Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude

May 5, 2014

9780060531041

After his death the other week, I told myself it was time to re-read Marquez’ classic One Hundred Years of Solitude; imagine my surprise on taking my copy down from the bookshelf, when I discovered it was twenty years since I’d last read it… and I’d been recommending it to friends and students alike all that time, on my memory of the book alone.

So I re-read it, and it’s still brilliant. I found myself comparing it with Love in the Time of Cholera, which I’ve re-read more recently: the former has a much broader scope: a town, a huge family, a century, whereas the latter, though covering many years in the story, seems more narrowly focussed on a group of people, and especially, the intensity of personal relationships. I felt that One Hundred Years was a more youthful, a more playful novel, whereas Love felt like a work of more mature years, more reflective, and, in my memory, more expressive in its language and imagery. I think I might find it harder to say which was the better (if that means anything!) of the two novels.

Everyone says ‘magic realism’ when Marquez comes to mind, and it’s useful genre shorthand, but what does it mean? what is it, exactly? It’s not a fantasy world, in the Tolkein vein, though the setting counts as ‘exotic’ for the Western reader, perhaps (there were times when events in the novel, such as the civil wars and the banana plantation, reminded me of Conrad‘s Nostromo, with its civil wars and silver mine). The sequence of narration is not always linear, but that’s not exclusive to magic realism. The characters seem real, plausible, as do the events and places, but somehow – I think partly through a lyrical written style – Marquez manages to weave in increasingly unlikely happenings and have his reader accept them as part of the story, and eventually some completely impossible events occur, and we are so enmeshed, so drawn in, that we continue… yet the characters never become completely unreal.

In Macondo, which is totally cut off from the rest of the world, travellers arrive with new objects and discoveries, and these amaze and captivate the innocent inhabitants; some of these things verge on the fantastical, or seem like magic to the townspeople; though we know they aren’t, we partake of their sense of wonder, and we are not surprised when a person becomes obsessed with one of them. The story focusses on the Buendia family and its increasingly bizarre descendants – perhaps partially explained by intermarriage and even incest – some of whom are mad, some visionary, some very old: these last eventually becoming ancient caricatures of their original selves, adding to the sense of strangeness, but also endearing us to them because of their permanence. I am still unable to fathom what Marquez is suggesting through the character of the ageing matriarch Ursula, or Colonel Aureliano of the thirty-two civil wars and the gold fish, but there is something about the cyclical nature of time (which leads to the great cleverness of the ending which leaps on you unexpected and left me breathless) and the impossibility of really achieving anything permanent.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work of genius (I think I’ve read it four times now and my feelings haven’t changed) and I’d agree with whichever critic it was whorecently said it was the most important or best novel written in Spanish in the twentieth century. It retains its place in my top three novels of all time.

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