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Gabo speaks

Vivir para contarla, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alfred A. Knopf: 592 pp., $25

February 16, 2003|Gioconda Belli | Gioconda Belli is the author of "The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War." Her review was translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa.

When I opened "Vivir para contarla," the plane was climbing to 35,000 feet and fear was thrashing through my blood. Just a few pages later, however, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's words would have sufficed to keep me flying even if the plane had succumbed to the law of gravity. I was oblivious to the fear of death.

The following day, back on terra firma, as I continued to read, such contentment came over me that I treated myself to a long and leisurely bath scented with aromatic salts while Cecilia Garcia Amaro's sensuous music played in the background. Furthermore, I was seized by a ferocious urge to eat chocolate. My body makes no mistake, I thought; this is a great book.

The plane on which I began reading Garcia Marquez's memoirs was taking me back to Los Angeles from Managua. I'd been in Nicaragua to celebrate New Year's with my family. I'd covered all the bookstores in the city, growing more and more disappointed because the answer I got in all of them was the same: "Garcia Marquez's book? Uh, we're all out of it. It sold out. We haven't got a single copy left."

My last resort was my friend Salva, who runs a publishing house. "Let me see, poet, maybe I can get you one." She got on the phone, passing on the bad news from her distributors. I got up to browse through some books in the shop next to her office, and when I came back to her desk, there it was: Garcia Marquez's book, staring at me, brand new and sealed up in its transparent protective wrapping. It seemed like some great trick of prestidigitation, more so because Salva, being her enigmatic self, refused to tell me how she had managed to produce a copy of a book that was sold out everywhere in the country. "You're taking away the last one left in Nicaragua," she told me, smiling mischievously.

Back in Los Angeles, I found out that I could have spared myself that anxious search: The book was for sale in the United States. Alfred A. Knopf, in an unprecedented move, had decided to publish it in Spanish in this country a year ahead of its publication in English as "Living to Tell the Tale." I would like to think that this wasn't just a commercial decision but a tribute to the way in which this inimitable writer transmutes the Spanish language into a metal of his own making, the purity and the glow of which reveal the splendor that the immense solitude of Latin America conceals. We Latin Americans enjoy few advantages in the world. Being able to read Garcia Marquez -- known by his nickname, Gabo, throughout the Spanish-speaking world -- without intermediaries is one privilege we cannot forfeit.

"Vivir para contarla" is the first of what I imagine will be, to our good fortune, three or more volumes of memoirs. It flashes back to a time before his conception, continues with his birth in Aracataca, Colombia, on March 6, 1928, and takes us to the time when his first novel, "The Leaf Storm," and the success of his journalistic reportage, "Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor," in 1955 confirmed his destiny as a great writer.

Garcia Marquez begins "Vivir para contarla" by explaining how he came upon the story that he would develop throughout his career as a writer. One day, unexpectedly, his mother asks him to go with her to sell the family home in Aracataca. "Neither my mother nor I, of course, could have possibly imagined that this simple two-day trip would so determine my life, that the longest and most diligent of lives would never be sufficient for me to finish telling it."

Through the first chapters, until his family moves to Barranquilla, Colombia, Garcia Marquez travels with his mother and immerses us in the personal history and the geographical markers that gave rise not only to "One Hundred Years of Solitude" but also to most of the rest of his imaginary world. In "Vivir para contarla," we visit the landscape of his childhood and discover that, in common with the fictional patriarch of his most famous novel, Aureliano Buendia, his grandfather had a silver workshop where "he spent the better part of his time turning out the little gold fishes with articulated bodies and tiny emerald eyes that yielded him more joy than income"; that his grandmother Tranquilina Iguaran supported her family by selling little candy animals, as did the character Ursula Iguaran; and that nobody understood how his sister Margot, inspiring the fictional Rebeca Buendia, survived without food until they realized "that she only liked the damp soil of the garden and the lime cakes that she would tear from the walls with her fingers." This is a journey in which each family anecdote and tale brings us back to characters we've met in his books or reveals to us the promise of many stories yet to be written. Through it, we find the hidden genetic codes of the Buendias, of Remedios the Beauty and Petra Cotes, and we come to realize that we've penetrated the looking glass, thinking we would be able to separate fiction from reality only to discover that they're inseparable.

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