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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

Living to Tell the Tale

Gabriel García Márquez

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To purchase Living to Tell the Tale

Title: Living to Tell the Tale
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 573 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Living to Tell the Tale - US
Vivir para contarla - US
Living to Tell the Tale - UK
Living to Tell the Tale - Canada
Vivre pour la raconter - France
Leben, um davon zu erzählen - Deutschland
Vivere per raccontarla - Italia
Vivir para contarla - España
  • Spanish title: Vivir para contarla
  • Translated by Edith Grossman

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Our Assessment:

A : utterly engaging memoir

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 23/11/2003 Ilan Stavans
Christian Science Monitor . 2/12/2003 Christopher Carduff
Daily Telegraph . 10/11/2003 Christopher Tayler
Daily Telegraph A 17/11/2003 Ann Wroe
The Economist . 15/2/2003 .
FAZ A 15/10/2002 Walter Haubrich
The Guardian . 28/11/2003 Nick Caistor
Harper's . 12/2003 John Leonard
The Independent . 14/11/2003 Alberto Manguel
Independent on Sunday . 16/11/2003 Ian Thomson
London Rev. of Books . 3/6/2004 Michael Wood
The LA Times A 16/2/2003 Gioconda Belli
Le Monde . 17/10/2003 Raphaëlle Rérolle
The Nation . 26/1/2004 Perry Anderson
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 10/12/2002 Leopold Federmair
New Statesman A 24/11/2003 Richard Gott
The NY Rev. of Books . 15/1/2004 Alastair Reid
The NY Times A 9/11/2003 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/11/2003 Brent Staples
Newsweek B- 10/11/2003 David Gates
The Observer A 23/11/2003 Angel Gurria-Quintana
The Observer . 30/1/2005 Stephanie Merritt
The Spectator . 6/12/2003 Raymond Carr
Sydney Morning Herald A+ 8/11/2003 Catherine Keenan
Time . 17/11/2003 Richard Lacayo
The Times A+ 22/11/2003 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 27/12/2002 Hugo Estenssoro
The Village Voice . 10/11/2003 Jorge Morales
The Washington Post A+ 2/11/2003 Jonathan Yardley
Die Welt . 14/12/2002 H.C. Buch
Die Zeit . (1/2003) Eberhard Falcke

  Review Consensus:

  Generally found it very enjoyable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Gabo's self-portrait is that of a plebeian, ambitious and practical. His perfectionism is now turned on himself: each line of inquiry is followed with scientific meticulousness; every single sentence, every paragraph and page seems modest yet breathtaking, unique yet preternatural. And Edith Grossman's translation only adds to the treat: Soft and intuitive, her version is so accomplished, so deliberately anti-ostentatious, it might actually read better than the original. (...) Still, Living to Tell the Tale is a bit lethargic." - Ilan Stavans, Boston Globe

  • "(T)his is very self-consciously (and at times self-mockingly) the Early Years of a World-Famous Writer, one who, at age 75, expects his readers to be on intimate terms with his works and to catch his allusions to them. (...) The tone of the book is mellow, a look back, not in anger, but in bottomless gratitude." - Christopher Carduff, Christian Science Monitor

  • "(I)t's impossible to do justice to such a dense narrative in the space of a short review. (...) His florid Spanish prose is clearly hard to accommodate in idiomatic English (...), and the book's complicated time-scheme can be hard to follow. Still, while general readers might prefer to stick to his novels and books of journalism, these memoirs are going to be studied for a very long time." - Christopher Tayler, Daily Telegraph

  • "Two hundred pages into Living to Tell the Tale, I felt sure this book would be my favourite of the year. The narrative was bewitching me for all the reasons Marquez-lovers know." - Ann Wroe, Daily Telegraph

  • "This memoir may not win over those who have resisted being persuaded that Mr García Márquez is a great, rather than a very good, writer. His style is one of much poetry but sometimes less meaning than meets the eye (.....) But most readers will not mind. They will simply enjoy the anecdotes and the prose of a master of the narrative art and of the Spanish language." - The Economist

  • "Leben, um davon zu erzählen jedoch ist ein eminent literarisches Buch: in der Struktur einfach, doch von außergewöhnlicher Präzision in der Wortwahl. Kaum ein anderer zeitgenössischer Schriftsteller benennt die Dinge so genau wie García Márquez. (...) García Márquez' Memoiren sind außergewöhnlich unterhaltsam, selbst da noch, wo der Autor die große Zahl seiner Verwandten nacheinander vorstellt" - Walter Haubrich, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "His determination to name everything and everyone of importance to him can make the book heavy going. It is when he writes of his mother and the Caribbean world that has been so influential in his life and writing that García Márquez's prose comes to life and sparkles in a way that makes the reader all the more eager to return to the world of his fiction." - Nick Caistor, The Guardian

