectations double: for that book must not only live up to the brand name of Great Writer X, it must also go beyond the brand names, allowing us a glimpse at  X's "true self": the dark side, the secret intrigue, the failures, the warts, the compromises, the fear. As readers of memoirs, we are disrobing the king. We are dragging our gods into the courtyard, witnessing the execution, and praying for the final resurrection.

 

In his memoir Living to Tell the Tale (the first volume of a planned trilogy), Colombia's Nobel laureate and author of the seminal One Hundred Years of Solitude, engages heartily with his readers' manifold and contradictory expectations. The book (originally published in Spanish in 2002 Vivir para contarla -- by Barcelona's Mondadori) is a vivid catalog of the writer's reminiscences and growing pains: from his hometown of Aracataca, through his school days, the early 1950s spent at various newspapers and magazines throughout Colombia, his aborted law school experience at the Universidad de Bogotá, and the first inklings of literary fame.

 

The tale begins when a twenty-something García Márquez accompanies his mother to sell the childhood house. This pivotal event becomes a springboard for a bevy of reminiscences and flashbacks, as loosely structured as they are powerful. Immediately, an image crystallizes before our eyes; a portrait of the artist as a young bohemian: García Márquez as a sandal-clad slacker whittling his days away at menial newspaper jobs, so as to better devote his nights to drinking, carousing, or simply hanging out with equally scruffy friends, dissecting Colombia's political misfortunes or serenading the moonlight with inebriated renditions of Carlos Gardel's tangos and Miguel Matamoros's guarachas. My first impression was clear: this "Gabriel" dude (his folks call him "Gabito") is one cool cat, almost too cool, if you ask me. He's everything to everyone without trying too hard: he's the bohemian, the precocious poet, the reckless street corner musician, the dutiful eldest son, the faithful friend, the hotshot young writer, the goof-off who charms and bluffs his way through school with straight A's. I can relate (or, rather, I wish I could!).

 

As the scars of maturity start to show, however, a far different García Márquez emerges: the shy, diffident, politically naïve would-be-writer; the law-school-dropout who staves off poverty, hunger, and despair by frequenting brothels and feeding a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit. Unable to find his literary voice, the young García Márquez writes halfhearted, hermetic, pseudo-naturalist short stories, or channels his creative energies scribbling censor-friendly editorials and radio soap opera scripts. He has constant nightmares, talks in his sleep, and is an atrocious speller. His sexual liaisons (including tempestuous/furtive/truncated affairs with married women) are recounted in frank, vivid and sometimes shocking detail. The autobiographer's self-prognosis is not pretty: "I did not care about glory, or money, or old age, because I was sure I was going to die very young, and in the street" (p. 365).

 

Slowly but surely, though, the young García Márquez starts piecing together the past, and begins to suspect that his family's bittersweet saga may hold the key to a deeper understanding of self and society: "The model for an epic poem like the one I dreamed about could not be anything but my own family, which was never a protagonist or even a victim of anything, but only a pointless witness and a victim of everything. I began to write it at the very moment I returned, because an elaboration by artificial means was no longer of any use to me, only the emotional weight I had carried without knowing it and that was waiting for me intact in my grandparents' house." (ibid.) Art and life come together in the shaping of a new aesthetic -- at once dream-laced and journalistic -- and a new political spirit.

 

Thanks to its frank, straightforward, unflinching narrative, Living to Tell the Taleaccomplishes something rare in Latin American autobiography: an honest, powerful glimpse into the dark side of a literary giant, fears and vulnerabilities intact. While this book lacks the visionary grandeur, literary sophistication and global scope of, say, Pablo Neruda's Memoirs (a.k.a. Confieso que he vivido), it also for the most part steers clear of the sort of idealized self-imaging that sometimes mars Neruda's text (e.g. Neruda as the superstar, the aesthete, the diplomat, the avant-gardist, the revolutionary, the exemplary citizen, the sensitive soul, etc.).

 

Historically, Latin American writers have had a hard time escaping their own idealized self-image. Though things are slowly changing, the political Left in Latin America has tended to view its writers rather myopically and moralistically as Bolívar-style revolutionaries, agents of radical social change, Great Men, Romantic nation-builders, etc. Not that there's anything wrong with "radical social change," but when a writer's job is so rigidly defined as ancillary to a political agenda, the writer runs the risk of losing his voice from shouting himself hoarse. I am reminded of an old review in Poetry magazine where William Carlos Williams described Carl Sandburg as a poet who (and I paraphrase) "fell into the facts themselves." In a way, García Márquez's nuanced, polyphonic reshaping of Latin America's psychic and political history (saddled by overeager critics with the clumsy moniker "magical realism") can be understood as an attempt to tell the truth about self, family, history, and politics without "falling into" the facts.

 

In a piece published in the November 2, 2003 New York Times, Guatemalan/American novelist Francisco Goldman underscores García Márquez's distrust of barebones literary realism: "In an essay addressed to those with whom he might have shared political convictions but not literary ones, García Márquez wrote that to write about the violence in the manner that others demanded would be to produce 'a catalog of cadavers.'" Ultimately (and perhaps unavoidably, given the demands of the marketplace) The New York Times ran reviews of Living to Tell the Tale with such fluffy, lamely predictable titles as "The Ghosts of Childhood" and "A Family Haunted By Ghosts Of History," but the perceptive reader (and I know you'll out there!) will notice that the ghosts in this book are merely stand-ins for the scars (perhaps they always were?).

