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gabriel garcía márquez

1 january 2017

Reaktion Books' Critical Lives series have a simple uniform design, with the surname of the subject author boxed on the front cover and bolded on the spine. Stephen Hart's Gabriel García Márquez features the name "Márquez" in both places. This annoyed me, as calling the novelist "Márquez" always do. His father's name was García, and so are his sons'. Márquez, conventionally for Spanish names, was his mother's surname.

Yet the mistake hints at a theme in García Márquez's life, and in Hart's treatment of it. Hart makes the case that the novelist's childhood in his Márquez grandparents' home in Aracataca, Colombia was the matrix for his greatest fiction. In this Hart follows García Márquez himself, who said that Cien años de soledad (1967) germinated as a book simply called La Casa, about his maternal grandparents' house. Hart traces the incessant theme of the double in García Márquez's work to his early realization that his grandfather had parallel families all over Aracataca, the legitimate twinned with the illegitimate (and to an impressionable child, always threatening to reverse polarities).

Hart moves briskly through García Márquez's career, from early journalism and newspaper fiction, to years of wandering in Europe and Mexico, an exile from volatile conditions in Colombia, to the instant worldwide success of Cien años de soledad. Much of his adult life was spent shuttling between Mexico and Cuba, where he was a prominent confidant in Fidel Castro's court. It is painful to read about García Márquez's fixation with Castro – the laureate could be withering in his critique of right-wing strongmen like Chile's Pinochet, but for all his fascination with doubling, he was utterly uncritical of their left-wing mirror images.

In his politics, García Márquez was ultimately as marginal on the left as his great influence Jorge Luis Borges was on the right. And although García Márquez's writing was somewhat more politicized, in the long run these politics will probably not matter any more to his place in literary history than Borges'. García Márquez's greater topical engagement contrasts with Borges' cluelessness about the world, but in both cases I think that their art revolves around the technique of telling a story – and the compulsion to do so.

García Márquez was a writer I caught up with mid-career and started to follow as he aged, reading each new book as it came out; and in his old age, he was more prolific, if not as critically successful, as in his youth and middle age. I still can't quite believe he's been gone, nearly three years; it seems that there should be a new García Márquez to read every few years. Of the late books, I loved Del amor y otros demonios (1994) and Noticia de un secuestro (1996), and several of the stories in Doce cuentos peregrinos (1992). Hart seconds my opinon, and also is a big fan of the great short novel Crónica de una muerte anunciada (1981), the first book of García Márquez's that I read, and indeed the first book I ever read in Spanish.

Cien años and El amor en los tiempos del cólera (1985) are of course the novelist's greatest achievements, great sagas of profound influence. Hart also appreciates books that I did not find accessible, like El otoño del patriarca (1975) and El general en su laberinto (1989). Much like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, and William Faulker – with Borges the most profound influences on his work – or other high-canon 20th century fixtures like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, García Márquez offers a range of reading experiences, from the lucidly reported to the baroquely crafted. You couldn't ask for a better orientation to them than Stephen Hart's critical life.

Hart, Stephen M. Gabriel García Márquez. London: Reaktion, 2010. [Critical Lives]