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Garcia Marquez in 90 Minutesby Paul Strathern
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Latin American literature was never primitive, yet from its beginnings it was suffused with a fresh, often childish lyricism. Garcia Marquez stands on the shoulders of a great Latin American literary heritage, but he is a modern rarity: a writer with aspirations to high art who also remains hugely popular. For those who fall under his spell, his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the richest literary dreams ever written. Its "magic realism" has influenced writers from New York to Paris to Tokyo with its endlessly imaginative vitality.
In Garcia Marquez in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern offers a concise, expert account of Garcia Marquez's life and ideas, and explains their influence on literature and on man's struggle to understand his place in the world. The book also includes selections from Garcia Marquez's writings; a list of his chief works in English translation; a chronology of Garcia Marquez's life and times; and recommended reading for those who wish to push further.
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García Márquez IN 90 MINUTES
By Paul Strathern IVAN R. DEE
Copyright © 2004
All right reserved.
Chapter One García Márquez's Life and Works
Gabriel García Márquez was born in the small town of Aracataca in northern Colombia, a region of intense heat and fierce tropical rainstorms. According to García Márquez he was born in 1928, though his father insists that it was in 1927. Fewer than twenty years earlier, the American-owned United Fruit Company had laid out enormous banana plantations in the countryside all around Aracataca, and the town had undergone a spectacular boom. Champagne corks popped and naked women danced the cumbia before the banana magnates, who ostentatiously lit their cigars with banknotes. Fortune hunters, prostitutes, and immigrant workers from as far afield as Cuba and Venezuela were drawn to the town. García Márquez's grandmother would refer disparagingly to this deluge of drifters as the "leaf storm." In 1914 the town was struck by a plague of locusts, which many saw as God's vengeance upon the sinners. But within no time life was back to normal, with the dance halls and bordellos thriving as before.
By the time of García Márquez's birth, however, the boom had turned to bust, the population of Aracataca had been halved to around ten thousand, and the suffocatingly humid streets had sunk into silence. But the banana plantationsremained, one of which was called Macondo. In 1928 the workers in the banana plantations of the Caribbean hinterland went on strike in protest over their pitiful conditions. This was brutally broken up by the army, who fired into the crowd killing a number of strikers at nearby Cienaga.
Gabriel García Márquez's father was illegitimate and a newcomer to Aracataca. He had been a medical student, but poverty had forced him to abandon his studies. At the time of the birth of his first son Gabriel, he was working as a telegraph operator. In the course of his life he would father "fifteen or sixteen" other children, most of whom were illegitimate. Gabriel would be brought up among the extended family of his maternal grandfather, Colonel Nicolas Márquez, who lived the life of a provincial gentleman. He always wore a suit and tie, regardless of the heat and humidity. To the fascination of his young grandson, he kept a gold watch on a chain in his waistcoat pocket and believed in dousing himself in aromatic lotions. Although regarded as local gentry, Colonel Márquez was not originally from Aracataca. He was an exile from Riohacha, one hundred miles to the north on the Caribbean coast; here he had shot a man in a duel and had been forced to flee the vengeance of the dead man's family. In the army he had fought in the notorious civil war of 1899-1902, known as the War of a Thousand Days, during which around 100,000 people had died (nearly one in ten of the adult male population).
The two sides in the civil war had represented Colombia's two political parties: the Conservatives and the Liberals. The Conservatives were supported by right-wing elements in the military, as well as the church; they also incorporated various fascist elements who believed in restricting the vote. The Liberals stemmed from those in the military who had supported Simón Bolívar, the great liberator of Latin America, also gaining widespread support among the commercial class who wished to restrict the power of the church, and even from landowners whose estates needed local military protection. Occasionally the Liberals would throw up an authentic populist politician, while out of the ranks of the Conservatives there might emerge a leader of genuine political skill-but for the most part both parties continued to be ruled by their own upper-class factions, who merely sought their own gain. The two parties continued to rule the country, alternating in power, depending upon who fixed the elections more effectively.
Colonel Márquez was a leading member of the Liberal party caucus that controlled Aracataca. Owing to his party allegiance, the Conservative government in Bogotá refused to send him the army pension to which he was entitled. The young Gabriel García Márquez grew up in childish awe of his grandfather, in later life recalling him as "the biggest eater I can remember and the most outrageous fornicator." Despite the Colonel's outrage at his son-in-law's behavior, he too had over a dozen illegitimate children. It was the Colonel who one day took young Gabito to the local United Fruit Company stores and first showed him ice-an incident that is transformed into a miraculous scene at the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The household in which Gabito grew up also contained a number of unusual women; these too would appear in one form or another in his later works. His grandmother Tranquilina, who was blind, occupied a world of magical superstition. To the apprehensive fear of Gabito, she would talk of the dead and spirits from the underworld, who flitted in and out of her life with the same constancy as the living. Aunt Francisca sat weaving her own shroud, explaining to Gabito that she did this "because one day I am going to die." And when she had finished, she lay down and did just that. A certain room in the house always remained empty, and no one went into it, because this was where Aunt Petra had died.
