February 22, 2010 5:00 am

Gabriel García Márquez

Cover of 'Gabriel García Márquez'

Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years
By Ilan Stavans
Palgrave Macmillan £15.99, 256 pages

Ilan Stavans must be cursing his bad luck. The prolific US-based academic claims that his latest work of literary criticism, Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years, was “a decade in the making”. In that time, his subject published a hefty memoir covering the same period, followed recently by Gerald Martin’s comprehensive biography of Colombia’s Nobel laureate.

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IN Non-Fiction

Stavans is the author of a groundbreaking book on the evolution of “Spanglish” in the US. Now he has set out to examine how García Márquez came to write his best-known novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. He is wary of dabbling in “Gabolatría” – a neologism describing “the unstoppable need to adore García Márquez” that afflicts many literary commentators. Yet his personal feelings about García Márquez’s celebrated work are clear enough. It is, he says, “the most important novel ever to be published in the Americas”.

In his quest for “the raw material of literature”, Stavans trawls through biographical details : García Márquez’s childhood in the village of Aracataca; his grandparents’ influence; his early career in journalism; his move to Mexico. But these are well-documented stories, examined more thoroughly by previous biographers.

More interesting is Stavans’s examination of the novel’s public reception. Acclaim was immediate and almost unanimous. There were, however, unexpected complications: Stavans describes an absurd plagiarism case made against García Márquez shortly after the novel’s publication – a topic overlooked even in Martin’s capacious biography.

Stavans’s most original contribution lies in his compelling picture of the Spanish-language book market in the years leading up to 1967, when One Hundred Years of Solitude was launched. In the postwar period, that market had been fragmented; books published in Buenos Aires were rarely read in Mexico City or Madrid.

Things began to change with the appearance of literary agents. One in particular, Carmen Balcells, began representing the new crop of Latin American authors, and selling international rights to their books from her office in Barcelona. This was essential to the success of the generation of Latin American writers known as El Boom, which includes Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. “It would be impossible to imagine García Márquez’s career without Carmen Balcells,” Stavans writes.

One has to wonder who the intended audience is for this book. General readers are likely to be put off by Stavans’ use of lit-crit jargon – why say “reception” or “world view” when he can say “rezeptionsgeschichte” or “Weltanschauung” instead? But specialists will probably find it too derivative – the best writing occurs in quotes from other people’s texts. Perhaps it’s aimed at Stavans’ students at Amherst College.

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