Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

22/11/03, The Times

‘Is History not simply the time when we were not born?’ asks Roland Barthes. If the answer is in the affirmative, does autobiography necessarily begin with the self? What happens when one’s own life, the sure accretion of years, passes into memory and, therefore, becomes history itself? From the vantage point of his seventy five year-old self, Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez might very well conclude that history begins after we’re born. And what a history it is.

It begins in his early twenties, when his mother arrives in Barranquilla and asks him to accompany her to Aracataca, where he was born, to sell his grandparents’ house. The visit to the town where he spent the first eight years of his life is both an epiphany and an awakening: after years of floundering writing stories which he considered arid technical exercises, he suddenly realises which story he should be telling. The narrative then loops back to tell his maternal grandparents’ stories, then his parents’, leading up to his birth in 1927. It is unsurprising to discover that the child García Márquez grew up in an electrically alive oral tradition with servants, women, visitors, family all telling, retelling, exchanging and embellishing stories, a valuable school for a novelist for whom imagination has always been more important than memory, the exaggerations and ornamentations of day to day life a way of ‘making reality more entertaining and comprehensible’. As a very young child, he writes, ‘the things I recounted seemed so outrageous that they thought they were lies, not thinking that most of them were true in another way.’ The magic that characterises his fiction is a living, breathing experience in a culture where the boundaries between the real and the unreal are less inflexibly demarcated than in other rationalist societies.

For readers familiar with his works, the autobiography provides delicious illuminations of his fiction. He mined his parents’ love story for Love in the Time of Cholera; the dreaded pasquines that are posted in Sucré at an inflammable time in the country’s violent political history form the background for In Evil Hour; we find out the origin of the name Macondo, immortalised in, first, Leaf Storm and, later, in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book is a treasure trove, a discovery of a lost land we always knew existed but couldn’t find. It’s all here: the grinding poverty of childhood, the bawdy nights at brothels, the insomnia and fear of the dark, the voraciousness of his reading, the clinical shyness, the networks of friends and the heady days of literary and journalist groups in his twenties, his immense reluctance to study institutionally, his atrocious spelling, the tantalising dance of convergence and divergence between truth and facts.

It’s a thrilling miracle of a book; never have the events of one life, the very density of details and observation, seemed more alive on the page, while the unfolding of his personal story becomes nothing less than a chorography of Colombia. As events lead up to the infamous Pasto coup of April 1944, and Colombia slides into the abyss of political violence in which it is still mired, politics moves centre stage. Underpinning all this is the fundamental tenet of his poetics: fiction has to be rooted in one’s own life, in the flesh-and-blood reality one inhabits, for it to succeed. You might disagree with it but very few authors have shown us with such lucidity what Yeats called the foul rag and bone shop of the heart in which poetry is made.

Amy Tan’s autobiography of sorts, The Opposite of Fate, on the other hand, is produced by a virulent form of emotional bulimia that will leave readers themselves nauseated. Such is the extent of Tan’s narcissism, her deep belief in her own status as celebrity writer, that she seems to spend most of her time entering her name into Google. She discovers 48,291 (‘and growing’, she reminds us) sites that peddle misinformation about her so she sets about to correcting the major ones. She feigns horror at being a CliffsNotes author, along with Jim Joyce, Joe Conrad and Bill Shakespeare (the informal diminutives are hers). Well, as Johnny Milton would say, ‘Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.’ Having written one bestseller, The Joy Luck Club, the book – I dread to use the word ‘literary’ – equivalent of a Hollywood weepie, and ploughed the same furrow with diminishing returns with her next three books, Tan has swallowed whole the celebrity pill. In fact, the book is little more than an endlessly reiterated signalling to her ‘literary’ fame: not a page goes by in which she doesn’t draw attention to the trappings of celebrity such as TV shows, interviews, appearances. It’s a book-length Cosmopolitan feature article, underlined by the notion of writing as therapy, ‘to masochistically examine my own life’s confusion, my own hopes and unanswered prayers.’ 

This undiluted slew of mumbo jumbo, New Age vacuity, and Oriental exoticism bristles with ancestral spirits, the soul’s identity, ‘limitlessness of hope within the limits of human beings’, reincarnation, transcendental experiences, spiritual reconciliation in dreams. Dead people appear in dreams to name their killers and provide life-solutions staggering in their profundity and depth: ‘You just have to learn how to learn’, ‘Face your fears in order to vanquish them.’ Everything’s spun off to vacuous counsellese: tombs of memories release ‘terrible despair’, ‘destructive rage’, leaving behind ‘the hopes, broken to bits but still there.’ Duplicitous, deeply deceitful and an act of intense bad faith.