Monday, June 27, 2016

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ: A LIFE by Gerald Martin (first published 2008)

Twice before on this blog I have waxed eloquent about the difficulties involved in writing biographies. (Look up the posts WhyWrite a New Biography? and The Toilof Biography). My most consistent theme has been that, once a good biography of somebody has been published, it is pointless to write a new biography unless important new material has come to light or unless the new biographer has a radically different interpretation of the life under review. Another issue I should have dealt with was the question of how close the biographer is to the person being examined. This is a special problem when we come to the biographies of the still-living or the only-recently-dead. The biographer may be a friend, colleague or frequent companion of the person being written about. Immediately we have the problem of “objectivity”. How much can we trust the word of somebody who may have the inside goss, but who doesn’t have the distance to deal with it rationally?
I think a good (or bad) example of this is Gerald Martin’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life. I have already told (see the posts on The General in His Labyrinth and Autumn of the Patriarch) the story of how the Sunday Star-Times commissioned me, seven years ago, to review this huge volume. I accepted, and I then went into a crash programme, over about seven weeks, of reading all Garcia Marquez’s major novels and some of his reportage. This was because I hadn’t hitherto read his works. When I read Gerald Martin’s book I found it fascinating, but was troubled by the lack of distance between author and subject.
Anyway here, unaltered from its original appearance, is the review I wrote for the Sunday Star-Times (1 March 2009).
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How prudent is it to write a man’s life when that man is still alive? And how much is a biographer compromised if he is also a friend of his subject?
These two questions began buzzing through my mind almost as soon as I started reading the nearly 600 large pages of this blockbuster.
That Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s life is worth telling there can be no doubt. Now in his 80s, the Colombian novelist is one of the world’s few genuine literary superstars. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, it was a rare occasion in the history of that contentious award, because the win was universally applauded. Although I’d personally beg to differ (I’m not the greatest Garcia Marquez fan), many have cited his One Hundred Years of Solitude as the most influential Spanish-language novel since Don Quixote. Rare for a Nobel laureate, his huge international readership consistently makes him a bestseller. In Latin America, he’s famous enough to be universally recognised by his nickname “Gabo”. His political pronouncements, hobnobbing with the great and the famous, and deliberate clowning for the press are as well known in that part of the world as his novels and stories.
A former journalist himself, Garcia Marquez is always good for a headline and treats journalists with the type of deadpan wit I’d associate with Alfred Hitchcock’s press conferences. He once impishly told an audience that he preferred to read his own novels in their English translations. Later he claimed that his wife Mercedes really wrote all his books, but thought they were so bad that she let him sign his name to them. Apparently some listeners were dozy enough to believe him for a while.
But here’s the rub. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is still alive, and much that is most intimate about him cannot and will not be told until he’s safely dead. Think of all those inaccessible files of letters by enemies, friends and former friends, like the great Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Mario used to be Garcia Marquez’s best buddy, but ended up thumping him in the nose when he thought Garcia Marquez had been fooling around with his wife. The two men didn’t speak for 30 years. The biography of a living person will always be a provisional record at best.
Gerald Martin has been actively researching his subject for 18 years. He has been admitted into the Garcia Marquez family circle, where he is known as the gringo “Yeral”. He has interviewed nearly every living person who has known Garcia Marquez, from Fidel Castro to obscure drinking mates from his apprentice years. He regularly socialises with Garcia Marquez’s friends. His documentation is both scrupulous and copious. Martin aspires to be Gabo’s Boswell, recording all the things the great man has said or done. In a preface he disconcertingly tells us that this very large book is only a smaller version of a work that will eventually run to more than 2500 pages. Presumably this will be published when Garcia Marquez is in his grave.
Yet the tone is far from consistent.
Martin is a respected academic, and does offer fruitful insights into the genesis of the novelist’s works. They range from the straight social protest of In an Evil Hour to the modernist experimentalism of The Autumn of the Patriarch (in my view Garcia Marquez’s best book) to the severe historical reconstruction of the Simon Bolivar novel The General in his Labyrinth. The great turning point was, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Martin smartly reminds us that although its “magical realism” is the best-known thing about it, “magical realism” was a short-lived phenomenon both in the novelist’s oeuvre, and in Latin American literature as a whole.
When he chooses to play Freud, Martin also offers worthwhile analysis of Gabo’s life.  Deserted by a feckless father, and with a mother who had a large family to raise, the novelist as a boy bonded most closely with his crotchety old soldier of a grandfather, who was his role model perhaps in more ways than Garcia Marquez ever realised.
So far, so enlightening. But then there are those cringe-worthy moments when Gerald Martin introduces himself into the narrative in the first-person, and tells us about the gatherings of glitterati, honouring Garcia Marquez, that he has attended. The book ends with a “Bradford’s Hollywood” account of Gabo’s 80th birthday party. It leaves me with the heretical thought that if Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey both gush over a writer, then there really must be something seriously questionable about him.
What is being played out in this book, and in Martin himself, is the conflict between the fan and the scholar, the buddy and the sober biographer. There are time when Martin seems to wilfully soft-pedal his hero’s faults. The worst is his long account of Garcia Marquez’s long pre-marital affair, in the 1950s, with a young woman whom he then abandoned and yet who later became a sort of unofficial mistress. Clearly, Martin hasn’t been able to get all the facts of the case (again the problem of writing about living people). But reading between the lines, the young novelist seems to have been more of a swine than Martin wants to admit.
Most interestingly, Martin’s own patience begins to wear a little thin late in this narrative. In the last 100 pages, he does actually question some of Gabo’s political statements. The Latin American’s resentment of interference by the United States is fully understandable, especially in the light of the horrendous recent history of Colombia, which Martin gives us in detail. But Gabo’s dogged defence of Fidel Castro has led him to make some decidedly dodgy judgements of his own.
Martin also gets to criticise the macho sexual element in Garcia Marquez’s work, especially in the overrated Love in the Time of Cholera and in the silly old goat’s fantasy Memories of my Melancholy Whores.
Frankly, Garcia Marquez’s inability to differentiate love from sexual fantasising is what most repels me from some of his work, and I sense that Martin unwillingly comes to the same conclusion.
Let’s be fair about this, though.
The tone is uneven, the evasions stick out like a sore thumb and the fandom parts are obnoxious. But there is enough solid scholarship in this biography to make it indispensible to interpreters of Garcia Marquez. And the entertaining anecdotes make it a page-turner, despite its formidable length.
It’s the first draft of an important life.

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Up-Date Footnote: Obviously the above review was written five years before Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s death (in April 2014). Though Gerald Martin (an expert on South American literature, who has written books about other authors including Vargas Llosa) has produced The Cambridge Introduction to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2012) he has not yet produced the 2500 page work he promised in his 600-page biography of Gabo. Perhaps it is still in progress.

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