This 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.