When Gabito was eight, the Colonel became ill and died. Around this time Gabito went to live with his father, who had now become a pharmacist in the coastal town of Barranquilla. Here Gabito went to school at the local Jesuit college. He proved a promising pupil but felt lonely after the communal life in his grandfather's house. He spent his time reading Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne, his mind only coming alive amidst the swashbuckling adventures of the Three Musketeers or on a journey twenty thousand leagues under the sea. At the age of thirteen he won a scholarship to the Liceo Nacional, a state-run boarding school for gifted children. This was at Zipaquirá, thirty miles north of the capital Bogotá. The five-hundred-mile journey took him over a week, involving a long steamer journey up the Magdalena River, followed by a slow, snaking train ride high into the Andes. This was a Colombia that Gabito had never seen before. After the vivid colors and smells of the steamy north, this was a cool grey world. Even the people were different. The population of the tropical north was Caribbean, a volatile mix of African, South American Indian, and Spanish stock. In the interior, over eight thousand feet up in the high Andes, the inhabitants were still largely white: the descendants of Spanish colonials, with pale faces and mournful expressions.
García Márquez would later describe his arrival in Bogotá, "a remote and mournful city, where a cold drizzle had been falling since the beginning of the sixteenth century. I suffered its bitterness for the first time one ill-fated afternoon in January, the saddest in my life.... Bogotá was dismal, smelling of soot ... and men dressed in black, with black hats, went stumbling through the streets.... You only saw a woman occasionally, since they were not allowed in the majority of public places." In his later fiction he would imagine how "on ghostly nights, the carriages of the viceroys still rattled through the narrow stone streets." In colonial times this had been the residence of the Spanish viceroy, with Bogotá ruling as the political and intellectual capital of New Granada, which occupied the whole of northern South America. By 1821 this region had been liberated by Simón Bolívar, becoming Gran Colombia. But within ten years this unwieldy country had simply fallen apart into Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia, leaving Bogotá the capital of a remnant nation of just four million people. There had followed over a century of almost continuous violence, to the point where the country's historian, J. L. Payne, would declare: "On a scale of political deaths per generation, Colombia has one of the highest levels of political conflict in the world." Some observers consider even this to be too modest an estimation. One of the rare moments of peace in the entire history of Colombia took place during the few years following the War of a Thousand Days, when it is generally reckoned that those who survived were simply too exhausted to continue with the struggle and needed a period of recuperation before they could launch into the next period of violence.
Gabo found the Liceo Nacional like "a convent with no heating and no flowers." The education was of a good standard, and he excelled in literature while doing poorly at science. Yet it was his leftist science teachers who later introduced him to socialism and the ideas of Marx. During the long, lonely weekends, Gabo would hide away in the library. By his last years at school, he had begun absorbing a heady mixture of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and The Prophecies of Nostradamus. The headmaster was also something of a poet, and it was he who introduced Gabo to the works of Rubén Darío. Gabo felt an immediate affinity with Darío: they had both grown up in a remote provincial town in a minor Latin American country. Darío had shown that it was possible to rise from such a background to become a writer of world renown. Gabo's vague ideas began to crystallize: he decided that he too would become a famous writer.
But when he left the Liceo Nacional at the age of eighteen, this ambition was little more than a dream. On his arrival home his father persuaded him to pursue a "serious" career, and so in 1947 García Márquez entered the University of Bogotá to study law. He quickly became bored with his lectures and took to hanging around in the cafés. He grew a mustache, let his hair grow long, and began writing poetry. During the evenings he liked to drink rum and attend wild parties. In his student lodgings he had to share a room, but he soon found a way of escaping into the solitude which he now found so precious-where he could read and think and write poetry. He would buy a five-cent ticket for the tram that plied the circular route around the city, and for hours on end he would simply vanish. Here he first began reading Kafka, in an edition translated by Borges. This inspired him to write a short story called "The Third Resignation." In this "autobiographical parable" García Márquez described how a boy who had died at the age of seven remained alive for eighteen years in his coffin. The boy's mind was aware of sensations and memories, and he was capable of imagination, while his body gradually putrified. Shortly after this, a critic in the Bogotá daily El Espectador wrote an article describing the younger generation of Colombian writers as a talentless bunch, devoid of either originality or imagination. He ended by challenging any of them to prove him wrong. García Márquez decided to send in his short story. He was more than surprised when the following Sunday he happened to glance over the shoulder of someone reading El Espectador and saw his story in print. A note introducing the story announced that "with Gabriel García Márquez a new and notable writer has come into being."
