When One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in the U.S. -- especially when it appeared in paperback in the early 1970s -- It arrived as a revelation. As books editor for a weekly newspaper in Boston, I met writers and editors who came up from New York, and the talk was always of this sudden magician, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No novel astonished the literati as profoundly, but that was not its most impressive accomplishment. When anyone asked me to recommend a book they might enjoy, this one was the easiest answer for years, and it didn't matter if the reader was a Cambridge post-grad or a waitress in western Pennsylvania -- they were all blown away.
As chronicled in this first substantive biography of Marquez, it was the same everywhere. Praised first by writers and critics across the Spanish-speaking world, it outsold previous record-holders by a factor of 10. When it was translated into Japanese, a prominent novelist in Japan was so overwhelmed that he stopped writing.
One Hundred Years ... is the natural center of this biography, coloring everything leading up to it. Though Marquez himself wrote about his early life and years as a journalist in a wonderful memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, Gerald Martin finds more to reveal, and does so with prose that sometimes soars into Marquez territory. He details more connections between the life and this most famous novel than were previously known.
Marquez had a compelling story anyway: Poor and abandoned by his mother, raised by his grandparents in a remote Columbia town, he struggled as a journalist and a writer of obscure fiction and not very good movies. Martin notes the European and American influences -- Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway -- of the writer who would personify new Latin American literature. The local popular music (which he sang in cafés) influenced him, as well as Bartok and The Beatles (the album A Hard Day's Night played as he wrote). His "magical realism" also came from his grandmother's stories.
After One Hundred Years he published a literary tour de force, Autumn of the Patriarch, with chapters of a single long paragraph and even of a single gargantuan sentence. Yet novels that followed that, like Love in the Time of Cholera, were his most popular. His Chronicle of A Death Foretold, Martin writes, printed more copies "than for any other first edition of any literary work ever published in the world."
Martin also writes in detail about Marquez' political life -- especially his controversial relationship with Fidel Castro. This is less a problem than the falling off of focus in the last third of this book, and Martin's increasingly querulous tone. Still, it's a fascinating account of a singular life.