One Hundred Years of Solitude

100 years of solitudeThis novel, written in 1967 by Gabriel García Márquez, is the story of seven generations of the Buendía family, growing into their strange maturity in the isolated town of Macondo in the Colombian rainforest. The founding patriarch of the town, Jose Arcadio Buendía, leaves his home town with his wife (and first cousin) Ursula and heads into the jungle. One night, he dreams of Macondo, a city of mirrors that reflects the world around it. In the morning, he begins to build the city. Soon after its foundation, Macondo becomes a town regularly (and recurrently) visited by strange, unbelievable, and even absurd incidents, all of which involve the generations of the Buendía family and their mostly-self-inflicted misfortunes. At the end, a hurricane — another cyclical torment — destroys Macondo, city of mirrors, just at the moment when the last living Buendía is discovering that all of the events of the last hundred years have been foretold in an undecipherable code.

One Hundred Years of Solitude presents itself as a kind of funhouse reflection of real events (remember the mirrors!), a tightly-compressed version of Colombian history from its founding to the present. García Márquez takes on all sorts of national myth, from colonization to war to industrialization to exploitation under the United Fruit Company. But despite (or perhaps because of) the emphasis on commerce, war, fortune, and the incursions of technology, this book is deeply rooted in the domestic: this is a novel of women’s lives as well. The comparison that keeps coming to mind is War and Peace, because of that fine balance between the traditionally masculine and feminine spheres, but García Márquez is, of course, deeply influenced by Modernism: here the past is no place for nostalgia, but rather a place for satire and parody, for the matter-of-fact terrors of magical realism, and even for ghosts.

I’ve never been much disconcerted by magical realism, mostly because I’ve done a lot of reading of medieval works. In the Middle Ages, people ascend into heaven, people are tried by fire and come out unscathed, witches and wizards affect the course of human events, the relics of saints heal the sick and bring down lightning on sinners. All of this is a matter of course, just as part of the world view of those writing the works and their audience. Metaphor and symbolism become fact. Magical realism seems to me to be very much heir to this tradition, as in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Macondo is a city of ice and mirrors, doomed to reflect and be destroyed; Remedios the Beauty is so wise and lovely that she levitates into heaven while folding the laundry; joyful sex brings about prosperity. Sure, of course, why not.

I haven’t mentioned one of the most obvious things about the book, which is that everyone’s named the same thing in it. Names in the Buendía family recur, just as mistakes and symbols and regrets recur: Jose, Arcadio, Aureliano, Remedios, Amaranta, Ursula. There are, I think, more than twenty Aurelianos in this book. Why people complain about the names in Russian novels I will never know.

Solitude is, of course, a major theme in the book. I read someone saying somewhere that solitude is an evil, and of course it often is, such as when Rebeca isolates herself for the rest of her life after her husband’s sudden and mysterious death, or when Meme is sent to a convent after her love affair with Mauricio Bablionia. But there are also moments when García Márquez refers to solitude as the equivalent of love, and still other moments when a Buendía shuts himself up in Melquíades’ room in order to study the encrypted parchments, and stays there perhaps for years. Isolation can be peace as well as exile, and it is certainly a mixed blessing (or curse) for Macondo itself.

It took me a long, long time to warm up to this book (a function, perhaps, of the translation, by Gregory Rabassa — or perhaps of the fact that I was trying to read a very challenging book during the busiest two weeks of my year.) All the time, however, I could sense that there was an absurd, tumbling, fascinating classic underneath the book I wasn’t getting on with: Colonel Aureliano Buendía making his tiny gold fishes, melting them, and remaking them; Fernanda and her invisible doctors; old, blind Ursula telling the time by the smell of the house. I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, and it’s still with me: the way history is compressed and twisted and turned, gorgeously nonlinear with its zigzags and leaps; the strongly-felt war scenes and the equally strongly-felt front porch and sewing machines. This is a book — and it’s built into its very bones — to return to.

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23 Responses to One Hundred Years of Solitude

  1. Jeane says:

    I read this first in high school and found it both confounding and enthralling. There was something very emotional about the characters’ concerns, and I had never read any magical realism before so I was entranced with some of the imagery. I tried to read it once again and concentrating more on the very spread-out and warped timeline/storyline only confounded me. I was really frustrated with the multiple use of the same names, over and over! Yet I’ve kept a copy on my shelf because I do feel it is a rich, multilevel work I want to delve into again someday.

