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Scot with the ear of one of life's great minds

WHEN the death was announced of the great Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, my thoughts turned immediately to my, and his, old friend Alastair Reid.

Born in Whithorn in 1926, Alastair, a son of the manse, is a literary expatriate, one of life's itinerants. After serving in the Second World War, he knew he wanted to travel and live in sunnier climes. First, he settled in Deya, Majorca, where he was part of Robert Graves's menagerie. Later, having become fluent in Spanish, he forged a relationship with the New Yorker magazine and its editor William Shawn, who gave him carte blanche to write about whatever took his fancy.

It was to Latin America that Alastair was drawn. For many years he owned a small ginger farm in the Dominican Republic near the beach at Samana where Christopher Columbus made landfall on his fabled, 15th-century voyage of discovery.

Alastair was at home among the natives, being blessed, as few Scots are, with the ear of an interested listener. The longer he lived in the DR the more he empathised with his neighbours, coming to see history and the absurd excesses of western "civilis­ation" from their perspective. Like Colum­bus, Alastair was an intruder, but not of the sort whose raison d'etre is to exploit indigen­ous people. On the contrary, he embraced them and their lifestyle and their culture. Like RLS in Samoa, he came to be regarded as one of them and was known as Alejandro.

In his peerless, perfectly crafted essays for the New Yorker, Alastair gave glimpses into a way of being that was both desirable and enviable. Suspended in a hammock, he would read or write or think. It was a simple, largely stress-free and eventless life. From time to time, however, he would make trips to Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Chile and Argentina, ostensibly to research pieces for the New Yorker. In such countries it was natural that he make contact with other writers, to many of whom he became close, including Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda.

In those days, the 1960s and 1970s, they were not as well known in the English-speaking world as they were to become a decade or so later. Alastair, himself a poet of distinction, translated many poems by Borges and Neruda. Once, in 1971, he brought blind Borges to Scotland and took him to St Andrews, where Alastair was then encamped. They would take walks along the shore and Borges would recite the Border ballads from memory. On another occasion, when Alastair had a houseboat on the Thames, he had a party and invited many of the most prominent Latin and South American writers. Had it sunk, he told me, that would have been the end of any talk of magical realism.

His memories of Garcia Marquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude are contained in his essay Basilisk's Eggs. Alastair described Marquez's masterpiece as "a total novel", both in its subject matter and its form. "Throughout the torrential progress of the book," he wrote, "time is both foreseen and remembered, its natural sequence disrupted by premonition and recurrence. Magical happenings, supernatural perceptions, miracles and cataclysmic disasters are so closely attendant on characters and events that the book seems to contain all human history compressed into the vicissitudes of a village ... "

How often Alastair saw Garcia Marquez I can't say. Often enough, I guess. Mexico, where the Nobel laureate lived latterly, is one of Alastair's favourite countries, and many are the months he spent there over the years. His home, however, is in Greenwich Village where he and his wife have a bijou apartment, on the mantelpiece of which is an ornamental parrot, a gift from Garcia Marquez.

The apartment would be besieged by books were it not for the fact that for a new book to be admitted an old one must go. One Hundred Years of Solitude, we can assume, is in with the bricks. It is a novel in which every­one who reads it finds something or someone they recognise. When it was published in Germany, Garcia Marquez told Alastair, he received a letter from a woman in Bavaria threatening legal action on the grounds he had plagiarised her family history - confirmation that fiction cannot compete for strangeness with real life.

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