Wednesday, September 15, 2021

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez

Enchanting family saga with frustrating family tree
Colombian-Mexican author Gabriel García Marquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, is arguably the most celebrated figure in Latin American literature, and One Hundred Years of Solitude is widely regarded as his greatest work. Published in 1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a multi-generational saga of a Colombian family, the Buendías. After committing a crime, the clan’s visionary patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, flees into the wilderness and establishes a town, named Macondo, in a secluded swamp. Over time the town grows, as does its founding family. Yet Macondo remains largely isolated, removed from the outside world not only by distance and remoteness but also by the occurrence of extraordinary and uncanny events that defy conventional reality.

One highly commendable quality of García Marquez’s prose is that, unlike many other Latin American modernists (Carlos Fuentes for example), he doesn’t indulge in needless Faulknerian wordplay. Rather than deliberately obfuscate the plot with verbal gymnastics, García Marquez’s prose (or at least the translation by Gregory Rabassa) tells this astonishing story in, forgive the expression, plain English. That’s not to say that this is an easy text to read. The difficulty comes not from having to decode the author’s language, however, but simply from the barrage of happenings that are foisted upon the reader. While every page of this book contains fascinating scenes, the relentless bombardment of events makes it hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. When you get to the end of a chapter, you might not remember how it began.

This novel is recognized as the epitome of the genre known as “magic realism.” Fantastical events frequently occur, including conversations with the dead, flying carpets, or a torrential rain that falls incessantly for years. Among European literature, this style recalls the work of German author Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum. Both authors relate the histories of their respective homelands through a fun-house lens of humor, metaphor, and surreality. While Grass, however, gets a kick out of using bizarre imagery to shock and disgust the reader, the outlandish occurrences in One Hundred Years of Solitude inspire the reader with awe, enchantment, and at times delight. García Marquez’s Macondo is an inviting cabinet of curiosities. The only aspect that can be considered disturbing is the recurring theme of incest.

The novel includes a diagram charting the family tree of the Buendías, which is very helpful. In fact, the book would be unreadable without it. Though his prose is brisk and beguiling, García indulges in one stylistic convention that makes this novel unnecessarily difficult to read. The saga spans six generations and covers the lives of dozens of characters. Of the male family members, half are named Arcadio and the other half Aureliano. I realize García Marquez is trying to make a point—all the Arcadios share similar personality traits, as do the Arcadios—but couldn’t he have at least picked two names that begin with different letters? Imagine a book full of Bills and Bobs. I found myself consulting the family tree on almost every page, and still often didn’t know which brother, father, or son I was reading about. After a while I stopped caring and just let the intriguing events wash over me regardless. While I enjoyed and admired this novel, I would have appreciated it twice as much without this frustrating name game.

García Marquez is a giant of Latin American literature, and if this book is any indication, deservedly so. Still, this novel is a more difficult read than it has any good reason to be. I look forward to enjoying some other book of his where I don’t have to sort out all the Arcadios and Aurelianos.
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