Sanjay Subrahmanyam

  • Gabriel García Márquez: A Life by Gerald Martin
    Bloomsbury, 668 pp, £25.00, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 7475 9476 5

When Luis Miguel Dominguín, the celebrated torero, died at the age of 69 in May 1996, the obituaries were many and generous. They recalled his curious relationship with Ernest Hemingway, his love affairs with the likes of Ava Gardner, and that he was the father of the famous singer Miguel Bosé. They made much of his close friendship with Picasso, and Le Monde quoted from his brief work of 1960, Pour Pablo. Dominguín had written:

Tout homme célèbre doit veiller à ne pas détruire sa propre légende, celle qui l’accompagne tout au long de sa vie, dès la naissance jusqu’à la célébrité. La vie d’un homme n’est jamais assez longue pour détruire une légende et en créer une autre. Et, sans légende, il est impossible d’entrer dans l’Histoire.

This reflection – it isn’t clear whether it was manufactured by Dominguín, or was a version of something he had heard and liked – is nearly embarrassing in its assertiveness. It tells us that there is a marked difference between famous men and others. Only celebrities have a legend which accompanies them all through their lives, like an invisible twin, or hamzaad as the Persians have it. One can either tend this legend or destroy it. These might seem rather pretentious words for a man whose profession consisted of a primitive if stylised form of public combat against animals. But they help us examine the problem not merely of celebrity, but of how celebrities think about celebrity; they also take us back by a complex route to chivalric terms like fama and leyenda, which Cervantes was already being ironic about four hundred years ago.

At the very end of his long book on the life of one of the 20th century’s great creative writers, who has also been an unceasing and relentless manipulator of his own image, Gerald Martin writes of Gabriel García Márquez: ‘Literature and politics have been the two most effective ways of achieving immortality in the transient world that Western civilisation has created for the planet; few would hold that political glory is more enduring than the glory that comes from writing famous books.’ Not good books, but famous ones. Martin has just described a huge public celebration, one of several the book revels in. This one was held at a convention centre in Cartagena on 26 March 2007, in the presence of a large number of political actors, including the president and four ex-presidents of Colombia, as well as the king of Spain. It was to honour the life and achievements of the 79-year-old García Márquez. When the arrival of Bill Clinton was announced, ‘the crowd rose as the most famous man on earth made his way down to the front of the hall.’ Only Fidel Castro and the pope, he remarks, were missing from the list of ‘superstars’ who might have been there.

How did a novelist, even a Nobel Prize-winning and bestselling one, come to occupy such a position? Was it testimony to the power of Spanish, one of the few languages (together with Chinese) determinedly to resist the advance of English in the 20th century? How can one relate García Márquez’s work to his curious worship of power and the cult of celebrity, a worship which his biographer seems to share? Even if the writer as celebrity existed in some form before the 20th century, the modern media – glossy magazines and television above all – have been responsible for developing the notion. But so have writers themselves, and a key figure in this respect is Hemingway. Martin tells an anecdote about Hemingway’s suicide in July 1961, just after García Márquez arrived in Mexico City. In one version of the story, he was woken up by his Mexican friend Juan García Ponce, who said: ‘Listen to this, that bastard Hemingway has blown his head off with a shotgun.’ In another, less dramatic account, he was told of the suicide by journalists. At any rate, García Márquez quickly wrote a long essay in homage, entitled ‘A Man Has Died a Natural Death’ (‘Un hombre ha muerto de muerte natural’) and published in the literary supplement to the newspaper Novedades on 9 July. He praised Hemingway as an underestimated writer who would ‘eat up many a great writer through his knowledge of men’s motives and the secrets of his trade’, but also noted that ‘a new era’ had begun in literature, perhaps hinting at a passing of the literary baton.

Twenty years later, he returned to Hemingway in an essay in El Espectador which was then translated and published in the New York Times of 26 July 1981. The account centred on a sort of meeting between the two, an episode that forms the closing vignette in Martin’s chapter ‘Hungry in Paris: La Bohème, 1956-57’. Here is García Márquez’s version:

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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