MEXICO CITY—His death mourned around the globe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a giant of modern literature, a writer of intoxicating novels and short stories that illuminated Latin America’s passions, superstition, violence and social inequality.
Considered the most popular Spanish-language writer since Miguel de Cervantes in the 17th century, the Colombian-born Nobel laureate achieved literary celebrity that spawned comparisons to Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.
Garcia Marquez died at his home in Mexico City on Thursday at age 87.
His flamboyant and melancholy fictional works—among them “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “The Autumn of the Patriarch”—outsold everything published in Spanish, except the Bible.
The 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 cloud of yellow butterflies.
“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.
Famous opening line
The first sentence of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” has become one of the most famous opening lines of all time: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Biographer Gerald Martin told The Associated Press the novel was the first in which “Latin Americans recognized themselves, that defined them, celebrated their passion, their intensity, their spirituality and superstition, their grand propensity for failure.”
His family said his body would be cremated. Cause of death has not been disclosed but he died a week after a bout of pneumonia.
A coffee-colored urn containing his ashes was placed on a pedestal, surrounded by yellow roses—his favorite flowers—in Mexico City’s domed Fine Arts Palace.
Colombia’s ambassador to Mexico, Jose Gabriel Ortiz, suggested the author’s ashes could be divided between Mexico and Colombia.
When he accepted the Nobel prize for literature 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,” he added.
He transcended the world of letters. Widely known as “Gabo,” he became a hero to the left as an early ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and a critic of Washington’s violent interventions from Vietnam to Chile.
Garcia Marquez was also an early practitioner of literary nonfiction, now known as New Journalism.
Tribute from Obama
He became an elder statesman of Latin American journalism, with works of nonfiction that included the “Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor,” about a seaman lost on a life raft for 10 days.
Other pieces profiled Venezuela’s larger-than-life president, Hugo Chavez, and portrayed how cocaine traffickers led by Pablo Escobar shredded the social and moral fabric of Colombia.
“The world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers—and one of my favorites from the time I was young,” US President Barack Obama said.
Garcia Marquez was born in Aracataca, a small Colombian town, on March 6, 1927. He was the eldest of the 11 children of Luisa Santiaga Marquez and Gabriel Elijio Garcia, a wandering homeopathic pharmacist.
He spent 10 years with his grandmother and his grandfather. His grandparents’ tales provided grist for his fiction and Aracataca became the model for “Macondo,” the village surrounded by banana plantations where “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is set.
Sent to a boarding school, he became a star student and voracious reader, favoring Hemingway, Faulkner, Dostoevsky and Kafka. He published his first piece of fiction, a short story, as a student in 1947.
His writing was guided by leftist political views, forged largely by a 1928 military massacre near Aracataca of banana workers striking against United Fruit Co., which later became Chiquita.
He was also influenced by the assassination two decades later of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a leftist presidential candidate.
He lived in Europe then 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.
Feud with Llosa
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, the writer moved to Mexico City.
Garcia Marquez famously feuded with Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who punched him in a 1976 fight outside a movie theater.
“A great man has died, one whose works gave the literature of our language great reach and prestige,” Vargas Llosa said Thursday.
Fame and wealth
Struggling with poverty through much of his adult life, Garcia Marquez was somewhat transformed by his fame and wealth. A bon vivant with an impish personality, he was a gracious host who recounted long stories to guests.
Garcia Marquez turned down offers of diplomatic posts and spurned attempts to draft him to run for president.
In his 70s, he bought a majority interest in the newsmagazine Cambio with his Nobel prize money. He fell ill with lymphatic cancer the next year.
“I’m a journalist. I’ve always been a journalist,” he said. “My books couldn’t have been written if I weren’t a journalist because all the material was taken from reality.” AP and AFP