Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist whose best-known work, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967), helped earn a global following for the literary style known as magical realism, died Thursday at his Mexico City home. He was 87.
Cristobal Pera, a former editor of Mr. García Márquez, confirmed his death. Mr. García Márquez was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1999. In 2012, a family member revealed that he had develeoped senile dementia.
In its 1982 Nobel citation, the Swedish Academy said of the Colombian-born author, “Each new work of his is received by expectant critics and readers as an event of world importance.”
President Obama hailed Mr. García Márquez and his literary legacy, saying that “the world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers – and one of my favorites from the time I was young.”
As its name indicates, magical realism treats the real as if it were magical and the magical as real. It arose in the 1950s as a response to the often-fantastical extremes to be found in Latin American life, and its best-known early practitioners came from the region: Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortazar, G. Cabrera Infante, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Manuel Puig.
Magical realism went on to affect writers as far flung as Toni Morrison, Kobo Abe, and Salman Rushdie. Much of that influence is owed to the impact of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the genre’s masterpiece. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, also a Nobel laureate, called Mr. García Márquez’s novel “perhaps the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since the ‘Don Quixote’ of Cervantes.” Novelist William Kennedy hailed it as “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.”
The novel begins with one of the most celebrated opening sentences in 20th-century fiction: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Those two dozen words exemplify how Mr. García Márquez, blending the exotic and familiar, solved what he once called the “most important problem” he faced as a writer: “destroying the lines of demarcation that separate what seems real from what seems fantastic.”
An elaborately plotted, exuberantly detailed epic of life in the mythical northern Colombian town of Macondo (which means “banana” in Bantu), “One Hundred Years of Solitude” has been variously described as a shadow history of Latin America, an account of the rise of Western civilization, an allegory of the human race, a retelling of the Bible, and a perusal of Mr. García Márquez’s family album. The Buendía clan, seven generations of which populate the novel, bear many similarities to the author’s ancestors.
For sheer imaginative density, Macondo has often been compared to William Faulkner’s fictive Mississippi county, Yoknapatawpha. But not even Faulkner, whom Mr. García Márquez acknowledged as an important influence, ever portrayed levitating priests or rains lasting five years.
The oldest of 12 children, Gabriel José García Márquez was born in Aracataca, Colombia, the son of Gabriel Eligio García, a one-time medical student, and Luisa Santiaga Márquez Iguaran.
Mr. García Márquez was raised by his maternal grandparents, a fact that would decisively influence his career. “I feel that all my writing,” he once said, “has been about the experiences of the time I spent with my grandparents.”
His grandfather had been a founder of Aracataca, a banana-growing village near the Caribbean coast. By all accounts a larger-than-life figure, he was a former colonel in the Colombian army and a gifted raconteur. His wife, Mr. García Márquez’s grandmother, was equally celebrated as a storyteller and was notoriously superstitious. She also had a name deserving a place in one of her grandson’s books, Tranquilina. They bestowed on Mr. Garcia Marquez an abundance of material, the knowledge of how to get across a story, and a taste for the bizarre.
Mr. García Márquez rejoined his parents, who lived near Bogotá, when he was 8. He enrolled as a law student at the National University there, in 1946. Bored by his courses, he was an indifferent student. The most important thing to happen to him at this time was reading Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” He recalled his amazement at the tale of a man transformed into an insect: “That’s how my grandmother used to tell stories, the wildest things with a completely natural tone of voice.”
He published his first story in 1947. Nine more followed over the next five years. Most of his writing took the form of journalism, however. Having transferred to the University of Cartagena in 1948, he began writing a daily newspaper column. He left school without earning a degree and moved to Barranquilla two years later.
Supporting himself as a journalist, Mr. García Márquez lived in a brothel and read for the first time Faulkner and another important influence on his work, Sophocles. (Mr. García Márquez’s first extended work, the 1955 novella “Leaf Storm” is inspired by the ancient Greek playwright’s “Antigone.”) He traveled widely in Europe, finally settling in Paris, where he led a hand-to-mouth existence. “For three years I lived by daily miracles,” Mr. García Márquez later recalled. “But if I hadn’t lived those years I probably wouldn’t be a writer.” During this time he worked on “No One Writes the Colonel” (1961) and “In Evil Hour” (1962).
Mr. Garcia Marquez returned to Latin America in 1957. A year later, he married Mercedes Barcha Pardo, after a 14-year courtship (another detail worthy of his fiction). He worked in Venezuela as a journalist and wrote the stories that would be collected in “Big Mama’s Funeral” (1962).
Covering the Cuban revolution, Mr. García Márquez struck up a lifelong friendship with Fidel Castro. A sympathy with revolutionary movements and opposition to right-wing dictatorships would remain a constant for Mr. García Márquez. (As a result, he ran afoul of the US State Department, which for many years denied him a visa.) He went to work for Prensa Latina, the official Cuban news agency, in Bogotá, Havana, and, briefly, New York. He moved with his family to Mexico City, where he wrote film subtitles and screenplays.
Mr. Garcia Marquez’s books had drawn critical acclaim and won several prizes, yet none had sold more than 700 copies or brought him any royalties. For four years he wrote no fiction. Then one day, in 1965, while driving with his family to Acapulco, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” came to him. “I had it so completely formed, that right there I could have dictated the first chapter word by word to a typist.” The trip abandoned, he wrote eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week, for 18 months, consuming up to six packs of cigarettes a day.
When he finished, he was $10,000 in debt, but with the immense success of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” that soon ceased to be an issue. Mr. García Márquez moved to Spain to work on his next novel, “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (1975), then returned to Mexico City. Accusations in 1982 that he was a financial supporter of the M-19 guerrilla movement in Colombia led him to fear for his safety there and flee the country. Later that year, after winning the Nobel Prize, he was personally invited to return to his homeland by President Belisario Betancur.
Other books by Mr. Garcia Marquez include “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” (1981), “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1984), “The General in His Labyrinth” (1989), and “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” (2004). “To Live to Tell It,” the first volume in a projected autobiographical trilogy, was published in 2002.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Garcia Marquez leaves two sons, Rodrigo, a film and television director, and Gonzalo, who designed the titles for the 2013 film “Gravity.”
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.