IMAGINE STOCKHOLM IN DECEMBER, when it is nearly always nighttime. A 54-year-old son of Colombia's Caribbean coast has come to collect his Nobel Prize for Literature. It is 1982, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez is already famous as the author of "One Hundred Years of Solitude," which is selling better than the Bible in some Spanish-speaking countries. Garcia Marquez counts powerful men, including Cuban President Fidel Castro, among his closest friends. And he has written a ringing acceptance speech in which he defines the solitary existence of Latin America, dares Europe to allow these countries to make their own mistakes and defends the "persistent advantage of life over death."
But the Nobel ceremonies are a confusion of activity that has this native of the tropics shivering with cold and mixing up day and night in a place so far north of the Equator. He is exhausted, begging for sleep. He falls asleep. And then a curious thing happens.
"I suddenly woke up in bed, and I remembered that they always give the same room in the same hotel to the Nobel winner," Garcia Marquez says. "And I thought, 'Rudyard Kipling has slept in this bed, Thomas Mann, Neruda, Asturias, Faulkner.' It terrified me, and finally I went out to sleep on the sofa."
Now, sitting in the study of his Mexico City home, Garcia Marquez laughs at himself as he recalls that night eight years ago. Considered one of the greatest masters of the Spanish language since Miguel de Cervantes, he is at once vastly proud and humbled by the literary company into which he has been cast. This tale he tells captures the character of the poor boy with 14 brothers and sisters who grew up to become a world-famous author of books, published in at least 32 languages.
If that is incongruous, then his life is full of incongruity, much like the characters in his fiction, which he has drawn from his own experiences and those of his family and acquaintances. This man, called Gabo by his friends, is guided by reason and superstition in nearly equal parts. He believes in the romantic idea of inspiration but has worked assiduously to master Western literature and the craft of writing. He is both generous and egocentric, dignified and vain. A devoted advocate of human freedom, he cannot bring himself to criticize the suppression of intellectual liberty in Cuba. He is a practiced journalist, yet he is so uncomfortable at being interviewed that he wrings his hands and sinks into the couch when questioned in ways that do not suit him.
He often has broken with convention. He did so in his 1975 novel "The Autumn of the Patriarch," which is a single 297-page paragraph, the longest in Spanish literature. And he does again in his new novel, "The General in His Labyrinth," which is to be published in the United States this month. The book describes the final, tormented days of Gen. Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios--called Simon Bolivar. Garcia Marquez has stripped away the winding cloths from the venerated legend to reveal the Great Liberator of South America in all his human nakedness and contradictions.
The book shocked Colombia when it was first published in Spanish last year. Garcia Marquez was accused of being anti-patriotic, of destroying national heritage. The author says that he has neither maligned nor belittled the 19th-Century liberator and leader of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. He just wanted Latin Americans to see Bolivar as he truly was.
But you should not expect to see this sort of nakedness in the author himself. A witty and beguiling storyteller, Garcia Marquez forthrightly tries to shape the history that is written about him. He weaves enchanting yarns about his youth and family, insisting that all of it is present in his books, particularly in the best-selling "Love in the Time of Cholera," the romantic tale of a lifelong love affair he says is based on his mother and father.
He is writing his memoirs in sections divided by theme rather than chronology, a method that not only frees him from what he calls the "imprisonment" of a work in progress but which "allows me to skip over the themes that don't interest me, or that are not in my interest to write."
The author who unmasks the General says: "I believe one has a public life, a private life and a secret life. I have written a lot about my public and private lives. On my secret life I have not written a single word."
But what if someone invents his secret life, as Garcia Marquez did for the General, detailing Bolivar's women and sexual intrigues?
"Ah," he says with a grin. "What they invent will never be as good as the reality that I will take to my grave."