 

Of course, this book ends just as García Márquez is starting to become famous, and there will be plenty of room for shameless self-mythologizing in volumes two and three. For now, though, García Márquez has delivered to his eager readers an amusing and often moving panoply of false starts, fleshed out with juicy tidbits sure to astound your colleagues at the next cocktail party for instance, you may perhaps already know that  One Hundred Years of Solitude was written in Mexico in 1965-1966. What you probably didn't know is that while writing it, García Márquez had only two records, which he played over and over until he wore them out: Debussy's Preludes and the Beatles' Hard Day's Night (p. 452).

 

To be sure, such revelations are not necessarily to be taken at face value -- hence the book's pointed epigraph, which reads like an a priori apology for a rambling catalog of life scraps: "Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it." This catalog of false starts is not without its flaws: paradoxically, the intimacy and ease of these memoirs can make them seem strangely distant, as the author gets so lost in heaping facts upon fears upon facts upon prophecies, and with such speed and ease, that we sometimes lose sight of the self that undergirds this narrative. That is, despite his own best efforts, the author does sometimes fall into the facts themselves. Surely, the reader will admire the journalistic rigor with which García Márquez frames his nightmare scenarios, like dreamscape primers for the memory marketplace. But, while the frank, factual, intimate tone is often stirring and revelatory, other times it is merely expository, politely confessional. His exceptional storytelling capabilities sometimes drown out the intimate autobiographical tone.

 

Make no mistake about it, this book is a tour de force: it keeps us at the edge of our seats, tightens the noose, oils the blade, and leaves us dizzy, giddy, and starving for more. The author has done an excellent job of editing his life for suspense and readability. And while this explains the book's status as international bestseller, it also limits its literary value. Lacking the stylistic daring or literary density of other late-modernist-master autobiographies (see, for instance, the crazed artifice and lovely evasions of Nabokov's  Speak, Memory, or the tragicomic self-implosions of William S. Burroughs's Letters), this book too often settles for stylistic streamlining, for the cozy readability of the page- turner. Which is a longwinded way of saying that Living to Tell the Tale is a charming, compulsively readable, and highly entertaining book, but it's not necessarily important as literature. In contrast with the subtle, agile "architextures" of his best novels; hereGarcía Márquez's flashbacks and dreamscapes are strictly user-friendly and straightforward.

 

Likewise, Edith Grossman's limber translation focuses on readability and ease. Faced with a text that incorporates varieties of Latin American and Colombian slang, sayings, and wordplay, Grossman wisely decides against attempting liberal, loose translations and provides, instead, concise yet complete footnotes which explain references, specify usage and clarify double entendres. Thus, when García Márquez quotes the Mexican poet Enrique González Martínez's anti-modernista sonnet "Tuércele el cuello al cisne" ("Wring the swan's neck"), Grossman dutifully provides a clear and helpful footnote which explains the early twentieth-century backlash against the imported Parnassian and symbolist literary styles then in vogue in Latin America!

 

Occasionally, though, Grossman's translation is so by-the-book that it comes up short and seems stiff, literal, or unidiomatic. For instance, on page 546 of the Spanish Vintage edition, a young painter tells the writer çlvaro Mutis that he needs money for his trip to Europe. Mutis interrupts him, saying "Aquí está el pasaje" ("Here's the airfare" and/or "Here's the ticket"). Grossman translates this as "Here's your passage" (p. 453), which is both unidiomatic and confusing. Elsewhere, on page 279 of the Spanish Vintage edition, the young García Márquez titles his short novel (which would eventually be published as In Evil Hour): Este pueblo de mierda ("This shitty town"). Grossman translates it as This Shit-eating Town (p. 231), a needlessly convoluted rewording which lacks the blunt, in- your-face quality of the original Spanish.

 

Still, beyond the translation whimsy, this is the type of book it's hard not to enjoy: a master storyteller "doing what he does best." García Márquez has always been crowd- pleasing (that's his Beatle-esque, Elvisoid gift) and this book won't disappoint even the most casual investor in the Gabriel García Market. It's hard to think what he'd do for an encore, though. Will volume two be about phone sex? I guess he can call it Love in the Times of Caller ID!

 

In his (mock?) eulogy for Elvis Presley (published in The Village Voice upon the King's death in 1977) the rock critic Lester Bangs exclaimed: "But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse." Living to Tell the Tale is that rare book we can all agree on (liking it, hating it, same thing) and that's the sweetest thing I can say about GGM's Elvisoid powers of consensus. Except that García Márquez has not left the building. Rather, he is the building. So why stay loitering around in the lobby? Come on up to the rooftop, enjoy the view, see the last beams of sunlight in this waning literary dreamscape, and watch me scream at the top of my lungs: "MODERN MASTER'S CORPSE ON SALE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ONLY $26.95!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Steve CannonTribes