Flying back from South America, I sat beside a Scotsman importing coal from Colombia to Aberdeen. His job had been to spend several weeks at the quayside checking that proper lumps of coal were carried on the conveyor belt, and not the dust and dross that would be loaded on to the freighter if his eyes were turned elsewhere. Talking to him, I realised how accurately such writers as Joseph Conrad and Gabriel GarcIa Marquez have described the colonial atmosphere of Latin America, the corruption and inertia of local participants comparing unfavourably with the dynamism of the entrepreneurial outsider.
The Latin American novelists of the boom generation of the 1960s were misguidedly labelled "magical realists", when in practice they were a fresh version of a tradition of colonial fiction in which the exotic tropical "Other" makes a guest appearance. The "boom" novelists appear to be insiders rather than outsiders, for they were born and brought up in Latin America, yet a close examination of their biographies shows that their lives and work are largely part of that continent's colonial heritage. Their strength was their capacity to catch the nuances of the cultural clash, not just between Europe and South America, but between the white ruling class and the immense swamp of blacks and Native Americans who form the bulk of the population. All of them have had a sharp eye for incidents of local exoticism, as that was the staple diet of the provincial press in which several of them made their debut.
GarcIa Marquez has now produced his own version of his past, the first book in what is designed as a three-volume autobiography. This first instalment is largely about his childhood and early struggling years as a literary journalist. It starts with a visit that he makes with his mother to his childhood home at Aracataca, beneath the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which leads to his conscious decision to become a writer. It ends when he finally escapes to Europe from the claustrophobic atmosphere of Colombia, but with the prospect of soon returning to the woman with whom he has fallen in love. In between, he provides some of the background to his early stories, "Leaf Storm" in particular, and one of his later novels, Love in the Time of Cholera, which is partly based on family history. The gestation of One Hundred Years of Solitude will doubtless come in the second volume, although some of the incidents and imagery are already present.
GarcIa Marquez revels in his descriptions of tropical vegetation and landscape: the Arawak Indians carrying sacks of ginger and avocados, the small boys stealing mangoes rather than apples, and the oxcarts unloading green stems of banana. In the background is the ever-present absence of the US banana company United Fruit, which once brought instant prosperity and then just as swiftly took it away, abandoning its plantations and leaving only a memory of better times, coupled with that of a fearsome massacre of its workers. "The company leaves ruin wherever it goes," ruminates the local priest in tones that Graham Greene could have borrowed.
I have long subscribed to the theory that the novel flowered best in the hothouse atmosphere of bourgeois society in 19th-century Europe; the reason for the success of the Latin American novel in the 1960s is that mid-20th-century Latin America was caught in a time warp very similar to that experienced by Europe a century earlier. The tropical background of GarcIa Marquez's memoir might be unusual, but the stratified society with its rigid constraints will be familiar to anyone brought up on 19th-century European novels.
GarcIa Marquez was born in 1928, and began his adult life as a provincial journalist in Barranquilla, reporting on the everyday goings-on at a large port on the Caribbean. Yet it is clear from his record that he was always an exceptional figure, regarded with awe by his peers and excelling at music and drama as well as literature. He was a star from the start, appearing as a columnist in the editorial and cultural sections of the paper rather than on the news pages. It was not long before he moved to the capital Bogota where he continued to shine. There, immersed in literary preoccupations, he was forcibly introduced to the contemporary politics of Colombia when the white hope of radical liberalism, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was assassinated in April 1948. His death provoked an urban insurrection that destroyed the city, leading to the resurrection of a civil war that has lasted, off and on, from that day to this. GarcIa Marquez recalls the political situation as the Conservatives prepared for all-out violence. "It was a return to the historic reality of the 19th century, when we had no peace but only ephemeral truces between eight general civil wars and 14 local ones, three military coups, and then the War of a Thousand Days, which left some 80,000 dead on both sides in a population of four million people." Guerrillas, drug traffickers and US special forces are merely the current players in a deadly charade with an ancient history and a long future.
Aficionados of GarcIa Marquez's novels will be happy to be back in Macondo, or beside the waters of the oceanic Magdalena River where the whores and the paddle steamers eternally ply their trade. Yet some may feel that the life story of a writer, even a Nobel prize-winner, cannot compare with his fictional creations. As biographer, the writer is obliged to pay homage to the longueurs of his life, details that could be easily deleted from a novel. However, specialists in the minutiae of Colombian literary elites from 1945-55 will find much useful material here for their footnotes.
The book as a whole is a delightful ramble through the difficulties and problems of becoming a writer from a poor but would-be bourgeois background where such an achievement was hardly encouraged. It is also a wonderful introduction to the Colombia which rarely appears in the usual news reports from that country, in a state of permanent civil war.
Richard Gott's history of Cuba will be published next year by Yale University Press