Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian novelist whose “One Hundred Years of Solitude” established him as a giant of 20th-century literature, died on Thursday at his home in Mexico City. He was 87.
Cristóbal Pera, his former editor at Random House, confirmed the death. Mr. García Márquez learned he had lymphatic cancer in 1999, and a brother said in 2012 that he had developed senile dementia.
Mr. García Márquez, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, wrote fiction rooted in a mythical Latin American landscape of his own creation, but his appeal was universal. His books were translated into dozens of languages. He was among a select roster of canonical writers — Dickens, Tolstoy and Hemingway among them — who were embraced both by critics and by a mass audience.
“Each new work of his is received by expectant critics and readers as an event of world importance,” the Swedish Academy of Letters said in awarding him the Nobel.
Mr. García Márquez was a master of the literary genre known as magical realism, in which the miraculous and the real converge. In his novels and stories, storms rage for years, flowers drift from the skies, tyrants survive for centuries, priests levitate and corpses fail to decompose. And, more plausibly, lovers rekindle their passion after a half-century apart.
Magical realism, he said, sprang from Latin America’s history of vicious dictators and romantic revolutionaries, of long years of hunger, illness and violence. In accepting his Nobel, Mr. García Márquez said: “Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination. For our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”
Like many Latin American intellectuals and artists, Mr. García Márquez felt impelled to speak out on the political issues of his day. He viewed the world from a left-wing perspective, bitterly opposing Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the right-wing Chilean dictator, and unswervingly supporting Fidel Castro in Cuba. Mr. Castro became such a close friend that Mr. García Márquez showed him drafts of his unpublished books.
No draft had more impact than the one for “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Mr. García Márquez’s editor began reading it at home one rainy day, and as he read page after page by this unknown Colombian author, his excitement grew. Soon he called the Argentine novelist Tomás Eloy Martínez and summoned him urgently to the home.
Mr. Eloy Martinez remembered entering the foyer with wet shoes and encountering pages strewn across the floor by the editor in his eagerness to read through the work. They were the first pages of a book that in 1967 would vault Mr. García Márquez onto the world stage. He later authorized an English translation, by Gregory Rabassa. In Spanish or English, readers were tantalized from its opening sentences:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” would sell tens of millions of copies. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called it “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since ‘Don Quixote.’ ” The novelist William Kennedy hailed it as “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.”
Mr. García Márquez was rattled by the praise. He grew to hate “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” he said in interviews, because he feared his subsequent work would not measure up to it in readers’ eyes. He need not have worried. Almost all his 15 other novels and short-story collections were lionized by critics and devoured by readers.
- Lived With His Grandparents
Gabriel García Márquez was born in Aracataca, a small town near Colombia’s Caribbean coast, on March 6, 1927, the eldest child of Luisa Santiaga Márquez and Gabriel Elijio García. His father, a postal clerk, telegraph operator and itinerant pharmacist, could barely support his wife and 12 children; Gabriel, the eldest, spent his early childhood living in the large, ramshackle house of his maternal grandparents. The house influenced his writing; it seemed inhabited, he said, by the ghosts his grandmother conjured in the stories she told.
His maternal grandfather, Nicolás Márquez Mejía, a retired army colonel, was also an influence — “the most important figure of my life,” Mr. García Márquez said. The grandfather bore a marked resemblance to Colonel Buendía, the protagonist of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and the book’s mythical village of Macondo draws heavily on Aracataca.
In his 2002 memoir, “Living to Tell the Tale,” Mr. García Márquez recalled a river trip back to Aracataca in 1950, his first trip there since childhood.
“The first thing that struck me,” he wrote, “was the silence. A material silence I could have identified blindfolded among all the silences in the world. The reverberation of the heat was so intense that you seemed to be looking at everything through undulating glass. As far as the eye could see there was no recollection of human life, nothing that was not covered by a faint sprinkling of burning dust.”
Much of his fiction unfolds in or near Macondo, just as William Faulkner, whom he admired, invented Yoknapatawpha County as the Mississippi setting for some of his own novels.
