Gabriel Garcia Marquez's life story is just as magical as anything in his fiction. He was raised in a tiny, largely illiterate town in an isolated region of a developing country, and his origins could hardly have been more obscure. His father was a philandering telegraphist, his mother bore II children, and he was left in the care of his eccentric grandparents. Though always prodigiously talented, he was so poor as a young man that he resorted to living in the attic of a whorehouse (apparently a purely economic decision).
And yet, by the age of 40, Garcia Marquez had written a book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, that caught the imagination first of Latin America, and then the world. As Gerald Martin argues in this official biography, it became the "first truly global novel". Nor was it a one-off: a string of critically acclaimed and internationally best-selling books followed. Garcia Marquez became the best-known practitioner of "magical realism", the style with which successive generations of authors have recalibrated the relationship between developing countries and their former colonisers. Martin argues, indeed, that he is the only indisputably great author of the late 20the century. He has won many accolades, influence--Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro--have sought his friendship and confidence.
The most enjoyable sections here, perhaps inevitably, are those that focus on the early life of "Gabo" in the small town of Aracataca, on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Martin's research demonstrates just how much of the imaginary world that Garcia Marquez would draw on was formed before he turned seven, in his grand-parents' bare, gloomy house. His grandfather Colonel Nicolas Marquez was a local functionary and hero of one of Colombia's civil wars. He was a rational and educated man who doted on his young grandson. He provided a model for several famous characters; like Dr Juvenal Urbino in Love in the Time of Cholera, he died after falling while he retrieved the family parrot from a mango tree. Grandmother Tranquilina was a more terrifying prospect, a superstitious woman who ran her household according to signals she received through thunderstorms, ghostly black butter-flies and other supernatural forces.
As a child, Garcia Marquez absorbed his grand-parents' contrasting world-views. His genius was to bring them together in his fiction, treating each with equal weight and respect; in magical realist literature, as Martin writes, "the world is as the characters believe it to be". It was this innovation-admittedly not Marquez's alone, as he drew on the work of Juan Rulfo, Alejo Carpentier and other Latin American authors--that proved so influential, as it implicitly challenged the colonial idea that there could only be one valid belief system. It is still an enormously popular way of writing about the developing world: the slow, rural communities that nourished Garcia Marquez may have gone out of fashion with younger American-Latino authors such as Daniel Alarcon and Junot Diaz (their work, as the latter put it, is less "Macondo than McOndo")but they continue to use the same technique. …