Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombian Nobel laureate who helped define Latin America, dies at 87

The Associated Press

ALTERNATIVE CROP OF XLAT301 - FILE - This undated file photo of Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez is seen in an unknown location. Marquez died Thursday April 17, 2014 at his home in Mexico City. Garcia Marquez's magical realist novels and short stories exposed tens of millions of readers to Latin America's passion, superstition, violence and inequality. (AP Photo/Hamilton, File)

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Like many Latin American writers, Garcia Marquez transcended the world of letters. He 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 interventions from Vietnam to Chile. His affable visage, set off by a white mustache and bushy grey eyebrows, was instantly recognizable. Unable to receive a U.S. visa for years due to his politics, he was nonetheless courted by presidents and kings. He counted Bill Clinton and Francois Mitterrand among his presidential friends.

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 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 the first of a series of homeopathic pharmacies that would invariably fail, leaving them barely able to make ends meet.

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, favoring 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 wrote in 1955 about a sailor, washed off the deck of a Colombian warship during a storm, who reappeared weeks later at the village church where his family was offering a Mass for his soul.

"The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor" uncovered that the destroyer was carrying cargo, the cargo was contraband, and the vessel was overloaded. The authorities didn't like it," Garcia Marquez recalled.

Several months later, while he was in Europe, dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla's government closed El Espectador.

In exile, he toured 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 neighbor from childhood days. They had two sons, Rodrigo, a film director, and Gonzalo, a graphic designer.

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.

The killing would set off the "Bogotazo," a weeklong riot that destroyed the center of Colombia's capital and which Castro, a visiting student activist, also lived through.

Garcia Marquez would sign on to the young Cuban revolution as a journalist, working in Bogota and Havana for its news agency Prensa Latina, then later as the agency's correspondent in New York.

Garcia Marquez wrote the epic "One Hundred Years of Solitude" in 18 months, living first off loans from friends and then by having his wife pawn their things, starting with the car and furniture.