During García Márquez's second year at university, political events came to a head. Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, the populist leader of the Liberal party, was shot dead on a street in Bogotá. This provoked a spontaneous riot, and as news of the assassination spread throughout the city, thousands took to the streets. Mobs began looting shops and setting fire to buildings. The militia fired tear gas in an attempt to clear the streets, then began shooting into the crowds. After the rioters seized the state-run radio station and began broadcasting their grievances, the violence spread throughout the country. When the Bogotaza, as the uprising became known, finally subsided after several days of anarchy, hundreds were left dead in the streets of the capital alone. Colombia now embarked upon a prolonged period of civil instability during which as many as 300,000 died throughout the country. This period became known as La Violencia and lasted for the next eighteen years. (Ironically, the assassination that sparked this time of troubles was not the work of the Conservatives but of elements among the Liberal elite who wished to suppress Gaitan's populist-in other words, more genuinely liberal-views.)
García Márquez found himself caught up in the riots on the streets of Bogotá, during which he witnessed a mob setting fire to his student lodgings. He made an attempt to save his books and manuscripts from the blaze, but this proved futile. He was reduced to tears of frustration and despair as he watched his work burn. The Bogotaza would prove a turning point in his life. He realized that he had been blind to the circumstances of those living around him. Witnessing these events would transform him from a self-absorbed, somewhat private character into a man of political conviction who determinedly espoused the cause of the left.
In the aftermath of the Bogotaza, the University of Bogotá was shut down for the duration, cafés remained boarded up, and armed troops patrolled the streets of burnt-out buildings. García Márquez returned to his family home in the Caribbean region, which remained comparatively calm and stable while the events of La Violencia continued to sweep the country. In keeping with his father's wishes, García Márquez ostensibly continued his law studies at the University of Cartagena, but by now he had lost all interest in the subject. When a new Liberal paper called El Universal opened in Cartagena, he managed to persuade the editor to take him on as a journalist. This not only provided him with much-needed financial support but also gave him the chance to express his views. The editor had been so impressed by García Márquez that he gave him a daily five-hundred-word column of his own, announcing his new young columnist as a "scholar, writer and intellectual who will use his spirited imagination to express his reaction to people and events."
Yet when García Márquez began delivering his written columns, he was in for a shock. The editor was none too pleased with his undisciplined style and awkward literary flourishes. Long editorial sessions ensued, during which García Márquez watched his articles being taken apart sentence by sentence and rewritten in acceptable style. He was naturally irritated, but looking back on these sessions years later he would admit that it was here he learned many of the basic ingredients of writing. A style could be complex yet at the same time clear: the clarity lay in its comprehensibility. He also learned that journalism and literary writing did not necessarily have different subject matter. A fusion between literature and the accidental events of daily life was growing in his mind.
García Márquez would work at El Universal through the night. By dawn the paper was printed and ready for circulation. When the offices closed down, he would make for the nearby port, where he would drink rum in the run-down bars, listening to the stories of seamen and dockers. Many of these rum-inspired fantasies would reappear in his later writing, presented as wondrous factual events in Macondo and other locales.
Overwork and overdrinking eventually caught up with García Márquez, and he was struck down with pneumonia. He returned to the home of his mother and father, who now lived a hundred miles inland at the river port of Sucre. Here he recuperated from his illness, devouring stacks of books, especially modern American writers such as Faulkner and Hemingway. He became fascinated by the apparent simplicity of Hemingway's stories, whose transparent style left out all irrelevancies yet was able to suggest a complete world. In a very different way, he found himself drawn to Faulkner's willfully convoluted, defiantly unpolished style. By means of this covert subtlety of manner, Faulkner's novels of the Deep South seemed able to include every aspect of simple rural life while somehow conferring on it the timeless grandeur of heroic myth. García Márquez began writing a novel of his own, which drew on the stories of Aracataca that he had heard in his childhood. Mindful of his grandmother's description of such times, he called his novel Leaf Storm.
<%TOC%> Contents Introduction....................7
Excerpted from García Márquez IN 90 MINUTES by Paul Strathern Copyright © 2004 by Paul Strathern. Excerpted by permission.
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García Márquez's Life and Works....................39
García Márquez's Chief Works in English Translation....................116
Chronology of García Márquez's Life and Times....................118
What People are Saying About This
Meet the Author
Paul Strathern is author of the popular and critically acclaimed Philosophers in 90 Minutes series. Highlights from the series include Nietzsche in 90 Minutes, Aristotle in 90 Minutes, and Plato in 90 Minutes. Mr. Strathern has lectured in philosophy and mathematics and now lives and writes in London. A former Somerset Maugham prize winner, he is also the author of books on history and travel as well as five novels. His articles have appeared in a great many newspapers, including the Observer (London) and the Irish Times. His own degree in philosophy came from Trinity College, Dublin.
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