One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez (1967)
One Hundred Years of Solitude may be the best book I’ve ever read. I cannot think of a more masterful novel. It has such fullness: an enormous range of human emotion (love, exuberance, contentment, hope, hatred, sorrow, remorse); literary tropes that are the hallmarks of both comedy and tragedy (birth and death, marriages and funerals, war and peace, wealth and poverty, education and ignorance); the magic of the most enduring folk and fairytales; and a sharp sense of humor.
Harold Bloom called it “the Bible of Macondo,” the NYTimes Book Review called it “required reading for the entire human race,” Commonweal called it “the great novel of the Americas”: OHYoS feels contemporary, relevant, and also somehow scriptural and religious. If I had to choose two pieces of required reading for the human race, I think I’d choose this one and The Little Prince. (#3 = Song of Songs from the Bible.)
Note: In this post, I wanted to refer to the author as “Gabo,” as many Latin Americans do. But having spoken to my Honduran housemate who loves GGM, and heard his (much more beautiful) pronunciation of character and place names, I feel that the author-in-translation is not quite mine to refer to so familiarly. (If you are not a Spanish speaker: hear “Aureliano” in Spanish here.)
A master class in:
-Form: The novel’s structure follows a perfect Aristotelian arc, charting the birth, rise, fall, and death of the town of Macondo. The book ends for a clear reason: there is nothing left to be said of this place that “did not have a second opportunity on earth.”
But the brilliance of the form is that, within the ^ shape of the whole, story arcs of many different scales hit their peaks and valleys at times that contrast with the wider narrative arc. Patriarch José Arcadio Buendía dies at about the 1/3 mark; the first generation dies out about 2/3 of the way through the book; each feels like a definitive end, even as the story of Macondo is rising or cresting. Aureliano and Amaranta Úrsula hit their sexual and romantic peak—in some ways the peak of the entire book, the most passionate love—at the very lowest point in Macondo’s decline. As in reality, individual lives are affected by the story of the world around them, but not dictated by it: in times of global tragedy, the individual can experience great joy, and vice-versa.
-Theme: In this book about forgetting, about repeating the same mistakes generation after generation, the narrative itself forgets nothing. Úrsula, the living memory of Macondo, feels that time is going in a circle; once she dies, the names of her descendants recur but the world forgets that Colonel Aureliano Buendía was a real person and not merely a street name. The town–and the book–ends because she is not there to remind her incestuous descendants of the curse of the pig’s tail. The aunt-nephew consummation that ultimately dooms Macondo (while redeeming the possibility of true passion) fulfills not only the prophecy of Melquíades but also the aborted love of Amaranta and her nephew Aureliano José. They are emblems of the forgetting that erodes institutional memory over time, allowing war after war, mistake after mistake, forbidden love after forbidden love.
Yet the narrative itself forgets nothing. Fernanda’s father in his casket, Rebeca still living in that secluded house, José Arcadio Buendía’s ghost, the Aurelianos’ crosses of ash—all recur even once the reader has herself forgotten them. García Márquez thereby aligns the reader both with the mortal generations who forget the past, and with the omniscient narrator that does not forget.
-Fictional Time: Closely related to the theme of memory and forgetting is the length of time and number of generations covered in the novel. Again, García Márquez replicates in the reader’s experience that of his characters: he warps time. It does seem that “in the past…children took a long[er] time to grow up,” as Úrsula notes in her old age; it does seem that the time between José Arcadio’s disappearance and reappearance was longer than the span during which later generations finished growing up. I will have to reread the book to better understand how exactly García Márquez accomplishes this magical sense of the changing nature of time over long periods; perhaps he devotes more page space to fewer characters earlier on, and time passes more quickly as the novel (like Macondo) becomes more densely populated.
-Magical realism: The magic in OHYoS has real and unalterable consequences. The four years of rain destroy much of Macondo’s wealth; the ghost of Prudencio Aguilar leads José Arcadio Buendía to his death; Remedios the Beauty, after her ascension, is never seen on earth again.
Similarly, the narrative is not afraid to forecast, well in advance, extreme tragedies that turn out to be accurate and unalterable: the fate of Colonel Aureliano Buendía and his sons, the end of Macondo, the silence of Meme.
Final note, as a writer-reader: Perhaps my favorite element of One Hundred Years of Solitude was the joy and proliferation of GGM’s imaginative vision; reading the novel consistently spurred my own creativity.
“He promised to follow her to the ends of the earth, but only later on, when he put his affairs in order, and she had become tired of waiting for him, always identifying him with the tall and short, blond and brunet men that her cards promised from land and sea within three days, three months, or three years. With her waiting she had lost the strength of her thighs, the firmness of her breasts, her habit of tenderness, but she kept the madness of her heart intact.”
“[Úrsula] decreed a kind of mourning with no one dead which was to be prolonged until the daughters got over their hopes.”
“After so many years of death the yearning for the living was so intense, the need for company so pressing…that Prudencio Aguilar had ended up loving his worst enemy. He had spent a great deal of time looking for him. He asked the dead from Riohacha about him, the dead who came from the Upar Valley, those who came from the swamp, and no one could tell him because Macondo was a town that was unknown to the dead until Melquíades arrived and marked it with a small black dot on the motley maps of death.”
“Aureliano tried to relive the times when they slept in the same room, tried to revive the complicity of childhood, but José Arcadio had forgotten about it, because life at sea had saturated his memory with too many things to remember.”
“He had fled from her in an attempt to wipe out her memory…but the more her image wallowed in the dunghill of the war, the more the war resembled Amaranta.”
“‘It’s coming,’ she finally explained. ‘Something frightful, like a kitchen dragging a village behind it.’” (On Macondo’s first train)
“…he was the only one who had enough lucidity to sense the truth of the fact that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in the room.”