Flashback Fridays: One Hundred Years Of Solitude
The scent of a dream and the palpating heartbeat of living course through the pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years Of Solitude." If there was ever a novel worth diving into during the Summer, when the weather in Santa Monica can shift from embracing sunshine to sudden, ethereal overcast, it is this one. It's a powerful mixture of history, folk tales and human experience. First published in 1967, "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" catapulted Colombian writer Garcia Marquez, who died in May at the age of 86, into worldwide, literary stardom. It was deemed by iconic Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as the greatest work in Spanish since "Don Quixote" and it made the term "magical realism" common coin in writing and even cinema.
The novel was the great masterpiece of a moment in modern literary history known as the "Latin Boom" of the 1960s and 1970s. While countries like Mexico and Argentina had already produced titans of the pen like Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges, it was in the 60s that a new crop of authors produced a unique, politically-infused literature that could be adored by critics and enjoyed by the masses. The big three wordsmiths were Mexico's Carlos Fuentes, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa and Colombia's Garcia Marquez. More importantly, their work crossed borders and became widely read in the U.S. and Europe.
Garcia Marquez's novel takes place in the mythical village of Macondo in a landscape obviously meant to represent Colombia. It chronicles the history of the Buendia family, first led by Jose Arcadio, a dreamer and explorer, and his strong-willed wife Ursula. The novel follows the growth of their family, and the various characters that enter their lives through violence, love, marriage, tragedy and politics. Essentially the story of the Buendias is the story of modern Latin America.
While trying to get recognition as a novelist, Garcia Marquez first made his name as a journalist. Indeed, even after achieving worldwide fame he would continue to publish eloquent articles on subjects like the September 11, 1973 CIA-backed coup in Chile or Cuba's internationalist military campaigns in Africa. But his journalistic pen would help make "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" a special book because of the way he would meld the dreamlike with reality in ways where they simply flow in and out of each other.
In the world of the novel emotions are expressed through magical occurrences that Marquez describes with the tone of real events. For example when the character of Fernanda falls in love with a local banana company worker named Mauricio Babilonia, she knows his presence is near because he is always followed by a swarm of yellow butterflies. Another character, Remedios The Beauty, drives men so insane with her otherworldly looks that one day she simply floats out of her bed and up into heaven as her sisters look on. Early in the novel men trek through the jungle and hack with their machetes at flowers that bleed. Characters live for centuries or return as ghosts.
And yet the joy of "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" is that is quite simply great storytelling. Garcia Marquez writes with an insight and wisdom into life itself that makes every chapter vibrate with a sense of the familiar. Its universal appeal is surely based on the fact that anyone, from anywhere, can relate to the basic trials and emotions of the characters. They fall for the wrong people, they are driven by dreams of doing great things or living good lives, life throws obstacles in their paths, some that cannot be overcome. And all around them there's a great swirl of history. As their town emerges from solitude, they themselves are thrust into it in various ways whether it is the solitude of being alone, standing alone or holding on to the goal by yourself.
The town of Macondo is a microcosm of South America. It is populated by whites, blacks, indians, Arabs, gypsies and Jews. First isolated in the jungle, Macondo begins to modernize when outsiders come in and introduce industries such as when American companies take over the banana market (which was indeed the case in 1920s Colombia). One of the novel's most memorable characters, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, becomes a restless revolutionary who dedicates himself to wiping out Conservative Party regimes not only in his country but Central America as well. The sad history of U.S. imperialism in the region is embodied by the sections dealing with a strike by banana workers against a U.S. company that results in a bloody massacre by the army, an event based on a true story from 1928. Through out the book daily life is suddenly punctuated by the violence that often injects itself into Latin America, if not the world.
What stays in the memory for many readers are the smaller, individual stories contained within the larger narrative. There is the story of Colonel Buendia falling in love with the very young Remedios Moscote, who still keeps her dolls but brings an air of joy to the family household before she meets a tragic end, or Amaranta, a repressed victim of her own fear of opening up to anyone, who shelters herself away for years, or the band of gypsies who bring such wonders as the beauty of ice to Macondo in its early years.
Garcia Marquez creates a powerful atmosphere in this novel matched by few other authors. The scent of things, the feeling of watching rain fall, the melancholy of a heartbroken evening, the tide of great events, all vibrate off the page. Other novelists have attempted to capture this kind of language and scale, most notably Isabel Allende with "The House Of The Spirits" and Salman Rushdie with "Midnight's Children." They too tried to tell their national histories through tales of surreal fantasy mixed with family epics.
"One Hundred Years Of Solitude" introduced Garcia Marquez to the world and established him as one of the key writers of the late 20th century. It set the course for him to win the Nobel Prize in 1982. But a reader should approach it without all the hype and simply enjoy it as great writing, as storytelling that entrains but stirs, as a novel that tells a story that could be about any one of us.