Nobel Laureate's Memoir Is a Success in Any Language

Times Staff Writer

Early last month, one of America's leading literary publishers, Alfred A. Knopf, brought out a new book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian-born Nobel laureate many consider the world's greatest living writer.

Since then, tens of thousands of U.S. residents have purchased the handsome hardcover book at $25 a copy; its first printing of 50,000 is gone and the publisher has ordered a second run of 5,000 volumes -- all without the usual commercial jump-start from author tours, morning television shows or advertising. By any conventional measure, the book is a bestseller and another triumph for both the 75-year-old Garcia Marquez, the father of "magic realism," and his distinguished American publisher.

So why isn't it on any of the bestseller lists?

Knopf's "Vivir Para Contarla" (Living to Tell the Tale) is in Spanish. In fact, it is believed to be the first foreign-language book Knopf or any other major American imprint has ever distributed without an accompanying English translation.

"We have published simultaneously in English and other languages before," said Garcia Marquez's U.S. editor, Ashbel Green. "But we've never done it this way before."

How that happened is a story of how the appetite for great literature can magically create commercial realism. It also may be the story of how the dramatic demographic transformation wrought by years of Latino immigration is beginning to reshape important parts of U.S. literary publishing. It is undoubtedly the story of how the 1982 literature laureate bestrides the world of letters like a colossus.

"Vivir Para Contarla" -- the first of what Garcia Marquez says will be three volumes of memoirs -- is the fastest-selling book in the history of Latin American publishing, outpacing by far even the author's 1967 masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

Its publication was widely anticipated not only because Garcia Marquez, is the progenitor of the genre that has dominated Spanish-language literature for decades, but also because the patriarch, too, is in his autumn. Renowned as a novelist, short-story writer, journalist and friend to world leaders ranging from Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton, Garcia Marquez has been in virtual seclusion since 1999, when he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. After initial treatment in Los Angeles -- where his son, filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, lives -- Garcia Marquez cloistered himself in his Mexico City home, working to complete his memoirs. He returns to Los Angeles at regular intervals for treatment, and, according to friends, is here now.

The 573-page first volume covers the years from his birth in 1927 through his formative work as a journalist and concludes with the publication of his first novel, "Leaf Storm," in 1955. The second book will recount his life through the publication of "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and the third his friendships with world leaders and literary figures.

Knopf will publish an English edition of "Vivir Para Contarla" translated by Edith Grossman late next fall. But, Green said, the house decided to publish a Spanish-only version for two reasons.

Garcia Marquez's books are published simultaneously in Spain, Mexico and Argentina. "The reception there was simply tremendous," said Green, "and it quickly became the best-selling book in the entire Spanish-speaking world. So we decided to move very quickly because we thought this bespoke a large potential market within this country's growing Spanish-speaking readership."

The second reason Knopf dramatically accelerated the process, said Green, was because it discovered paperback editions from other countries were being sold all over the U.S. "Some of our people found it being sold on street corners in the borough of Queens and, then, copies from Mexico began appearing in Puerto Rico. That spurred us to act now, because those street-corner vendors were getting $29.95 a copy and we could provide a hardcover edition for less."

Because the book was a late addition to the publisher's fall list, booksellers are deciding where to display it on a store-by-store basis, according to a Knopf spokesman. Most chain bookstores are displaying the book in their foreign language sections, though some -- and many independent stores -- are stacking it among their English nonfiction titles.

Green attributes much of the unexpected demand for the book to the simple fact that Garcia Marquez is "an extraordinary international literary figure, a continuing bestseller throughout the Americas and Europe. His continuing sales, particularly of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' and 'Love in the Time of Cholera,' make clear he is a continuing presence and that new readers are discovering him all the time."

That, said Gregory Rabassa, who translated "One Hundred Years of Solitude," represents a "sociological rather than a purely literary phenomenon."

