The Insistence of Memory

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One Hundred Years Of Solitude, the magnificent 1970 novel that made the reputation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, famously begins as a flashback. "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." Is it memory that makes possible the magic of Garcia Marquez's magic realism? A world retrieved from the past operates by more flexible guidelines; the laws of gravity are loosened, the rules of cause and effect can be bent.

Or maybe Garcia Marquez did not have to bend them much. The Nobel-prizewinning Colombian novelist has always maintained that he was not a magic realist but just a writer making the most of the lavish realities of Latin America. After reading his abundant new memoir, Living to Tell the Tale (Knopf; 484 pages), you'll be inclined to agree. In a warm but largely matter-of-fact style, he recalls the headless man who rode past one day on a donkey, killed by a machete in a settling of accounts on the nearby banana plantation. Then there was the fishing town full of men mutilated because they had been too slow to throw the sticks of dynamite they used to stun the fish. Or the first time he saw the ocean, full of dead chickens. He's still not sure why.


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Then you remember that, after all, this is just another of his memory books. And memory, he reminds you, is never to be counted on. But it's Garcia Marquez's power to discover all kinds of enduring truths in memory's fog banks that has made him one of the most popular living writers. When it was first published in Spain and Latin America last year, this ambling but rich book became the fastest seller in the history of Latin American publishing. Knopf took the unusual step of issuing a Spanish-language edition in the U.S., and the first printing of 50,000 sold out in weeks.

Garcia Marquez, 75, who has been fighting lymphatic cancer since 1999, intends this book to be the first of three volumes. It ends with him as a journalist, just 27 years old, flying to cover a summit meeting in Geneva and writing a love letter to his future wife. By that time we have seen him grow up, mostly in the small town of Aracataca, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. For his first eight years, he saw little of his parents, whom he will reimagine years later as the thwarted couple in Love in the Time of Cholera. In those years, they lived 50 miles away, in Barranquilla, where they struggled to sustain a pharmacy. Young "Gabito" was raised by his loving grandparents, who are transformed by him much later into the dynastic founders of One Hundred Years of Solitude, just as he makes Aracataca into that book's haunting town of Macondo.

His early schooling, his sexual initiation and maybe a few too many of his schoolmates — Garcia Marquez sets them all down. Eventually he travels to Bogota to pursue studies in law. But it's too late. His passion for words overtakes him. So does the bloody history of his country. By the book's end, he is becoming the man whose gifts will subdue that history and turn its pain into even further magic.