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.
Yet in another sense, Living to Tell the Tale begins long after the wind at the end of that novel has blown everything away. The old house in Aracataca has gone to rack and ruin by the time García Márquez and his mother arrive there, peopled by unevictable tenants; they are unable to make a cent from it. Echoing one of the most recurrent, indeed predictable, patterns in García Márquez’s fiction, what was intended is not fulfilled as one had expected, but as destiny wills. Instead of money, the journey provides García Márquez with his principal literary inspiration. He sees the arid little square in Ciénaga where, in 1928, the Colombian army had mown down the striking banana workers—in his grandfather’s version, as recounted in One Hundred Years of Solitude: the three thousand men, women and children motionless under the savage sun, as the officer in charge gives them five minutes to clear the streets. He hears the stories of his parents’ courtship—the beautiful daughter of the elite Liberal family pursued by an ambitious Conservative telegraph operator; his colleagues conspiring to tap out love messages down the wires, as her parents whisk her to safety—that inspired both Leaf Storm and Love in the Time of Cholera. He recalls his close relationship with his grandfather, who had fought in Colombia’s devastating civil wars and who resurfaces in several fictional characters, including No One Writes to the Colonel. Gazing from the train window as they pull slowly through the green silence of the banana groves, García Márquez is taken with the name of an old plantation, ‘Macondo’, which will feature as the tropical town in so many of his tales and novels.
The centrepiece of the journey back is a Proustian experience, as he and his mother are invited to lunch at the home of the poor but dignified family doctor: