Gabriel García Márquez's magical realist novels and short stories exposed millions of readers to Latin America's passion, superstition, violence and inequality. Widely considered the most popular Spanish-language writer since Miguel de Cervantes in the 17th century, he achieved literary celebrity that spawned comparisons to Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.
Even as the family of the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez were making funeral arrangements, many people were still catching up to the news of the literary great's death in Mexico City at the age of 87. The official cause of death was a lung infection.
"For all of us, the maestro has passed," Cuban-American novelist Cristina García, the author of "Dreaming in Cuban" and "King of Cuba," told Fox News Latino late Thursday. "No one else taught us as much about narrative possibility and the humor that comes with wisdom. No one else encouraged us, by example, to explore the rich transplants and grafts of invention."
The writer's family – his wife Mércedes and his two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo – planned a private ceremony to mark his passing and said he would be cremated. The government of Mexico planned to hold a public memorial for García Márquez on Monday in the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In García Márquez’s native Colombia, the government declared three days of mourning and bestowed the highest honors on “a writer who changed the lives of his readership,” according to the decree. “All Colombia is in mourning,” it added.
Widely 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.
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 landmark 1967 novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude" sold more than 50 million copies in more than 25 languages and was a major part of the so-called "Boom" in Latin American fiction.
Along with other writers from the region – like Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa, the Argentinian Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes from Mexico – García Márquez helped draw the literary world's attention to Latin America, and helped define a new, native style of literature: magical realism.
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 that 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."
"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.
"It's a loss for all Spanish-language literature," said Monica Hernandez, a 28-year-old fan who laid a bouquet of light-pink flowers on the doorstep of García Márquez's home.
When he accepted the Nobel prize for literature in 1982, García Márquez 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.
Like many Latin American writers, 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.
García Márquez, among writers such as Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, was also an early practitioner of literary nonfiction that is now known as New Journalism. He became an elder statesman of Latin American journalism, with magisterial works of nonfiction that included the "Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor," the tale of a seaman lost on a life raft for 10 days.
Other nonfiction pieces profiled Venezuela's larger-than-life president, Hugo Chavez, and vividly portrayed how cocaine traffickers led by Pablo Escobar shredded the social and moral fabric of the writer's native Colombia. In 1994, he founded the Iberoamerican Foundation for New Journalism, which offers training and competitions to raise the standard of narrative and investigative journalism across Latin America.
"The world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers — and one of my favorites from the time I was young," U.S. President Barack Obama said.
García Márquez was born in Aracataca, a small town near Colombia's 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.
Just after his birth, his parents left him with his maternal grandparents and moved to Barranquilla to open a pharmacy. He spent 10 years with 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 provided grist for García Márquez's fiction and Aracataca became the model for "Macondo," the village surrounded by banana plantations 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 — ever since I could speak," García Márquez once told an interviewer.
Sent to a state-run boarding school just outside Bogota, he became a star student and voracious reader, favoring Hemingway, Faulkner, Dostoevsky and Kafka. He published his first piece of fiction as a student in 1947, mailing a short story to the newspaper El Espectador.
García Márquez's father insisted he study law but he dropped out, bored, and dedicated himself to journalism.
His writing was constantly guided by his leftist political views, forged in large part by a 1928 military massacre near Aracataca of banana workers striking against United Fruit Co., which later became Chiquita. He was also greatly influenced by the assassination two decades later of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a galvanizing leftist presidential candidate.
He lived several years 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.
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, which was his main home for the rest of his life.
García Márquez famously feuded with Vargas Llosa, who punched him in a 1976 fight outside a Mexico City movie theater. Neither ever publicly discussed the reason for the altercation.
"A great man has died, one whose works gave the literature of our language great reach and prestige," Vargas Llosa said Thursday in a television interview, his voice shaking and face hidden by sunglasses and a baseball cap.
Struggling with poverty through much of his adult life, García Márquez was somewhat transformed by his later fame and wealth. A bon vivant with an impish personality, he was a gracious host who animatedly recounted long stories to guests.
He spent more time in Colombia in his later years, founding the journalism institute in the walled colonial port city of Cartagena, where he kept a home.
García Márquez turned down offers of diplomatic posts and spurned attempts to draft him to run for Colombia's presidency, though he did get involved in peace mediation efforts between the government and leftist rebels.
In 1998, already in his 70s, he fulfilled a lifelong dream by buying a majority interest in the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio with his Nobel prize money. Before falling ill with lymphatic cancer the next year, he contributed prodigiously to the magazine.
"I'm a journalist. I've always been a journalist," he told the AP at the time. "My books couldn't have been written if I weren't a journalist because all the material was taken from reality."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.