Mr. García Márquez moved to Bogotá as a teenager. He studied law there but never received a degree; he turned instead to journalism. The late 1940s and early ’50s in Colombia were a period of civil strife known as La Violencia. The ideological causes were nebulous, but the savagery was stark, as many as 300,000 deaths. La Violencia would become the background for several of his novels.
Mr. García Márquez eked out a living writing for newspapers in Cartagena and then Barranquilla, where he lived in the garret of a brothel and saw a future in literature. “It was a bohemian life: finish at the paper at 1 in the morning, then write a poem or a short story until about 3, then go out to have a beer,” he said in an interview in 1996. “When you went home at dawn, ladies who were going to Mass would cross to the other side of the street for fear that you were either drunk or intending to mug or rape them.”
He read intensely — the Americans Hemingway, Faulkner, Twain and Melville; the Europeans Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust, Kafka and Virginia Woolf.
“I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before,” Mr. García Márquez said. But, he added, “I’ve never tried to imitate authors I’ve admired. On the contrary, I’ve done all I could not to imitate them.”
As a journalist he scored a scoop when he interviewed a sailor who had been portrayed by the Colombian government as the heroic survivor of a navy destroyer lost at sea. The sailor admitted to him that the ship had been carrying a heavy load of contraband household goods, which unloosed during a storm and caused the ship to list enough to sink. His report, in 1955, infuriated Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, the country’s dictator, and Mr. García Márquez fled to Europe. He spent two years there as a foreign correspondent.
- Unimpressed by Europe
Mr. García Márquez was less impressed by Western Europe than many Latin American writers, who looked to the Old World as their cultural fountainhead. His dispatches often reflected his belief that Europeans were patronizing toward Latin America even though their own societies were in decline.
He echoed these convictions in his Nobel address. Europeans, he said, “insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest for our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them.”
Mr. García Márquez lost his job when his newspaper was shut down by the Rojas Pinilla regime. Stranded in Paris, he scavenged and sold bottles to survive, but he managed to begin a short novel, “In Evil Hour.”
While working on that book he took time off in 1957 to complete another short novel, “No One Writes to the Colonel,” about an impoverished retired army officer, not unlike the author’s grandfather, who waits endlessly for a letter replying to his requests for a military pension. It was published to acclaim four years later. (“In Evil Hour” was also published in the early 1960s.)
Mr. García Márquez alternated between journalism and fiction in the late 1950s. (A multipart newspaper series on a sailor lost at sea for 10 days was later published in book form as “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor.”) While working for newspapers and magazines in Venezuela, he wrote a short-story collection, “Big Mama’s Funeral,” which is set in Macondo and incorporates the kind of magical elements he would master in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” From 1959 to 1961 he supported the Castro revolution and wrote for Prensa Latina, the official Cuban press agency.
In 1961 he moved to Mexico City, where he would live on and off for the rest of his life. It was there, in 1965, after a four-year dry spell in which he wrote no fiction, that Mr. García Márquez began “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The inspiration for it, he said, came to him while he was driving to Acapulco.
Returning home, he began an almost undistracted 18 months of writing while his wife, Mercedes, looked after the household. “When I was finished writing,” he recalled, “my wife said: ‘Did you really finish it? We owe $12,000.’ ”
With the book’s publication in 1967, in Buenos Aires, the family never owed a penny again. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was sold out within days.
In following the rise and fall of the Buendía family through several generations of war and peace, affluence and poverty, the novel seemed to many critics and readers the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history.
Mr. García Márquez made no claim to have invented magical realism; he pointed out that elements of it had appeared before in Latin American literature. But no one before him had used the style with such artistry, exuberance and power. Magical realism would soon inspire writers on both sides of the Atlantic, most notably Isabel Allende in Chile and Salman Rushdie in Britain.
“Reality is also the myths of the common people,” Mr. García Márquez told an interviewer. “I realized that reality isn’t just the police that kill people, but also everything that forms part of the life of the common people.”
In 1973, when General Pinochet overthrew Chile’s democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, who committed suicide, Mr. García Márquez vowed never to write as long as General Pinochet remained in power.
The Pinochet dictatorship lasted 17 years, but Mr. García Márquez released himself from his vow well before it ended. “I never thought he’d last so long,” he said in a 1997 interview with The Washington Post. “Time convinced me I was wrong. What I was doing was allowing Pinochet to stop me from writing, which means I had submitted to voluntary censorship.”
