One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 92103I expected to be left in awe with this book, and I guess I’m disappointed both with it and with myself that I wasn’t. I’ve heard a lot about magical realism in writing workshops and literature classes (English/American and Spanish/Latin American), and I generally liked the other examples of that genre or style that I came across there. Marquez is the grandfather of magical realism, so of course I’d fall in love with his masterpiece, right? If only.

One Hundred Years of Solitude covers four generations of the Buendia family in a remote village in Columbia. For me the three main themes were the tumultuous love lives and marriages of the members of the family, the effects of political change and war, especially the military career of Colonel Aureliano Buendia, and the village’s sporadic contact with the outside world, whether through gypsies, new technologies, or a predatory banana company.

For me the greatest pleasure of the book was in the language, the sentences that took hyperbole just a step past belief into a magical place. The images are fantastic, in both senses of that word: swarms of orange butterflies as a sign of love, four years of rain, a plague of dead birds. It’s Technicolor and bursting with life. A few years ago I wanted to brush up my language skills so I read about a hundred pages of the book in the original Spanish. With that experience I can say that Marquez’s gift with language survives translation remarkably well. I was fascinated by the way the book dealt with political issues, especially the workers’ strike and the train station massacre scene. I also liked the circular ending.

There’s a lot of sex in this book, and it mostly either creeped me out or grossed me out. There’s marital rape, adults sleeping with and marrying children, prostitution, bigamy, and incest, all presented as if they were benign. My reaction to these scenes really colored my reaction to the book as a whole; without this element I would definitely have liked the book a lot more, but it would be half as long and an entirely different book. Maybe it makes me a prude, but I couldn’t really see the redeeming value of these scenes. It seemed like they were supposed to be romantic, or another expression of that characteristic exaggeration, but they didn’t have the intended effect on me.

This is a difficult book; I’d classify it with Faulkner and Tolstoy as a novel that is best read with the support of a class, or at least a family tree diagram for reference, and Sparknotes if you’re really lost. The Buendia family has a habit of recycling names, which makes it a pain to keep the characters straight. The narrative isn’t linear, but kind of spiral-shaped, revolving repeatedly around particular themes, images, and dramatic events. It’s occasionally hard to keep track of the fine line between present-time narration and a flashback. Difficulty isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a novel at all, but sometimes it’s the kind of thing readers like to be warned about.

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