E. EDUARDO CASTILLO
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- 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.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wrote in a tweet, "Affection and admiration for the essential and universal writer of Spanish literature in the second half of the twentieth century."
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 center.
Colombia's ambassador to Mexico, Jose Gabriel Ortiz, suggested to reporters that the author's ashes could be divided between Mexico and Colombia but there was no official confirmation that the family has agreed to the idea.
"There will be a portion (of the ashes) in Mexico, of course, and I would like to think that another portion could be taken later to Colombia," he said. "We Colombians would like to do that tribute, to have part of his ashes resting over there."
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 favorites 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.