Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombian Nobel laureate, dies at 87

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel laureate whose novels and short stories exposed tens of millions of readers to Latin America’s passion, superstition, violence and inequality, died at home in Mexico City around midday, according to people close to his family. He was 87.

Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez shows his Nobel Prize medal after he delivered his Nobel Lecture in Stockholm

MEXICO CITY — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel laureate whose novels and short stories exposed tens of millions of readers to Latin America’s passion, superstition, violence and inequality, died at home in Mexico City around midday, according to people close to his family. He was 87.

Widely considered the most popular Spanish-language writer since Miguel de Cervantes in the 17th century, Garcia Marquez achieved literary celebrity that spawned comparisons to Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

His flamboyant and melancholy fictional works — among them “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” ”Love in the Time of Cholera“ and ”Autumn of the Patriarch“ — outsold everything published in Spanish except the Bible. The epic 1967 novel ”One Hundred Years of Solitude sold more than 50 million copies in more than 25 languages.

His stories made him literature’s best-known practitioner of magical realism, the fictional blending of the everyday with fantastical elements such as a boy born with a pig’s tail and a man trailed by a swarm of yellow butterflies.

His death was confirmed by two people close to the family who spoke on condition of anonymity out of respect for the family’s privacy.

“One Hundred Years of Solitude” was “the first novel in which Latin Americans recognized themselves, that defined them, celebrated their passion, their intensity, their spirituality and superstition, their grand propensity for failure,” biographer Gerald Martin told The Associated Press.

When he accepted the Nobel prize in 1982, Garcia Marquez described Latin America as a “source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. 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.”

With writers including Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, Garcia Marquez was also an early practitioner of the literary nonfiction that would become known as New Journalism. He became an elder statesman of Latin American journalism, with magisterial works of narrative non-fiction that included the “Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor,” the tale of a seaman lost on a life raft for 10 days.

Other pieces profiled Venezuela’s larger-than-life president, Hugo Chavez, and vividly portrayed how cocaine traffickers led by Pablo Escobar had shred the social and moral fabric of his native Colombia, kidnapping members of its elite, in “News of a Kidnapping.” In 1994, Garcia Marquez founded the Iberoamerican Foundation for New Journalism, which offers training and competitions to raise the standard of narrative and investigative journalism across Latin America.

Like many Latin American writers, Garcia Marquez transcended the world of letters. The man widely known as “Gabo” became a hero to the Latin American left as an early ally of Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and a critic of Washington’s violent interventions from Vietnam to Chile.

Garcia Marquez was born in Aracataca, a small Colombian town near the Caribbean coast, on March 6, 1927. He was the eldest of the 11 children of Luisa Santiaga Marquez and Gabriel Elijio Garcia, a telegraphist and a wandering homeopathic pharmacist who was also something of a philanderer and fathered at least four children outside of his marriage.

Just after their first son was born, his parents left him with his maternal grandparents and moved to Barranquilla, where Garcia Marquez’s father opened a pharmacy, hoping to become rich.

Garcia Marquez was raised for 10 years by his grandmother and his grandfather, a retired colonel who fought in the devastating 1,000-Day War that hastened Colombia’s loss of the Panamanian isthmus.

His grandparents’ tales would provide grist for Garcia Marquez’s fiction and Aracataca became the model for “Macondo,” the village surrounded by banana plantations at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains where “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is set.

“I have often been told by the family that I started recounting things, stories and so on, almost since I was born,” Garcia Marquez once told an interviewer. “Ever since I could speak.”

Garcia Marquez’s parents continued to have children, and barely made ends meet. Their first-born son was sent to a state-run boarding school just outside Bogota where he became a star student and voracious reader, favouring Hemingway, Faulkner, Dostoevsky and Kafka.

Garcia Marquez published his first piece of fiction as a student in 1947, mailing a short story to the newspaper El Espectador after its literary editor wrote that “Colombia’s younger generation has nothing to offer in the way of good literature anymore.”

His father insisted he study law but he dropped out, bored, and dedicated himself to journalism. The pay was atrocious and Garcia Marquez recalled his mother visiting him in Bogota and commenting in horror at his bedraggled appearance that: “I thought you were a beggar.”

Garcia Marquez’s writing was constantly informed by his leftist political views, themselves forged in large part by a 1928 military massacre near Aracataca of banana workers striking against the United Fruit Company, which later became Chiquita. He was also greatly influenced by the assassination two decades later of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a galvanizing leftist presidential candidate.

Garcia Marquez suffered a strong official backlash to his story about how government corruption contributed to the disaster recounted in “Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor.” A dictatorship seized power and Garcia Marquez made a new home in Europe. After touring the Soviet-controlled east, he moved to Rome in 1955 to study cinema, a lifelong love. Then he moved to Paris, where he lived among intellectuals and artists exiled from the many Latin American dictatorships of the day.

Garcia Marquez returned to Colombia in 1958 to marry Mercedes Barcha, a neighbour from childhood days. They had two sons, Rodrigo, a film director, and Gonzalo, a graphic designer.

After a 1981 run-in with Colombia’s government in which he was accused of sympathizing with M-19 rebels and sending money to a Venezuelan guerrilla group, Garcia Marquez moved to Mexico City, his main home for the rest of his life.

Despite being denied U.S. visas for years over his politics, he was courted by presidents and kings and counted Bill Clinton and Francois Mitterrand among his friends. He denounced what he considered the unfair political persecution of Clinton for sexual adventures

Clinton himself recalled in an AP interview in 2007 reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude” while in law school and not being able to put it down, not even during classes.

“I realized this man had imagined something that seemed like a fantasy but was profoundly true and profoundly wise,” he said.

Dirt poor and struggling through much of his adult life, Garcia Marquez was somewhat transformed by his later fame and wealth. A bon vivant with an impish personality, Garcia Marquez was a gracious host who would animatedly recount long stories to guests. Fiercely protective of his image, a trait shared by his wife, he would occasionally unleash a quick temper when he felt slighted or misrepresented by the press.

The author with the bushy grey eyebrows and white moustache spent more time in Colombia in his later years, founding the journalism institute in the walled colonial port city of Cartagena, where he kept a home.

Garcia Marquez turned down offers of diplomatic posts and spurned attempts to draft him to run for Colombia’s presidency, though he did get involved in behind-the-scenes peace mediation efforts between Colombia’s government and leftist rebels.

In 1998, already in his 70s, Garcia Marquez fulfilled a lifelong dream, buying a majority interest in the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio with money from his Nobel. Before falling ill with lymphatic cancer in June 1999, the author contributed prodigiously to the magazine.

“I’m a journalist. I’ve always been a journalist,” he told the AP at the time. “My books couldn’t have been written if I weren’t a journalist because all the material was taken from reality.”

In later years there were persisting reports about the author’s memory problems, which were not publicly diagnosed, and Garcia Marquez’s public appearances were limited, although he continued to enjoy socializing with friends.

When he turned 87, he was feted before the press by friends and well-wishers who gave him cake and flowers outside his home in an exclusive neighbourhood in Mexico City.

Garcia Marquez did not speak at the event.

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