Knopf's move, said Rabassa, a distinguished professor of Hispanic languages and translation at Queens College in New York, represents a somewhat tardy recognition that "the intense immigration into the United States from Spanish-speaking countries involves more than field hands. Many are middle-class people. The majority of my students now are from middle-class Hispanic families, and they normally go for the Spanish editions of literary books first."

Literary agent Susan Bergholtz, whose many Latin American and Latino clients include best-selling novelist Sandra Cisneros, said she was not surprised that Knopf's first printing of Garcia Marquez's new book has sold so well. "I've seen the foreign editions being sold everywhere there's a Spanish-speaking population. It was just good business for them to bring out their own Spanish edition, though I also think it was a service to literature."

The U.S. market for Spanish-language literature, Bergholtz said, remains difficult to gauge. "You've got lots of young people who read in English, but also like to read the classics in Spanish. Garcia Marquez falls into that category because he is the great living Latin American writer, maybe the greatest in the world."

Knopf, Bergholtz said, "is going to make a lot of money doing this. I hope that makes it the beginning of something, because more publishers need to grasp the depth and strength of this market and figure out how to reach it. Across the country, thousands and thousands of people are reading in both Spanish and English."

Other leading book editors and publishers applauded Knopf's move, though they are divided over how much of its success can be conclusively attributed to the growth of a Spanish readership inside the United States and how much is owed to Garcia Marquez's appeal to book buyers around the world.

Publishing first in Spanish was "a brilliant stroke by Knopf," said Random House editor Jason Epstein. "I'm not in the least surprised that it has succeeded so strikingly, because there are now several million Spanish-speaking Americans, many of whom are quite obviously readers. It's virtually our second national language.

"As time goes by," Epstein said, "and books are sold, as they inevitably will be, from digital files -- either online or from kiosk-like machines that print single copies on demand -- books in a great number of other languages, like Russian or Hindi, will be made available. There is a huge future for that kind of thing, and this move of Knopf's is only the first tentative step toward what can be expected, especially in this country.... The only thing keeping American publishers from tapping this vast potential -- aside from their own myopia -- is the expense of maintaining an inventory of printed books. When that inventory becomes virtual, as it will as the digital age advances, the last barrier will have fallen."

Morgan Entrekin, whose Grove/Atlantic Press is one of the country's leading independent literary publishers, said Knopf's success is amazing: "It just goes to show not only what an extraordinary market there is for Garcia Marquez, but also how many Spanish-speaking readers there are in this country now."

U.S. publishing, said Entrekin, has been gradually awakening to the potential of the domestic readership for Spanish-language literature, and some have established Spanish imprints. "We all recognize that this is a market increasing in size and importance, but there's still a suspicion that you have to have a major author to tap it. In this case, there's no question that Knopf has just that, since Garcia Marquez is one of the greatest writers in the world."

Jonathan Galassi, publisher and editor in chief of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, was skeptical about the implications of the memoir's success. "It's a very big sale to happen so fast, but this is one of the most avidly anticipated books of its kind in a very long time," he said. "I don't think you can extrapolate very far from its performance. I really don't think there are other authors out there who could perform at this level."

In the brief introduction to "Vivir Para Contarla," Garcia Marquez writes: "La vida no es la que uno vivio, sino la que uno recuerda y como la recuerda para contarla." (Life is not that which one lived, but that which one remembers, and how one remembers to tell it.")

These are the qualities that led Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, writing recently in the Madrid newspaper El Pais, to argue that Garcia Marquez's new memoir and his novels now claim a status in Spanish-language literature equal to that of Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote." Like Cervantes', Garcia Marquez's work is incomparably valuable, but "melancholy, difficult and hard," Fuentes wrote.

Those sentiments are shared by Los Angeles novelist Yxta Maya Murray. "Anybody who has access to the Spanish tongue would snap this book up," she said. "It's a major literary event. Garcia Marquez is a high priest of literature in any language. He created a whole new universe of writing and thought. He is a supernatural creature on the literary landscape. We live in a blessed time because we share it with him."

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