    • Jenny says:

      I found the names difficult, too, but it was worth working past the confusion. There are such vivid scenes in the book — ones that recur and recur — that it seems valuable to ask why Marquez chose to do what he did with the names.

  2. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I’ve always been afraid of this one, as I’m not big on magical realism. I also like to know who everyone is. Hmmm. It’s on my ‘I feel I ought to’ list!

    • Jenny says:

      I had a wonderful experience reading Love in the Time of Cholera, which has a narrative arc that is much easier to follow than this one. (Still some magical realism, but not nearly as much, and a far more linear plot.) This one was weirder and more chaotic, but I still thought it was quite astonishing.

      • vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

        That sounds more like it. Sort of sad to be linearly minded tho’! ;-)

      • Jenny says:

        Know thyself. :) I never think you “ought to” like anything in particular. Reading is for pleasure, and for learning more about the human heart, both at once.

  3. Have you read, Jenny, The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier? It functions as a kind of link between García Márquez and French Modernism, including Surrealism. This is almost what Carpentier’s novel is about, as if he knew García Márquez was coming.

    Also, the butterflies in One Hundred Years are flew in from Carpentier’s book.

    I like that you emphasize the “realism” side of the book, the response, however distorted or parodied, to Colombian history. I had to re-read the novel to even see that any of that was in it.

    What issue did you have with the translation? It is kind of a legendary one – better than the original, Gabo supposedly said.

    • Jenny says:

      I hadn’t even heard of the Carpentier, but I’ll put it on my list. It sounds like the perfect next step.

      I’m interested that you say the translation is supposed to be wonderful. Perhaps I am looking for the translation of a book that doesn’t exist, then: I wanted it to be funnier, wilder, less formal. Maybe the formal tone is necessary to balance the weirdness? But I wanted to embrace the weirdness.

      Translation issues are so complex. P&V point out that a “smooth” translation, one you can fall into and enjoy, is not always desirable; many authors don’t write in a smooth way in their native tongue. Imagine translating Dickens and making him smooth! So I may have wanted something from Rabassa’s translation (not smoothness this time but something else) that the original didn’t have to give.

  4. Alex says:

    Jenny, you might just have given me the key to reading magical realism. It is a genre I have never been able to get on with, but if I try equating it to medieval texts then that might just work. I shall have to give that a try. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • Jenny says:

      It occurred to me as soon as I read my first book that had elements of magical realism in it, perhaps because I had just read Tristan et Iseut. Love potions! Trials! Fantastic escapes! Swords in bed! Why not, why not.

  5. Melinda says:

    I tried to read this book, but ended up DNF’ing it :(

    • Jenny says:

      It was certainly challenging. I wish I’d read it during the summer, when I had more brain space. But I wound up getting a lot out of it nonetheless.

  6. rebeccareid says:

    Wonderful post. Amen to all you say. I love this book!

  7. Peggy says:

    I read this book many years ago (in the Rabassa translation), and I still recall how utterly transported I was. Once I got on an elevator at the 10th floor and started reading it and by the time I’d gotten down to the lobby, I’d forgotten where I was. Perhaps because of that I’ve never reread it for fear of being disappointed.

    • Jenny says:

      If you were so enthralled the first time, I can’t imagine you’d be disappointed; this seems like a book that would really reward re-reading.

  8. lcorby says:

    Nice review, thank you. Came here having read another review you did on Amazon, and I think you might like to take a look at my autobiography ‘Bad Blood’ and maybe review it, it is the true story behind ‘Come to Grief’ by Dick Francis http://www.amazon.com/Bad-Blood-ebook/dp/B004CRTEFO You see I did loose my daughter to cancer, I did the real life investigation into a close friends crimes and Oh so much more than this. Thank you for letting me comment here it is much appreciated :-).

  9. Melissa says:

    I have been meaning to read this for years, but for some reason I’m incredibly intimidated by it. I think I just need to go into it with the right attitude. Great review!

  10. Margarita says:

    This is one of my all-time favorite books! I’ve re-read it quite a few times and always find something new… And I’m fortunate that my first language is Spanish, so I’ve read the original version :)

  11. Pingback: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez | The Sleepless Reader

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