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October 18, 2017

Magical Marquez

On this day in 1928 Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born. Marquez's Living to Tell the Tale tells his first twenty-seven years, growing up in a Caribbean world where "reality resembles the wildest imagination." The book is prefaced by a quotation expressing Marquez's belief that "Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it." Chapter 1 then recounts a journey Marquez took at the age of twenty-two with his mother, a two-day trip by boat and train from the Colombian coast inland to Aractaca, where Marquez had lived for his first eight years with his grandparents. Though it was an event which would confirm his aspirations of being a writer and open his eyes to the world about which, for the next half-century, he would write, Marquez did not go willingly. At the time, he was living in impoverished, bohemian glory -- a drop-out from the law school upon which his father had pinned such high hopes, and so removed from his mother that, when she tracked him down in his favorite literary cafe, she had to identify herself. Despite the distance, and the politeness of "I've come to ask you to please go with me to sell the house," declining mother was not an option: the universe was "a planetary system that she controlled from her kitchen with a subdued voice and almost without blinking, while the pot of beans was simmering."

The first hours on the boat were predictable -- sea-squalls, mosquito clouds, a steady parade to the nearby cabins of the whores, the son clinging to his copy of Faulkner's Light in August as much as the mother clung to her rosary -- and her "Your papa is very sad..." refrain. Gradually, on the train, the timeless places and old times took over. Villages full of one-armed fishermen who had held on to the dynamite too long, and of kids chasing soccer balls made of rags. "That [house sign] was the first thing you learned in English." "That's the land they sold my father with the story there was gold on it." "The neighborhood of the easy women, where the men spent the whole night dancing the cumbiamba with the rolls of bills burning instead of candles." "That's where the world ended" -- a "building of peeling wood, sloping tin roofs, and running balconies, and in front of it an arid little square" where, in 1928, the army had gunned down mythic numbers of striking banana workers on behalf of the United Fruit Company. When the gringos then left, "they took everything with them: money, December breezes, the bread knife, thunder at three in the afternoon, the scent of jasmines, love." Left behind were "dusty almond trees," "taciturn inhabitants," and houses as collapsed as the local economy -- beyond, it turned out, any chance of selling.

From all this Marquez took life. An old family friend so enthusiastically endorsed the idea of being a writer that mother soon had a new worry: "What will be the best way to tell all this to your papa?" And the old house and village so vividly returned to Marquez that "There was not a single door, a crack in a wall, a human trace that did not find a supernatural resonance in me." The trip, he recalls, "would be so decisive that the longest and most diligent of lives would not be enough for me to finish recounting it."

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