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In the cradle of magical realism

In his autobiography, Gabriel Garcia Marquez says he was shaped by this quirky town.

November 01, 2002|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

ARACATACA, Colombia — Many years later, when he sat down to face his computer screen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez would write about that distant afternoon when his mother insisted that he accompany her to sell his childhood home here.

At that time, in 1950, Aracataca was a forgotten village, built along the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, white and enormous like prehistoric eggs--or so Garcia Marquez recalled.

"Now, with more than 75 years measured out, I know it was the most important decision of many in my career as a writer," he writes in his just released autobiography. "That is to say, the most important decision in my life."

Garcia Marquez, now the Nobel Prize-winning eminence grise of Latin American literature, has just published the first of what he hopes will be a three-volume autobiography titled "Vivir Para Contarla" or "Living to Tell It." Now available only in Spanish, Random House has the rights to publish an English translation in the future. The work is a dreamy account reaching from childhood to the publication of his first novel, "Leaf Storm," published in 1955.

More than anything, the book is a portrait of a man coming to terms with his artistry, a self-examination by the former journalist of the who, what, where, when, why and how of his life. But it is also a love letter to his past, a fond recollection of the place where he first gathered the material for his most famous novels, sweeping and startlingly original works such as "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera" that have ever since defined Latin America literature.

"He has said that he owes everything to the fact of having been born in [Aracataca] and having been raised until 10 or 11 in the home of his grandparents," said Dasso Saldivar, Garcia Marquez's earlier biographer. "With complete certainty, I can say that if he had been born and raised in another place, he would not be the great writer he is today."

It is the influence of this quirky little village on the man, and in turn, his influence on the town, that is one of the primary building blocks of his work.

Garcia Marquez's grandparents helped found Aracataca, a tiny town wedged between the snow-capped Sierra de Santa Marta mountain range and a vast marsh known simply as "The Great Swamp." They arrived after his grandfather killed another man in a duel over family honor, a story that found its way into "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

His grandfather, Col. Nicolas Ricardo Marquez, fought in one of Colombia's bloodiest civil wars, known as the War of a Thousand Days. One of the famous generals in that war, Gen. Rafael Uribe -- a distant relative of current President Alvaro Uribe -- often visited the Garcia Marquez home.

The town's economy was, and is today, based on the banana. When Garcia Marquez was a boy, the entire area was controlled by United Fruit Co., predecessor to Chiquita Brands International. The company's iron-fisted dominion led to a protest by banana workers in 1928 that ended in a massacre, with government forces shooting unarmed civilians. That story too played a prominent role in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," as well as the autobiography.

In fact, a tour of the town reveals just how closely Garcia Marquez's novels are intertwined with this place. Macondo, the fictional town in his novels, is in many ways Aracataca reborn, molded into a universal symbol where love and hate, vengeance and jealousy, humor and ridicule play out against a gaudy canvas.

If there is anything that "Living to Tell It" reveals, it is that Garcia Marquez is an author grounded in place. He signals as much early in his autobiography, as he tells his mother he has become so inspired during their visit to his hometown that he will defy his father by dropping out of school to become an author.

"Tell him I love him very much and that, thanks to him, I am going to be a writer," he tells her. "Nothing else but a writer."

Throughout the voyage, Garcia Marquez writes, he continually read "Light in August"--a book by William Faulkner, who set many of his novels in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on Lafayette County in Mississippi where Faulkner was raised.

The similarities between Macondo and Aracataca are unmistakable. There are the railroad tracks that run through both towns. The almond trees and banana groves. The butterflies fluttering everywhere. The sleepy town square, baking in the heat. And then there is the surrealism. Even today, Aracataca has a strange and secret feel, like a beach with a hidden riptide beneath the waves. It is a place that seems almost lurid with idiosyncrasy.

There is, for instance, Luis Agamez, a toothless, 48-year-old painter who wanders the town's dirt streets carrying two of his massive oil paintings. One features the magical Aracataca River. The other, Garcia Marquez.

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