MEXICO CITY - His death mourned around the globe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is being hailed as a giant of modern literature, a writer of intoxicating novels and short stories that illuminated Latin America's passions, superstition, violence and social inequality.
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. He died at his home in Mexico City on Thursday afternoon 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 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 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.
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."
The writer's family planned a private ceremony to mark his passing and said his body would be cremated. Mexico's government scheduled a public memorial for Monday in the art deco Palace of Fine Arts in the capital's historic centre.
"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 Garcia Marquez's home.
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.
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.
Garcia Marquez, among writers such as Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, was also an early practitioner of literary nonfiction 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 favourites from the time I was young," U.S. President Barack Obama said.
Garcia Marquez 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 Garcia Marquez'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," Garcia Marquez once told an interviewer.
Sent to a state-run boarding school just outside Bogota, he became a star student and voracious reader, favouring 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.
Garcia Marquez'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 neighbour 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.
Garcia Marquez famously feuded with Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who punched him in a 1976 fight outside a Mexico City movie theatre. 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 TV interview, his voice shaking and face hidden by sunglasses and a baseball cap.
Struggling with poverty through much of his adult life, Garcia Marquez 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.
Garcia Marquez 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."
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo reported this story in Mexico City and Frank Bajak reported from Lima, Peru. AP writers Paul Haven and Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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