  • "García Márquez, whose splendid memoir of his first three decades, Living to Tell the Tale, is a swoon of swans" - John Leonard, Harper's

  • "The novelist's craft allows him to recreate dialogues spoken more than half a century ago (...) . Such fictional devices are not disturbing in a story justified by something other than the mere celebrity of a name, but in Living to Tell the Tale they become irritating instances of a sort of literary exhibitionism. (...) Edith Grossman's careful translation does not manage, however, to redeem the overall flatness of the story. No doubt this (and the volumes to come) will interest some of his readers, since we are always curious to peer behind the curtain to find out how a magician conjures up his tricks, even if the explanation is disappointing. But for this devoted reader of García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale adds little to his enduring work." - Alberto Manguel, The Independent

  • "Living to Tell the Tale has the usual metaphysical speculations on death and grotesquerie of grinning skulls that we associate with "magic realism". Yet the book radiates a charm and humanity sometimes absent from earlier Marquez. It is rich with allusion and suggestion, and moreover is often very funny" - Ian Thomson, Independent on Sunday

  • "The book is not always dynamic or funny, and sometimes García Márquez just narrates the rather desultory days he just lived. But parts of the book are so artful and oblique as to seem almost sly." - Michael Wood, London Review of Books

  • "Reading this book, one realizes that the key to García Márquez's success -- and the reason we love his literature -- lies in his extraordinary capacity to accept and enjoy life in its multiple dimensions. His talent to blend magic and reality relieves us from the rationalist Cartesian split -- so unhealthy for the spirit -- and presents an alternative, wholesome way to embrace both." - Gioconda Belli, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Yet its sum is not a Bildungsroman of the author, whose personality is rarely front-lit, but the re-creation of an astonishing universe, the Caribbean coastlands of Colombia in the first half of the last century. Anyone who might think that a factual counterpart of García Márquez's fictions could be at best only a pallid duplicate can be reassured. Scene after remarkable scene, character after arresting character, cascades of gestures without measure and coincidences beyond reason make Living to Tell the Tale a cousin of the great novels." - Perry Anderson, The Nation

  • "Sosehr García Márquez sein Geborensein zum Schriftsteller betont, so gross ist doch die Fülle der Daten, Charaktere, Ereignisse, die seine Autobiographie enthält. (...) Der Grad von Wirklichkeitsnähe lässt sich schwer messen. Sicher ist, dass García Márquez seine Erinnerungen einer beständigen Fiktionalisierung unterzieht, indem er ihre Details imaginiert." - Leopold Federmair, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(S)ome may feel that the life story of a writer, even a Nobel prize-winner, cannot compare with his fictional creations. As biographer, the writer is obliged to pay homage to the longueurs of his life, details that could be easily deleted from a novel. However, specialists in the minutiae of Colombian literary elites from 1945-55 will find much useful material here for their footnotes. The book as a whole is a delightful ramble through the difficulties and problems of becoming a writer from a poor but would-be bourgeois background where such an achievement was hardly encouraged." - Richard Gott, New Statesman

  • "Living to Tell the Tale is an exercise in remembering, but without the tensions and contrivances of the novel." - Alastair Reid, The New York Review of Books

  • "Although the sections of this book chronicling his adventures at school and his early forays into journalism lack the fierce, tactile magic of the portions dealing with his family, Mr. García Márquez delivers a wonderfully vital portrait of himself as a young aspiring writer." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "(A) richly reported, wonderfully detailed story that brings the artist as a young man vividly into focus and introduces the people and places he drew upon to create his novels." - Brent Staples, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Colombian literary scene of the '40s and '50s is vivid in his memory, but not on the page; many anecdotes go nowhere, and seem to be set down just because they happened. We can only hope he lives to tell the good stuff better." - David Gates, Newsweek

  • "Living to Tell the Tale is a succulent memoir and delivers a powerful lesson in storytelling -- and is also a delightful read." - Angel Gurria-Quintana, The Observer

  • "As an account of the formation of one of the 20th century's most influential writers, this memoir serves as introduction and appendix to his most significant works of fiction." - Stephanie Merritt, The Observer

  • "It is a prolonged exercise in nostalgia (.....) This book is a bit of a curate’s egg. Parts of it are excellent; its wonderful descriptive passages, the Dickensian capacity to create unforgettable characters are the work of a great writer. Parts of it I found tedious: the literary gossip, the affectionate tributes to friends who mean nothing to an English reader. The translation is heavy-handed." - Raymond Carr, The Spectator

