GABRIEL Garcia Marquez once claimed that his favourite book was the first he ever wrote.

The novella Leaf Storm, he said, was his "most sincere and spontaneous". It was largely for his magisterial One Hundred Years of Solitude, however, that he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and for which he will be best remembered, despite the enduring popularity of his tragicomic romance, Love in the Time of Cholera.

A novel that almost brought his family to penury while he was writing it, One Hundred Years of Solitude towers over 20th-century fiction, a monument to a writer whose imagination was forged as a child in his grandparents' eccentric Colombian house. Garcia Marquez's fiction in this, and all his novels, managed both to combine intensely personal stories with the larger tale of his country, and of all Latin America as it struggled in times past, as it does today, against poverty, corruption, and dictatorial regimes. No writer in Spanish has had greater influence since Cervantes, and with the exception of the Bible, no works in that language have sold more prolifically than his.

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Garcia Marquez said that nothing of much importance happened to him after the age of eight, when he left the "lunatic house" where he grew up, later to be reunited with his parents. Devoted to his ardently socialist colonel grandfather and to a grandmother who could not know the influence her storytelling would have on her awestruck grandson, he later described her as a woman who "treated the extraordinary as something perfectly natural". Her stamp lay upon One Hundred Years of Solitude as if she had signed every page. In this tale of several generations of a family in a small fictional town, similar to Aracataca where Garcia Marquez was brought up, the novelist adopted the technique of magical realism and turned it into something uniquely persuasive and believable. In his mind, and that of his readers, however, there was nothing supernatural about his stories, which merely reflected the complex reality of private and political life in his country.

Novelist William Kennedy was in hyperbolic mood when he opined that the novel was "the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race". Nevertheless, his enthusiasm reflects the awe this exuberantly melancholy work has inspired, and continues to generate, with each new wave of readers.

So great is its influence that some have likened Garcia Marquez to Dickens - a difficult comparison as Dickens's oeuvre is so much greater and Garcia Marquez's so relatively recent. What is not in doubt is that very few literary careers of the past half century have surpassed that of the man Latin America calls "el maestro", and even fewer books have exceeded the status of his magnum opus.