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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How a novel became a classic

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When Gabriel García Márquez's most famous novel was published 50 years ago,  it faced a difficult publishing climate and baffled reviews.

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." After Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice, that is possibly the third most famous opening sentence of any novel. What follows (in my yellowing 1978 edition) are 336 astounding pages about seven generations of patriarchs and their families living in Macondo, an isolated town deep in the South

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, a magic realism, novel;  Publisher - Harper & Row (US) and  Jonathan Cape (UK)

American jungle. It's a place where anything can happen: mass insomnia, a rain plague, a levitating priest, a swarm of yellow butterflies, a child of an incestuous union born with a pig's tail, all presented as the most natural and unsurprising events. It is, of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and May marks 50 years since it was first published, in Spanish, in 1967.

There is a lot to celebrate. The book was, and continues to be, that rare thing, a gigantic success with critics and readers. In Latin America, everyone read it, from professors to labourers to prostitutes. It was published in English in 1970, has been translated into 37 languages and has sold more than 50 million copies. It has been called the Latin American Don Quixote and William Kennedy in The New York Times declared it "the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race".

It has been seen variously as an allegory of South American history; a revolutionary novel; a work of anthropology; the definitive example of magic realism; and a dazzlingly grotesque, witty and sexy read. It remains Garcia Marquez's most admired work and was a key factor in his winning the Nobel prize in literature in 1982. So many writers, from Toni Morrison to Salman Rushdie to Junot Diaz, have been bowled over and inspired to create their own versions of Macondo.

The Colombian author was feted as a literary giant at his funeral in 2014, but you can see from the early photographs that he wasn't entirely happy about his new rock-star status. He is shown besieged by Mexican journalists and wearing a copy of his book on his head, with a rueful expression.

One Hundred Years of Solitude had humble beginnings. Last year Vanity Fair published an interview by Paul Elie with Garcia Marquez's literary agent, Carmen Balcells, shortly before her death. She got him his first modest international deal, and she shed new light on how the book came about. When he was writing it, Garcia Marquez was desperately hard up. He had given up journalism to concentrate on fiction and hunkered down over his typewriter in a house in Mexico City, smoking 60 cigarettes a day, listening to Debussy, Bartok and the Beatles, and typing obsessively.

This was a story he had been working on for two years, but it all came to him while he was on the way to an Acapulco holiday with his family. He stopped the car and turned back. He could see everything, in the way a man standing before a firing squad can see his whole life. He sat down and didn't get up for 18 months.

While he worked, his wife Mercedes (who sounds a devoted and long-suffering soul) looked after the children and pawned their telephone, fridge, radio and her jewelery. They didn't have enough stamps to post the manuscript and had to send it in two installments, the second after another visit to the pawnshop. "And what if, after all this, it's a bad novel?" asked Mercedes, in a rare undevoted moment. Just as well she was wrong.

The writer is a Melbourne-based author  and literary journalist The write-up has appeared at  www.smh.com.au

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