It is difficult to know where to start with a book like this. I see little point in divulging any details of the plot as, for one, I do not believe the nuts and bolts of the narrative are as important as the language, the philosophy, and the general feeling of the novel. It would also take far too much time and although I’ve not long finished reading it, I’m absolutely certain that I would miss certain key elements as the tale is long and dense and detailed.
So instead, let’s start with the author.
Gabriel García Márquez was born in Aracataca, Columbia in 1928. His parents had a difficult, but romantic coupling. His mother’s father, a Colonel, did not approve of their relationship, but they were not to be kept apart. She was wooed with violin serenades and poetry. Neither his mother or father were particularly involved in Márquez’s early life. He was raised by his maternal grandparents, and thus by the Colonel, a liberal veteran of the Thousand Day’s War, a conflict which arose from the Liberal Party’s revolt against the ruling Conservative Party in the face of political turmoil and economic instability. The Colonel was married to Doña Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes, a woman who supposedly treated the supernatural as the natural, who stated mystical stories as if they fell in line with accepted truths. Between them they instilled Gabriel García Márquez with a supernatural view of the world, but also with an intimate knowledge of the weight of war, of death, and of killing. He studied Law at university and eventually began a career in journalism which would lead him to report, and assist, in the coup d’état in Venezuela in 1958.
But, the story goes, he always desired to write a novel. Particularly, he wanted to write a novel about his grandparents’ house. When the idea on how to finally start this novel struck him, he was driving his family to Acapulco. He turned the car around and returned his family home. He sold the car, and for eighteen months he wrote. His family struggled, receiving food on credit from the local butcher, and rent on credit from their landlord.
When he was finally finished the world received One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was extremely popular and helped Márquez win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. With such popularity, both critically and commercially, you can expect than many different analysists have had their say on what the complicated tale of several generations of the Buendía family in the fictional rural Columbian town of Macondo means.
Certainly, there is a lot to unpack. Love, war, incest, jealousy, political corruption, technological advance, magic.
Perhaps something there seems out of place, but the, erm, magic of One Hundred Years of Solitude is how Márquez – like his Grandmother before him – treats magical events as if they are the commonplace. When a girl ascends to the heavens, in a literal sense, it is without fanfare. It just happens, for the author, and for his characters. However, early in the story when a character is shown ice for the first time, the experience is so powerful that it remains with him for the rest of his life. Indeed, it is the subject of the famous first line of the novel:
‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’
This novel is the seminal work in the broad realm of Magical Realism, a style of fiction which is not concerned with the construction of new, fantastical worlds for stories to inhabit, but in the uncovering of the magical in the everyday, and in invading the existing world with the supernatural.
It is a style which can be, at first, jarring. When Márquez drops a reference to flying carpets I was forced to re-read the sentence. It is done with a certain off-hand manner, yes, of course flying carpets exist here, he seems to say, why wouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t they?
With the added context of Márquez’s background, you can see this world as one imagined through the eyes of a child. This novel is the story of his grandparent’s house, a place where his grandfather told stories of war, and his grandmother told stories of the mystical, both with the kind of assuredness which a child could never question. There, the terrible truths of the world are accompanied by the fantastical lies which humanity has told itself over the centuries to seek comfort, explanation, but made true, made real.
Yet, it only takes a quick glance at Goodreads to see that certain portions of the modern audience are not entirely taken with the idea, and some of their criticisms are difficult to rebuke.
One reviewer writes:
‘I know that other people love this book and more power to them, I’ve tried to read it all the way through three different times and never made it past 250 pages before I get so bored keeping up with all the births, deaths, magical events and mythical legends.’
They make a fine point, really. The Buendía family tree is long and complex, and they have a slightly irritating habit of naming children after those who have come before, making it difficult to know exactly who the bloody hell Márquez is talking about at any given moment.
Despite this, the book still has a solid 4-star rating, which, on a site which allows any old sod to turn up and slap a score on a text, is pretty damn fine. So how do we get past the complications? How can we look past the genealogical nightmare which is the Buendía family tree?
Well, I don’t think we do.
It seems like most of the negative reviews for this book are written around the half way mark of the novel, and I must say I was considering putting stop to my own efforts around that moment as well. I felt lost, as if I had no idea where the novel was going and could hardly recall where it had been. Not only that, but when I considered analysing the text, I felt completely unqualified and unprepared to discuss the sometimes-disturbing subject manner which Márquez broaches with impunity throughout. But I persevered, and as I closed the book, finished after several weeks of sometimes arduous reading, I was left loving the novel.
At some point I realised that it didn’t really matter if I could recall who had come before, how each character necessarily related to each other, or if I could easily differentiate between the dense cobweb of names, as that wasn’t what the book was about. I simply relaxed and took each chapter for what it was, letting the poetic prose wash over me, allowing each surprising magical twist to woo me.
Do I know exactly what the book is about?
Do I know what this book means?
Did I enjoy it?
I suppose in many ways it left me with more questions than answers, and questions which are not even particularly easy to word at that. It left me thinking about the nature of time, of individuality, of relationships. All that I found to be good and all that I found to be bad about the novel built into these feelings, these questions. The naming-decisions made by the family are probably realistic to what Márquez knew in real life, but in the construction of the novel it serves to obscure the individuality of each character and makes foggy the passage of time, and for all the frustrations I had around the mid-mark of the novel eventually I think it makes this a better book than if every character had been given a name which served as an indelible mark of singularity. Instead of a series of clearly defined characters we have a sea of life. Physical and personal traits wash from one family member to another through the current of time, leaving you with the same impression that the family matron Úrsula has, that time is no straight arrow, but a circle.
For all the deep impressions this book has made on me, my research into Márquez’s life has transformed my feelings on his novel. This is his life, his family, his friends, told through the boundless eye of a child convinced that there is magic in the world. I could sit all day and pontificate and ponder the philosophy of the novel, attempting to derive some deep-rooted wisdom from the pages, the answer to the metaphysical questions which lay deep in the cortexes of every person’s brain, but that would be to miss the point. This is a personal work. Márquez’s work, his life, his family, are imprinted onto the pages of a book which became more widely read and respected than he could have ever predicted. Instead of spending time analysing it for these deep truths that we foolishly seek, we should simply enjoy it, accepting the fact that the secrets to his work are lost with his death, and known only to those who knew him most closely and could see the mirroring of his own life in the words which he put to print.
I suppose this means that I actually do not recommend this book for everyone. If you like to spend time with books which are more concrete, definite, than perhaps the frustrations which troubled me might be too much for you to battle against, and that is fine. There are plenty more books in the sea. It’s okay to not like a book, even when the whole world is telling you that it is good. If, however, you are willing to get lost in something, to get completely and happily confused by someone else’s imagination, then there is a very fine novel here that is not only to be read, but to be experienced.