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Nobel Laureate's Memoir Is a Success in Any Language

Has the Spanish volume tapped into a new market or its author's prestige?

January 15, 2003|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

Early last month, one of America's leading literary publishers, Alfred A. Knopf, brought out a new book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian-born Nobel laureate many consider the world's greatest living writer.

Since then, tens of thousands of U.S. residents have purchased the handsome hardcover book at $25 a copy; its first printing of 50,000 is gone and the publisher has ordered a second run of 5,000 volumes -- all without the usual commercial jump-start from author tours, morning television shows or advertising. By any conventional measure, the book is a bestseller and another triumph for both the 75-year-old Garcia Marquez, the father of "magic realism," and his distinguished American publisher.

So why isn't it on any of the bestseller lists?

Knopf's "Vivir Para Contarla" (Living to Tell the Tale) is in Spanish. In fact, it is believed to be the first foreign-language book Knopf or any other major American imprint has ever distributed without an accompanying English translation.

"We have published simultaneously in English and other languages before," said Garcia Marquez's U.S. editor, Ashbel Green. "But we've never done it this way before."

How that happened is a story of how the appetite for great literature can magically create commercial realism. It also may be the story of how the dramatic demographic transformation wrought by years of Latino immigration is beginning to reshape important parts of U.S. literary publishing. It is undoubtedly the story of how the 1982 literature laureate bestrides the world of letters like a colossus.

"Vivir Para Contarla" -- the first of what Garcia Marquez says will be three volumes of memoirs -- is the fastest-selling book in the history of Latin American publishing, outpacing by far even the author's 1967 masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

Its publication was widely anticipated not only because Garcia Marquez, is the progenitor of the genre that has dominated Spanish-language literature for decades, but also because the patriarch, too, is in his autumn. Renowned as a novelist, short-story writer, journalist and friend to world leaders ranging from Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton, Garcia Marquez has been in virtual seclusion since 1999, when he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. After initial treatment in Los Angeles -- where his son, filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, lives -- Garcia Marquez cloistered himself in his Mexico City home, working to complete his memoirs. He returns to Los Angeles at regular intervals for treatment, and, according to friends, is here now.

The 573-page first volume covers the years from his birth in 1927 through his formative work as a journalist and concludes with the publication of his first novel, "Leaf Storm," in 1955. The second book will recount his life through the publication of "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and the third his friendships with world leaders and literary figures.

Knopf will publish an English edition of "Vivir Para Contarla" translated by Edith Grossman late next fall. But, Green said, the house decided to publish a Spanish-only version for two reasons.

Garcia Marquez's books are published simultaneously in Spain, Mexico and Argentina. "The reception there was simply tremendous," said Green, "and it quickly became the best-selling book in the entire Spanish-speaking world. So we decided to move very quickly because we thought this bespoke a large potential market within this country's growing Spanish-speaking readership."

The second reason Knopf dramatically accelerated the process, said Green, was because it discovered paperback editions from other countries were being sold all over the U.S. "Some of our people found it being sold on street corners in the borough of Queens and, then, copies from Mexico began appearing in Puerto Rico. That spurred us to act now, because those street-corner vendors were getting $29.95 a copy and we could provide a hardcover edition for less."

Because the book was a late addition to the publisher's fall list, booksellers are deciding where to display it on a store-by-store basis, according to a Knopf spokesman. Most chain bookstores are displaying the book in their foreign language sections, though some -- and many independent stores -- are stacking it among their English nonfiction titles.

Green attributes much of the unexpected demand for the book to the simple fact that Garcia Marquez is "an extraordinary international literary figure, a continuing bestseller throughout the Americas and Europe. His continuing sales, particularly of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' and 'Love in the Time of Cholera,' make clear he is a continuing presence and that new readers are discovering him all the time."

That, said Gregory Rabassa, who translated "One Hundred Years of Solitude," represents a "sociological rather than a purely literary phenomenon."

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