One April day in 1950 the 22-year-old writer, eaten up with nerves, offers the rough typescript of his first novel to the old Catalan dramatist, Don Ramón Vinyes, leading spirit of their bohemian group. Putting on his spectacles, Don Ramón smooths the pages out on the café table and reads, without any variation in his expression, the opening section of what would become Leaf Storm. Then, replacing his spectacles in their case, and the case in his breast pocket, he makes a few comments on the novelist’s handling of time—which was, as García Márquez admits here, ‘my life-or-death problem’; without doubt, the ‘most difficult of all’.

This portrait of the artist as a young man is no late, lazy memoir but a literary work in its own right, which recounts—or recreates—the process of García Márquez’s formation as a writer within a highly wrought temporal framework. Living to Tell the Tale opens two months earlier, in medias res, as the author’s mother, in mourning garb, threads her way lightly between the tables of the Mundo bookshop in Barranquilla, a stone’s throw from Don Ramón’s café, to confront her errant son with a mischievous smile: ‘before I could react she said, “I’m your mother”’. And next, ‘in her customary, ceremonial way: “I’ve come to ask you to please go with me to sell the house”’.

From here, time will double forward and back. The slow journey towards the old family home in Aracataca opens up vistas on to the past—

the white peaks of the sierra seemed to come right down to the banana plantations on the other side of the river [so that] as children, we dreamed of shaping balls of the perpetual snow and playing war on the parched, burning streets . . . The heat was so implausible that . . . from the day I was born I heard it said, over and over again, that the rail lines and camps of the United Fruit Company had been built at night because during the day the sun made the tools too hot to touch.

But it also, of course, anticipates the future—the moment in 1965, still ten years ahead at the end of this book, when, driving his family to Acapulco on holiday, García Márquez finds one of the twentieth century’s most famous first sentences forming in his head: ‘Many years later, facing the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’. He turns the car round and roars back to Mexico City, locks himself in his room for eighteen months, smoking cigarettes stump to tip, and writes One Hundred Years of Solitude.