Gabriel García Márquez: Writer of Magical Realism

Gabriel García Márquez in Paris, France 1990
Colombian writer and Nobel prize in literature winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez poses for a portrait session on September 11,1990 in Paris, France.

 Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014) was a Colombian writer, associated with the Magical Realism genre of narrative fiction and credited with reinvigorating Latin American writing. He won the Nobel prize for literature in 1982, for a body of work that included novels such as "100 Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera."  

Fast Facts: Gabriel García Márquez

  • Full Name: Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez
  • Also Known As: Gabo
  • Born: March 6, 1927, in Aracataca, Colombia
  • Died: April 17, 2014, in Mexico City, Mexico
  • Spouse: Mercedes Barcha Pardo, m. 1958
  • Children: Rodrigo, b. 1959 and Gonzalo, b. 1962 
  • Best-known Works: 100 Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Key Accomplishments: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1982, leading writer of magical realism
  • Quote: "Reality is also the myths of the common people. I realized that reality isn't just the police that kill people, but also everything that forms part of the life of the common people."

Magical realism is a type of narrative fiction which blends a realistic picture of ordinary life with fantastic elements. Ghosts walk among us, say its practitioners: García Márquez wrote of these elements with a wry sense of humor, and an honest and unmistakable prose style.  

Early Years 

Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez (known as "Gabo") was born on March 6, 1927, in the town of Aracataca, Colombia near the Caribbean coast. He was the eldest of 12 children; his father was a postal clerk, telegraph operator and itinerant pharmacist, and when García Márquez was 8, his parents moved away so his father could find a job. García Márquez was left to be raised in a large ramshackle house by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather Nicolas Márquez Mejia was a liberal activist and a colonel during Columbia's Thousand Days War; his grandmother believed in magic and filled her grandson's head with superstitions and folk tales, dancing ghosts and spirits. 

In an interview published in The Atlantic in 1973, García Márquez said he had always been a writer. Certainly, all of the elements of his youth were interwoven into García Márquez's fiction, a blend of history and mystery and politics that Mexican poet Pablo Neruda compared to Cervantes's "Don Quixote."

Writing Career

García Márquez was educated at a Jesuit college and in 1946, began studying for the law at the National University of Bogota. When the editor of the liberal magazine "El Espectador" wrote an opinion piece stating that Colombia had no talented young writers, García Márquez sent him a selection of short stories, which the editor published as "Eyes of a Blue Dog." 

A brief burst of success was interrupted by the assassination of Colombia's president Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. In the following chaos, García Márquez left to become a journalist and investigative reporter in the Caribbean region, a role he would never give up.

Exile from Colombia

In 1954, García Márquez broke a news story about a sailor who survived the shipwreck of a Columbian Navy destroyer. Although the wreck had been attributed to a storm, the sailor reported that badly stowed illegal contraband from the US came loose and knocked eight of the crew overboard. The resulting scandal led to García Márquez's exile to Europe, where he continued writing short stories and news and magazine reports.

In 1955, his first novel, "Leafstorm" (La Hojarasca) was published: it had been written seven years earlier but he could not find a publisher until then. 

Marriage and Family

García Márquez married Mercedes Barcha Pardo in 1958, and they had two children: Rodrigo, born 1959, now a television and film director in the U.S., and Gonzalo, born in Mexico City in 1962, now a graphic designer. 

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" (1967) 

García Márquez got the idea for his most famous work while he was driving from Mexico City to Acapulco. To get it written, he holed up for 18 months, while his family went into debt $12,000, but at the end, he had 1,300 pages of manuscript. The first Spanish edition sold out in a week, and over the next 30 years, it sold more than 25 million copies and has been translated into more than 30 languages. 

The plot is set in Macondo, a town based on his own hometown of Aracataca, and its saga follows five generations of descendants of José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Ursula, and the city they founded. José Arcadio Buendía is based on García Márquez's own grandfather. Events in the story include a plague of insomnia, ghosts that grow old, a priest who levitates when he drinks hot chocolate, a woman who ascends into heaven while doing the laundry, and a rain which lasts four years, 11 weeks and two days. 

In a 1970 review of the English language version, Robert Keily of The New York Times said it was a novel "so filled with humor, rich detail and startling distortion that is brings to mind the best of [William] Faulkner and Günter Grass." 

Political Activism 

García Márquez was an exile from Colombia for most of his adult life, mostly self-imposed, as a result of his anger and frustration over the violence that was taking over his country. He was a lifelong socialist, and a friend of Fidel Castro's: he wrote for La Prensa in Havana, and always maintained personal ties with the communist party in Colombia, even though he never joined as a member. A Venezuelan newspaper sent him behind the Iron Curtain to the Balkan States, and he discovered that far from an ideal Communist life, the Eastern European people lived in terror. 

He was repeatedly denied tourist visas to the United States because of his leftist leanings but was criticized by activists at home for not totally committing to communism. His first visit to the U.S. was the result of an invitation by President Bill Clinton to Martha's Vineyard.

Later Novels 

In 1975, the dictator Augustin Pinochet came to power in Chile, and García Márquez swore he would never write another novel until Pinochet was gone. Pinochet was to remain in power a grueling 17 years, and by 1981, García Márquez realized that he was allowing Pinochet to censor him. 

"Chronicle of a Death Foretold" was published in 1981, the retelling of a horrific murder of one of his childhood friends. The protagonist, a "merry and peaceful, and openhearted" son of a wealthy merchant, is hacked to death; the whole town knows in advance and can't (or won't) prevent it, even though the town doesn't really think he's guilty of the crime he's been accused of: a plague of inability to act.

In 1986, "Love in the Time of Cholera" was published, a romantic narrative of two star-crossed lovers who meet but don't connect again for over 50 years. Cholera in the title refers to both the disease and anger taken to the extreme of warfare. Thomas Pynchon, reviewing the book in the New York Times, extolled "the swing and translucency of writing, its slang and its classicism, the lyrical stretches and those end-of-sentence zingers." 

Death and Legacy 

In 1999, Gabriel García Márquez was diagnosed with lymphoma, but continued to write until 2004, when reviews of "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" were mixed—it was banned in Iran. After that, he slowly sank into dementia, dying in Mexico City on April 17, 2014. 

In addition to his unforgettable prose works, García Márquez brought world attention to the Latin American literary scene, set up an International Film School near Havana, and a school of journalism on the Caribbean coast. 

Notable Publications 

  • 1947: "Eyes of a Blue Dog" 
  • 1955: "Leafstorm," a family are mourners at the burial of a doctor whose secret past make the entire town want to humiliate the corpse
  • 1958: "No One Writes to the Colonel," a retired army officer begins an apparently futile attempt to get his military pension
  • 1962: "In Evil Hour," set during the La Violencia, a violent period in Colombia during the late 1940s and early 1950s
  • 1967: "One Hundred Years of Solitude" 
  • 1970: "The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor,"a compilation of shipwreck scandal articles
  • 1975: "Autumn of the Patriarch," a dictator rules for two centuries, an indictment of all the dictators plaguing Latin America  
  • 1981: "Chronicle of a Death Foretold"  
  • 1986: "Love in the Time of Cholera" 
  • 1989: "The General in the Labyrinth," account of the last years of the revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar
  • 1994: "Love and Other Demons," an entire coastal town slips into communal madness
  • 1996: "News of a Kidnapping," nonfiction report on the Colombian Medellin drug cartel
  • 2004: "Memories of My Melancholy Whores," story of a 90-year-old journalist's affair with a 14-year-old prostitute

    Sources