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 on Thursday. 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.
The Mexican government said Garcia Marquez died at 2 p.m.
“A thousand years of solitude and sadness because of the death of the greatest Colombian of all time!” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on Twitter. “Solidarity and condolences to his wife and family … Such giants never die.”
Biographer Gerald Martin told The Associated Press that “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.”
Dozens of journalists camped outside the author’s Colonial red-brick home in a wealthy section of southern Mexico City, swarming the slow trickle of friends who came to pay respects to Garcia Marquez’s family.
“It’s a loss for all Spanish-language literature,” said Monica Hernandez, a 28-year-old fan who laid a bouquet of white flowers on the doorstep.
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 nonfiction that included the “Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor,” the tale of a seaman lost on a life raft for 10 days.
“He is like the Mandela of literature because of the impact that he has had on readers all over the world. His influence is universal, and that is a very rare thing,” said Cristobal Pera, editorial director of Penguin Random House in Mexico, who has worked closely with Garcia Marquez for years.
Other nonfiction 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 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 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 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.
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.
“Born in Colombia, he made Mexico his home for decades, enriching the life of the nation,” Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said. “Rest in peace.”
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.
The author with the bushy grey eyebrows and white mustache spent more time in Colombia in his later years, founding the journalism institute in the walled colonial port city of Cartagena.