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Honesty and Imagination

How reality made Márquez's fiction magical

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In his sparkling 1985 novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez describes the unforgettable scent of bitter almonds in a room, the result of a depressed chess player's suicide by aromatic fumes of cyanide. The heart of the novel, though, centers on an irredeemable romantic named Florentino Ariza. He falls hopelessly in love with Fermina Daza, with whom he enjoys a torrid relationship via back-channel exchanges of passionate letters.

When Fermina rejects Florentino's advances and marries a wealthy doctor, he carries a roaring torch until, after 50 years, 9 months and four days, Fermina's marriage ends with the doctor's death. Florentino is at the wake, ever the charming rake, ready to resume a courtship undimmed by the ravages of a half-century.

Like so many of García Márquez's novels, Love in the Time of Cholera seduces, but seems so magical and lush at once that it can't resemble reality. Or can it? García Márquez, as he makes evident in his new memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, draws as much from his parents' real-life courting as he does from fictional creations. And it's this honesty that makes Living To Tell The Tale so satisfying.

Born in 1928 in the Colombian banana town of Aracataca, García Márquez spent much of his boyhood living with his grandparents. His grandmother's blend of fact and fiction in her stories and adherence to fantastical superstition informed García Márquez's imagination from his earliest memories. Until he fell into ill health, García Márquez's grandfather toted the young boy to the office, on his many errands, even as an alibi on conjugal rounds.

As a boy, Gabito, as he is invariably called, enjoys the benefits of extended family: He is young enough to be allowed into the house's female sanctuaries, where colorful lore is mined while chores are dispatched, and, as a male, he also observes the less-voluble, but just as ritualistic ways of the men.

Eccentrics in his own house abound. Of his Aunt Francisca, García Márquez writes: "One day she sat down in the doorway of her room with several of her immediate sheets and sewed her own made-to-measure shroud with such fine marksmanship that death waited for more than two weeks until she had finished it."

Such breathtaking sentences course through the memoir. García Márquez began his writing career as a wayward, penniless law student. He found writing jobs with newspapers and weeklies, forcing himself to develop prolific work habits. Writer's block is not a problem for García Márquez, who hammers out text with the determination of a reliable, brilliant craftsman.

Living to Tell the Tale, the first volume in a projected trilogy, opens with García Márquez loitering in a cafe. He has no money and fewer prospects and, in his gloom, is surprised by the appearance of his mother. She asks her son to accompany her on a voyage to Aracataca, where she plans to sell the family's dilapidated ancestral home -- and, along the way, prod García Márquez to pursue a law career with enthusiasm while reversing the family's poverty-stricken fortunes.

It's a quixotic endeavor, on both counts. But not for García Márquez, who rediscovers the torpid sensuality of his childhood home. The collision of depressing sameness and colorful, dramatic people ignites the budding writer's creativity. His father, an itinerant pharmacist with a penchant for extramarital affairs and illegitimate children, and his mother, a woman whose sheer willpower sees her family through constant struggle and humiliation, provide ample novelistic inspiration.

Throughout these tales, the author is admirably generous and honest. García Márquez neither ignores faults and misdeeds nor does he consider them fatal character flaws. Such humanity buoys his memoirs and fiction alike and, to his credit, García Márquez doesn't brush away personal peccadilloes along the way.

It is on the opening journey to Aracataca in Living to Tell the Tale that García Márquez takes note of a banana plantation named Macondo, a word he remembers as a source of fascination during childhood. It would, as millions of readers know, wind up as the fictional town at the heart of García Márquez's fiction. It became his Yoknapatawpha County, an apt reference since García Márquez refers to his love of William Faulkner many times.

Beyond carnal and ancestral love, the novelist drenches his memoir in literary passion. Greene, Woolf, Borges, Dumas and Scheherazade herself are among his many literary inspirations. As a young man, García Márquez couldn't afford books. Instead, he would borrow them from friends eager to get them back, prompting frenzied two- and three-day reading binges. In other words, the passion filling his novels resides in García Márquez's own reading life. Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," the indelible tale of a bureaucrat-turned-insect, offers a typical example. After reading it, García Márquez writes, "I never again slept with my former serenity."

Those restless nights gave the world a magnificent series of fact, fiction and fabrication. Living to read such tales is good fortune, indeed, for García Márquez remains, in the end, magically real.

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