  • "By turns wistful and uncompromising, wise and funny, it has a surety of touch that never lets you forget you are in the hands of a master storyteller. (...) It provides an unusually complete account of the evolution of an artistic sensibility (.....) As a reflection on an extraordinary life, and an insight into a man of exemplary humanity, this memoir is magnificent." - Catherine Keenan, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The Nobel-prizewinning Colombian novelist has always maintained that he was not a magic realist but just a writer making the most of the lavish realities of Latin America. After reading his abundant new memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, you'll be inclined to agree." - Richard Lacayo, Time

  • "For readers familiar with his works, the autobiography provides delicious illuminations of his fiction. (...) The book is a treasure trove, a discovery of a lost land we always knew existed but couldn’t find. (...) The book is a treasure trove, a discovery of a lost land we always knew existed but couldn’t find." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

  • "However, what is a useful resource for establishing credibility in fiction can be disconcerting in contexts when it is obviously inaccurate, and there are several other examples of a relaxed attitude to fact in Vivir para contarla. None of this prevents the book from offering an admirable panorama of Colombian history, society and customs, one that will allow the attentive reader to understand not merely what the country used to be like, but the way it is now." - Hugo Estenssoro, Times Literary Supplement

  • "At its best, Tale provides an invaluable Baedeker of Gabo-land (.....) It's a master class in the art of writing, as well as the art of living a writer's life, which isn't always the same thing. (...) Unsurprisingly, when he tries to set the historical record straight, the winds of misfortune begin to blow." - Jorge Morales, The Village Voice

  • "(A) memoir that must be counted among the masterworks of the world's greatest living novelist. It is not at all the autumnal rumination that might reasonably be expected from one who is in his mid-seventies and has been seriously ill with lymphatic cancer for some years, but a bold, high-spirited, self-mocking, powerfully evocative and deeply revealing return visit to the author's youth and the raw material out of which his fiction emerged." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • "Vivir para contarla, von Dagmar Ploetz kongenial übersetzt, widerlegt alle Leerformeln und Klischees, die über García Márquez im Umlauf sind, denn anders als Rousseau legt er keine Beichte ab, sondern erzählt eine Geschichte, wie es sich für einen Romancier gehört (.....) Die Schwächen des Textes, der ohne Substanzverlust erheblich hätte gekürzt werden können, werden durch dessen Stärken wettgemacht." - Hans Christoph Buch, Die Welt

