Monday, April 4, 2011

One Hundred Years of Solitude

"Our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude."  -Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech

Don't worry if you had to read that quote a couple of times; you're just preparing yourself for the experience of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.  The translation is well done and not difficult to follow, but the plot is very circular and at times you will have the feeling that you are re-reading a paragraph or page, only to realize that your deja vu stems from a very similar section earlier in the book. The translation is smooth and easy to read, but the storyline repeats itself and sometimes you feel like you have already read a certain section, but then realize that you are actually remembering a previous section that was strangely similar. That is one of Garcia Marquez' points: even if history doesn't repeat itself exactly, it is certainly a series of variations on a theme. I am not extremely familiar with Colombian history, so I had to peruse a couple articles online in order to understand how Garcia Marquez structures the history of the fictional town of Macondo as a metaphor for the history of Colombia.

The story follows the birth, development and death of the town of Macondo as seen through the eyes of seven generations of the Buendia family.  Purposefully repetitive plot devices include members of each generation having the same names as their various ancestors, as well as the same personality tendencies and similar character flaws. There is also a slightly disturbing (to me) recurrence of familial marriage and romantic relationships: cousins marry cousins, nephews marry aunts, adopted brother marries adopted sister. Garcia Marquez did not go so far as to pair a parent with a child or two siblings with each other (not to my recollection anyway...there were seven generations and only about six different first names, so it was difficult to keep them straight. I should have sketched a family tree at the beginning and added to it throughout the novel. The Wikipedia article also includes a family tree that I could have used as a cheat sheet.)  The Buendia family represents the Colombian aristocracy and embodies many of its distasteful elements,  which of course would include aristocratic people only marrying within their socially approved group. Perhaps Garcia Marquez takes this cliquish habit to an extreme in order to make a point. Selfishness and solitude (not solitude in general, which is necessary for human development, but in the sense of refusing to engage in any real relationships) are other vices that the Buendia family must reckon with. Interpreting the author's social and historical commentary isn't always easy, and this is one of those books that one could read five times and come away with a different understanding of it each time.

What is magical realism and how does One Hundred Years exemplify it? Butterflies follow a man everywhere. It rains for four years without stopping. A patriarch is tied to a tree in the courtyard after going insane. An orphan carries the bones of her parents in a bag. When milk in a cooking pot turns to worms, it signifies a man's death. A dead man smells of gunpowder, even after being enclosed in a concrete vault. Women live to be 150 years old, maybe more (they tend to lose track after that). Songbirds won't stay in the town; they all migrate elsewhere. Military men massacre a crowd of hundreds and send the bodies out of town on a train, but nobody remembers it afterwards.  This is different from fantasy in that a realistic setting and plot are laid out, and then magical elements are inserted in a matter-of-fact way, with no attempt to explain or justify them.  Just as an author feels no need to justify the idea that a field can be planted in May and harvested in August (it's part of the natural order, everyone accepts this as fact), the author of magical realism presents fantastic elements as though they are part of the normal schema.  In fantasy, the author will explain strange happenings as being the result of spells, other dimensions, communication with a parallel world, etc. In magical realism, it's just there. It's obvious. This style makes for a dreamlike, even psychedelic, reading experience.  It seems that this style is most strongly associated with Latin American authors, and there are a plethora of articles written on why that is (or isn't) so.  Feel free to google for your further reading enjoyment.

Endlessly recyclable first names: Jose Arcadio, Aureliano, Remedios, Amaranta, Ursula
Endlessly recyclable themes: selfishness, insanity, illness, obsession, wandering, jealousy, intra-family marriage
There was a lot of: see above, then multiply times seven
There should have been more of: Garcia Marquez thoroughly explored his themes. However, I prefer a little more dialogue and a little less stream of consciousness.
This book makes you want to: hire an exterminator, clean the house, break your family's unhealthy tendencies, hide money in humorous locations, forgive and forget, build real relationships
This book makes you glad you don't have to: marry your cousin, work for a banana company, participate in a revolution (I hope you don't, anyway), relive the mistakes of past generations


bren j. said...

Clever review...and I'm glad I read it; I feel like I'm hitherto exempt from reading the actual book. It sounds rather dull.

Mirza Ghalib said...

This book was in my wishlist from the day it was declared in Oprah's Book Club, I guess in the year 2003. And finally when I actually got to read it, I think it was worth the wait. I lived with Ursula all from the very beginning from the discovery of Mocondo to the death of the last heir of the family after 100 year! Recommended to all readers and the family tree would be a great help provided at the beginning of the book since you are passing on to several generations in a single book. Congratulations to the Author!