In 1975 he published his next novel, “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” about a dictator in a phantasmagorical Latin American state who rules for so many decades that nobody can recall what life was like before him. As he had predicted, some critics faulted the work for not matching the artistry of “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” But others raved about it, and it became a global best seller. He called it his best novel.
In “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” published in 1981, Mr. García Márquez used journalistic techniques to tell a story, apparently drawn from a real incident, in which the brothers of a woman who has lost her virginity murder the man responsible, Santiago Nasar. The brothers announce their intention to avenge their family honor, but because of a variety of odd circumstances, Nasar remains unaware of his impending fate.
“Love in the Time of Cholera,” published in 1985, was Mr. García Márquez’s most romantic novel, the story of the resumption of a passionate relationship between a recently widowed septuagenarian and the lover she had broken with more than 50 years before.
“The General in His Labyrinth,” published in 1989, combined imagination with historical fact to conjure up the last days of Simón Bolívar, the father of South America’s independence from Spain. The portrait of the aging Bolívar as a flatulent philanderer, abandoned and ridiculed by his onetime followers, aroused controversy on a continent that viewed him as South America’s version of George Washington. But Mr. García Márquez said that his depiction had been drawn from a careful perusal of Bolívar’s personal letters.
As his fame grew, Mr. García Márquez — or Gabo, as he was called by friends — enjoyed a lifestyle he would have found inconceivable in his struggling youth. He kept homes in Mexico City, Barcelona, Paris and Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Recognizable by his bushy mustache, he dressed fastidiously, preferring a white monotone encompassing linen suits, shirts, shoes and even watchbands.
- Devoted to the Left
He contributed his prestige, time and money to left-wing causes. He helped finance a Venezuelan political party. He was a strong defender of the Sandinistas, the leftist revolutionaries who took power in Nicaragua.
For more than three decades the State Department denied Mr. García Márquez a visa to travel in the United States, supposedly because he had been a member of the Colombian Communist Party in the 1950s but almost certainly because of his continuing espousal of left-wing causes and his friendship with Mr. Castro. The ban was rescinded in 1995 after President Bill Clinton invited him to Martha’s Vineyard.
Mr. García Márquez’s ties to Mr. Castro troubled some intellectuals and human rights advocates. Susan Sontag wrote in the 1980s, “To me it’s scandalous that a writer of such enormous talent be a spokesperson for a government which has put more people in jail (proportionately to its population) than any other government in the world.”
He attributed the criticism to what he called Americans’ “almost pornographic obsession with Castro.” But he became sensitive enough about the issue to intercede on behalf of jailed Cuban dissidents.
After receiving his cancer diagnosis in 1999, Mr. García Márquez devoted most of his subsequent writing to his memoirs. One exception was the novella “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” about the love affair between a 90-year-old man and a 14-year-old prostitute, published in 2004.
In July 2012, his brother, Jaime, was quoted as saying that Mr. García Márquez had senile dementia and had stopped writing. Mr. Pera, the author’s editor at Random House Mondadori, said at the time that Mr. García Márquez had been working on a novel, “We’ll See Each Other in August,” but that no publication date had been scheduled. The author seemed disinclined to have it published, Mr. Pera said: “He told me, ‘This far along I don’t need to publish more.’ ”
Dozens of television and film adaptations were made of Mr. García Márquez’s works, but none achieved the critical or commercial success of his writing, and he declined requests for the movie rights to “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The novel’s readers, he once said, “always imagine the characters as they want, as their aunt or their grandfather, and the moment you bring that to the screen, the reader’s margin for creativity disappears.”
Besides his wife, Mercedes, his survivors include two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo.
Mr. García Márquez attributed his rigorous, disciplined schedule in part to his sons. As a young father he took them to school in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon. During the interval — from 8 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon — he would write.
“When I finished one book, I wouldn’t write for a while,” he said in 1966. “Then I had to learn how to do it all over again. The arm goes cold; there’s a learning process you have to go through again before you rediscover the warmth that comes over you when you are writing.”
- Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting from Mexico City.