  • "Mit dem Anfang von Leben, um davon zu erzählen gibt García Márquez ein Beispiel für Memoirenliteratur großen Stils. Das ist eine fabelhafte Eröffnung. (...) Überhaupt kann man den jungen Helden dieser Erinnerungen als glücklichen Schelm bezeichnen. Ganz bestimmt in seiner Beziehung zu Frauen, die ihm meist ziemlich gewogen waren." - Eberhard Falcke, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Gabriel García Márquez's experiences and his family colour much of his fiction, but part of García Márquez's great talent is how he takes fact and recreates it as fiction. Vivir para contarla (now translated as Living to Tell the Tale) offers a wonderful glimpse of much that inspired and formed his fiction. As this first volume of his memoirs again shows, García Márquez is a true storyteller, relating epsiodes with charm and a disarming facility. More factual than most of his writing, Vivir para contarla is still nearly as fantastic: if it weren't the truth (and much of it can only be considered truth by a very generous stretch of the imagination) it could practically pass for one of his novels.
       García Márquez begins the book with an episode from when he was in his early twenties, when his mother asked him to come help her sell the old family home in remote Aracataca. García Márquez is at a crossroads, having just abandoned his law studies and now spending all his time reading and writing -- but not having established himself as the sort of writer he wants to be yet. The trip to the house he'd last been to when he was eight brings back many memories -- and brings inspiration, showing him what he might write about (and also suggesting, in some ways, how he might write it).
       Aracataca was a "place without limits", rich in characters and fantastical happenings, later shaped through the long remove into the surreal locale familiar from so many of Garcia Marquez's books. He convincingly describes it -- and the events surrounding family, acquaintances, and the nation -- as the inspiration-well for much of his writing.
       García Márquez circles around in this memoir, focussing on the years when he actually became a writer (in his early twenties) but returning to his own childhood and youth and how the experiences from those times made him the writer he was becoming. It is also a family memoir, as Garcia Marquez describes the households he grew up in and his close relatives and their various endeavours -- and the constant struggle to just get by. From his telegraphist father, his ever-increasing horde of siblings, and his mother (who passed away in the summer of 2002, just as he was putting the finishing touches on this book) to the extended family, it's a fascinating (and lovingly portrayed) group.
       The book is full of brief portraits and vignettes, each enough to vividly capture a character in full -- so, for example, the unforgettable page on a blind great aunt whom he can still picture perfectly walking through the house as though she could see despite relying only on her sense of smell. He reveals that this great aunt died when he was just two -- suggesting the mix of precocious memory and long-practiced re-invention (of such power that it could fool even him into thinking it was real) based on the family stories and legends he must have heard over and over that are the basis of his writing talent.
       From his early childhood in a female-dominated household through schooling that barely interested him (as he sat through his classes with an open book on his knees, constantly reading) it was an odd and yet convincing sort of childhood idyll. The family was always poor and struggling, but the struggle was taken as a given and everyone simply managed as best they could.
       García Márquez talents were fairly obvious from early on: he didn't exert himself academically, but his prodigious reading (and a good memory that allowed him to recite vast amounts of poetry) allowed for impressive displays that won over his teachers. He was able to attend very good schools, and though this necessitated a separation from his family he was fortunate in finding understanding pretty much wherever he went. He also has a great deal of luck -- so, for example, when he arrived in Bogotá to sit for the scholarship exams for the most prestigious schools he found that he had travelled on the same boat with the man in charge of the scholarships, who then singled him out and nudged him in the right direction (including finding just the right school for the boy).
       García Márquez describes himself as always passionate and certain of his writerly ambitions. He can imagine practically nothing else, and knows his law-studies won't bear fruit, pursuing them merely to pelase his family while he writes -- and reads and read and reads. He manages to publish his first story soon after graduating from school, and over the years he works hard as a journalist -- generally still barely scraping by, living day to day, but happily so.
       Another pivotal event in his life comes 9 April 1948, with the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. Garcia Marquez relates the events impressively, realizing then also that on that day Columbia itself was changed, marked forever. Where it had muddled along all his life, it was with this one fell swoop thrust into the 20th century.
       Garcia Marquez escaped the capital (wading through a morass of blood and mud, as he puts it) and returned to the coastal area, again muddling through as best he could, nominally still a law student but ever as eager only to write. Someone tells him soon after his arrival: "You'll see, in Cartagena everything is different" -- prophetic words, he finds.
       He recounts his journalistic experiences, and his odd lifestyle -- sleeping wherever he can (most often in a local bordello). He found literary-minded friends all along the way too (Álvaro Mutis, in particular, came to be a close friend), and he also found a great deal of encouragement. When family duties called he put aside his own priorities for some time but writing is all he seems fit for. He began shaping larger fictions, and towards the ends of the memoir describes the creation of books like Leaf Storm, as well as mentioning a few odds and ends about later creations (including One Hundred Years of Solitude). (Much of Vivir para contarla reads like a gloss on much of García Márquez's fiction, and it's amusing to read about the sources for all sorts of his later fictional episodes and characters.)
       The memoir closes with his first successes -- journalistic more than literary, but with him already beginning to establish himself as true writer. His life is set to change again, as he travels to Europe on the book's final pages. But the focus isn't on the future that awaits him there, but rather on the future left -- for the moment -- behind, as he glimpses Mercedes Barcha from his taxi on the way to the airport, and then writes her a letter. What happens next is left, in best Garcia Marquez fashion, largely to the reader's imagination -- though it is easily guessed that he would go on to marry the woman he saw sitting there in her green dress.

       Vivir para contarla is an impressive, constantly engaging, and touching memoir. It is filled with wonderful scenes and details, as García Márquez casually introduces all sorts of bits of information and experiences, from a flight in which it rains in the plane, to paying a gratuity to someone who had gotten the necessary vaccinations in his place (as that person had done "daily for years" for those in a hurry) to his pseudonym for his column in El Heraldo (Septimus, after Septimus Warren Smith in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway). But it's the bigger pictures emerging out of this mass of detail, and what García Márquez is able to evoke that impresses most of all. It reads much like a good novel, a storyteller with complete command of his material.
       The memoir is also, in many respects, too good to be true. There are some shocking events, but there is little pervasive sadness or misery; García Márquez writes with tremendous cheer and generosity -- which doesn't always ring true. As a book of strict facts it is unconvincing -- but that is hardly García Márquez's aim here. What he has done is presented a convincing self-portrait, a picture of the man he thinks he is, and how he became this man.
       The one true disappointment of Vivir para contarla is, of course, that it only tells part of the story. More volumes are promised; one looks forward to them eagerly -- and very impatiently.

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Living to Tell the Tale: Reviews: Gabriel García Márquez: Other books by Gabriel García Márquez under review: Books about Gabriel García Márquez under review:
  • Álvaro Santana-Acuña's Ascent to Glory: How One Hundred Years of Solitude Was Written and Became a Global Classic
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez lived 1927 to 2014. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.

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© 2003-2024 the complete review

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