One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I was debating whether to post my thoughts on this book, which I was glad I read but which I did not like very much. After reading the “Fired from the Canon” piece, I thought I may as well. I agree that ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE can safely be jettisoned from “the canon” or, at least, not be foisted upon unsuspecting readers.

OneHundredYearsThis go at Marquez’s masterpiece was my second attempt. The first time, I quit after having lost track of whether Jose Arcadio Buendia, Auereliano Buendia, Jose Arcadio, Aureliano Jose, Arcadio, Aureliano Segundo, Jose Arcadio Segundo, the other Jose Arcadio, or one of the other two Aurelianos…what was I saying? Anyway, these are the main male cast members. There is a little more variety among the principal women: three named Remedios (Moscote, the Beauty, Renata), an Amaranta, an Ursala, an Amaranta Ursala, a Rebecca, a Pilar, and a Sofia. The key is to sort them by generation and jiggle the handle.

So, Marquez pulled off the delightful feat of naming all his characters while only using a total of about five names. This does wonders for the environment, but it is extremely annoying. Combined with the rampant familial love, and I mean that in the unfortunate biblical sense rather than the “Little House on the Prairie” sense, I suppose it is some sort of political commentary. I get it, but it still is wearingly tiresome remembering which Jose Arcadio (or was it one of the Aureliano boys?) touched the ice. The redundant naming goes in the list of things that do not work for me. I will remember the device, but not fondly.

Nomenclature aside, I had already, before cracking this book, unfairly predetermined that magical realism is not my bag. Why even read this book then? The author won a Nobel, the book is considered a masterpiece…by people, I once thought I “should” read it. All I can say is that you ought to have better reasons than I did.

There are a few. This book does create its own world. I am not knowledgeable enough to say whether South America feels like this or to get all the inside South American references that I am sure were tucked in there, but the world inside ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE is a fully realized, if magical, world. Marquez made legendary the moment he came upon the voice for the novel. The voice incorporates his grandmother’s storytelling technique which, he explained, was to relate even the most fantastic and unbelievable events the same way she related facts. The book is fairly unique among my reading experiences. When a book can do that for you, it has achieved something.

There are also some gems in the book that I enjoyed. At one point, gypsies have come to Macondo and are putting on a circus. Jose Arca….A father has taken his children to see the wonders the gypsies have brought. His children coax him to pay their entrance into a tent where a giant guards a pirate chest. The contents of the pirate chest are the attraction:

When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars. Disconcerted, knowing that the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, Jose Arcadio Buendia ventured a murmur:

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”

Jose Arcadio Buendia, without understanding, stretched out his hand toward the cake, but the giant moved it away. “Five reales more to touch it,” he said. Jose Arcadio paid them and put his hand on the ice and held it there for several minutes as his heart filled with fear and jubilation at the contact with mystery. Without knowing what to say, he paid ten reales more so that his sons could have that prodigious experience. Little Jose Arcadio refused to touch it. Aureliano, on the other hand, took a step forward and put his hand on it, withdrawing it immediately. “It’s boiling,” he exclaimed, startled. But his father paid no attention to him…[The father] paid another five reales and with his hand on the cake, as if giving testimony on the holy scriptures, he exclaimed:

“This is the great invention of our time.”

It’s a good scene. Apparently, it is largely autobiographical. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s father took him to a traveling circus where the little Gabriel saw and touched ice for the first time. I would have liked more of these. Of course, even here, Marquez puts in a little of the ridiculous. Here the ridiculous is kind of funny. Vonnegut and Heller did great things with the ridiculous. Marquez’s ridiculous is more often merely ridiculous rather than ridiculously funny. Or maybe it is my sense of humor. Such things are very much matters of personal taste.

Some of the more magical scenes work too. There is a strike at a local factory, many people are shot and killed, the whole thing is completely covered up, and only one of our Jose Arcadio Aureliano Buendia/Segundo characters seems to know it ever happened. At least, no one else will acknowledge it or believe him when he tells the story. The magic works because many people were “disappeared” in South America, though rarely en masse. The magical works to enhance in some sense the realism. The ability of politically and economically powerful to disappear so many was (is) almost magical, particularly when their power also enabled them to rewrite history as if the disappeared never existed in the first place, and for those with firsthand knowledge to acquiesce to the re-written history. Perhaps, only magical realism can get at this particular political history or, if not the history, then certain truths within that history.

Other times, the magical overwhelms the realism. Perhaps the intended audience is more susceptible to magical thinking or is more imaginative than I am, but with magic, like, say, a name, too much of it can suffocate a story.

This is a political book. His targets are often capitalists and despots and career generals. He has good points. South America has had, if not its share, then more than enough dictators, corrupt leaders, and exploitation of the many by the few. Marquez explores this rich history and, I think, has something to say about it. Something important. Wars are fought for money, for power, and, importantly, sometimes only for the sake of warring because the combatants know little else. Opposition becomes opposition for the sake of opposition. The people fighting continue to fight because they are good at it and they are somebody while warring. End of war, end of stature. Marquez does address big topics and, more, does capture the tiresomeness of continual fighting, particularly to the commoners who have no say and generally suffer the most.

OneHundredYears2In addition to the big issues, the book also delves into one family’s life in one, small, backwater town, Macondo. I had trouble becoming engaged in the characters’ lives. Some were chained to trees for many years. Others lived in a single room for many years. Sure, they did not have pigs’ tails, but disbelief can only be suspended so far. I simply tired of the whole thing.

My complaint is not about characters who are not likeable, it is about characters to whom it is difficult to relate. They do not act believably. They do the impossible. Not always, but often enough that the story loses pull, my interest in the outcomes of their dilemmas flagged.

The same goes for the town. Most of the events were simply too outrageous to have much interest for me. The town felt more like a manufactured setting than a town. As a manufactured setting, it does have some value as allegorical/metaphorical device, but Marquez tried to have his allegory do too much. Or, perhaps, it was simply too much for me. That’s always possible.

I think this book is important. Perhaps not for what it is, but for what it has become. It has obviously influenced a number of other important writers and, for that reason alone, undoubtedly has a place in literary history. Whether it is great, I am undecided. I know I am very unlikely to ever re-read it. Of course, I am allergic to magical realism.

Having said that, I did enjoy Bulgakov’s THE MASTER AND MARGARITA with its own magic. I may have been more open to it because I had already fallen for Bulgakov and his WHITE GUARD. But too, Bulgakov’s magical masterpiece works in a way that ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE did not. Bulgakov’s magic is not simply a gee-whiz device, but truly serves to irradiate a dark and deep subject. Perhaps there is more to ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, but I am unashamed to say I missed it.

I am glad I read it, but I did not enjoy it. Your result may vary. For those who have not read it yet, do not blame me if you choose to give it a try. I am with The Second Pass on this: Fire it from the canon.

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One Response to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

  1. […] a number of her descendants are also named Dorothy. Don’t worry, this is not a retelling of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Or, maybe it […]

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