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. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.
Years ago, when I first read those first lines of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Nobel prize awardee Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I was seduced. For 50 pages or so.
I was in college and One Hundred Years was extracurricular reading I really had little time for. I might have patiently waded through its 450-some pages if the story intrigued me enough to distract me—even for a few moments—from the frustrating task of testing impure chemical solutions (I left chemistry for psychology). But it didn’t. Besides, I found the story a somewhat perplexing morass — one author’s valiant attempt to tackle all possible issues humans face.
Recently, when the name Gabriel Garcia Marquez came up in articles I read on magical realism after finishing two books by Latin authors, I got curious again. So, I thought: why not give One Hundred Years another chance? Particularly because, fifty years after its release, it has evolved into a classic. It’s still printed, still read by thousands, maybe millions, and it remains fodder for literary analysts, journalists and bloggers.
What struck me, perusing several of the many posts/articles written about it, is how the book can be read, and has been read, to serve the reader’s own concerns. Complex and multi-faceted, it could probably give you something to relate to, and what you get out of it may reflect who you are and the period in which you read it. One of the most recent allusions to the book pertains to our current preoccupation with environmental issues.
My first impression, apart from its often florid but engaging or — if you prefer — poetic prose is how the first few sentences give a good glimpse at its major themes. A Colonel facing a firing squad hints at some military and political conflict that he has lost. The “distant afternoon … to discover ice” tells you memories are a significant theme in the story.
The book often delves into how characters deal with memories and how those memories define who they are. For instance, after Colonel Aureliano Buendia loses 32 wars fighting for his liberal ideology, he seeks to forget them by spending hours fashioning little gold fishes. Amaranta, his sister, burns her hand and wraps it in black fabric as a reminder of her lost loves. Painful memories plague these two in their solitude. For their mother, Ursula, memories may have helped keep her alive for more than a hundred years.
For me, One Hundred Years can still be perplexing. The two sentences that follow the first line suggest a pristine, untouched setting and a time so long ago that “things lacked names.” And yet, you meet the sort of characters you’d find in a modern society. Jose Arcadio Buendia is absorbed in his “scientific” research and his wife Ursula makes candy animals to sell. Characters read and decipher strange manuscripts and objects. They wage wars pitting conservative and liberal ideologies. They protest the invasion of a nasty, murderous foreign banana business. The unusually incestuous (for contemporary times) Buendia family do all the wonderful and messy things modern families do. They love, get jealous, hate, take revenge, forgive, etc. They become old and so infirm that they only have memories left to sustain them.
But fantastic things also happen. Things like blood from the wound of a dying Buendia flowing out of his house, winding along streets, and into his mother’s house. Or the most beautiful and innocent young woman ascending to heaven. Or continuous torrential rain for four years. And yellow butterflies swarming around one particular man.
It’s these fantastic things woven into a realistic story which quite likely define this book as magical realism. Maybe, these fantastic things also elicit accolades of how wildly, wonderfully imaginative the writer is. And, maybe, he is except that he comes from a Latin American culture where such beliefs are not uncommon, especially where old indigenous cultures still thrive. Neither are the 32 wars that plagued Macondo. Constant political turmoil has visited many Latin American countries.
Should you read this book? A resounding yes. It’s quite an entertaining read. The characters are appealing in their quirkiness even when they are being disagreeable. Plus the fantastic passages do give the narrative a certain lightness that mitigates the gravity of political wars, the mass murder of protesters, and incest in the Buendia family as well as Aureliano’s sexual interest in a nine-year old. Maybe, in a threatening, frustrating world, we need the humor in Garcia Marquez’s magical realism.