MEXICO CITY: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel-winning Colombian author who used magical realism to tell epic stories of love, family and dictatorship in Latin America, died Thursday at the age of 87.
Known affectionately as "Gabo," the author of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera" became one of the most popular Latin American novelists in the world and the godfather of a literary movement that witnessed a continent in turmoil.
The journalist was a colorful character who befriended Cuban leader Fidel Castro, got punched by fellow Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and joked that he wrote so that his friends would love him.
"One thousand years of solitude and sadness for the death of the greatest Colombian of all time," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos wrote on Twitter.
The writer had made fewer public appearances in recent years and was hospitalized for pneumonia on March 31, returning to his Mexico City home a week later to recover there.
The cause of death was not immediately known. Mexican media said his wife Mercedes and two sons were by his side at home.
Born March 6, 1927, in the village of Aracataca on Colombia's Caribbean coast, Garcia Marquez was the son of a telegraph operator.
He was raised by his grandparents and aunts in a tropical culture influenced by the heritage of Spanish settlers, indigenous populations and black slaves. His grandfather was a retired colonel.
The exotic legends of his homeland inspired him to write profusely, including his masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," which was translated into 35 languages and sold more than 30 million copies.
The book, published in 1967, is a historical and literary saga about a family from the imaginary Caribbean village of Macondo between the 19th and 20th century -- a novel that turned the man with the mustache and thick eyebrows into an international star.
'Without a penny'
Garcia Marquez wrote the novel after moving to Mexico City in 1961, taking a long bus ride from New York with his wife, Mercedes Barcha, and son Rodrigo.
His second son, Gonzalo, was born a year later in the Mexican capital, where he lived for more than three decades.
He liked to say that he arrived in Mexico City "without a name or a penny in my pocket."
The writer faced financial hardship, working for advertising agencies, penning screenplays and editing small magazines.
"As long as there was whisky, there was no misery," Garcia Marquez quipped.
He owed nine months of rent payments when he penned "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and could only afford to send half of his manuscript to his editor in Argentina.
Later, the author realized that he had sent the final half of the book, forcing him to scramble to find more money to send the rest.
Garcia Marquez wore a white liqui-liqui, a traditional costume with a high collar from his region, to receive his Nobel prize in Sweden in 1982.
The Nobel committee rewarded him for books "in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflicts."
In his Nobel speech, the writer said it was the "outsized reality" of brutal dictatorships and civil wars in Latin America, "and not just its literary expression," that got the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters.
His other famous books include "Chronicle of a Death Foretold," "The General in His Labyrinth" and his autobiography "Living to Tell the Tale."
His final novel, "Memories of My Melancholy Whores," was published in 2004.
Journalist, Castro friend
Garcia Marquez studied law but abandoned it to pursue journalism, which he considered "the most beautiful profession in the world."
He founded the Iberian-American New Journalism Foundation in the Colombian port city of Cartagena in 1994.
His first job was with Bogota's El Espectador newspaper, which published his first short story in 1947, paying him 800 pesos, or less than $0.50 per month.
He went on assignment in Europe after writing an article that angered the military regime at the time. He lived in Geneva, Rome and Paris, where he finished the book "No One Writes to the Colonel," which was published in 1961.
An admirer of Cuba's revolution, he became a correspondent for the communist island's Prensa Latina news agency in Bogota and New York.
He forged a controversial friendship with Castro, who called him "a man with the goodness of a child and a cosmic talent."
In Mexico, his circle of friends included famous Mexican writers Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes.
"I write so that my friends will love me," the novelist quipped.
Garcia Marquez was once friends with Vargas Llosa, but they had a falling out that culminated with the Peruvian novelist punching him outside a Mexico City movie theater in 1976.
"We were completely stunned and astonished," Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska recalled in an interview with AFP.
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