It is hard to stay objective and not be biased when you are critiquing one of the most important works of the last century. And, if the writer happens to be Gabriel Garcia Marquez the task becomes even more difficult. ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is definitely the first in the distinguished series of publications by Garcia in his long and remarkable writing career. The book published in 1967 won him several awards and literally set the stage for his Nobel Prize 15 years later. Latin American writing of the time had evolved a distinct style called ‘Magical Realism’ of which Garcia was one of the main exponents. ‘Magical Realism’ is a unique storytelling style in which the most unusual things are told in such a matter-of-fact way that they don’t seem out of the world, and it was this narrative style that Garcia employed for ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, making it such a charming and magical book to read.
On a contextual level this is loosely a story of Latin America. The history of its various developments post Bolivar’s fights against and subsequent independence from the Spanish colonialism to its emergence into modernity. It has large specific references to events from the Colombian history in particular though without naming them as Colombian. And, finally lot of these stories are coming from Gabo’s personal life stories about his growing up, about his family, his grandfather, etc., again without directly mentioning anyone. In all, this book is a reflection of Latin America and of Colombia as seen through the eyes of the author and through his own interpretations based on his personal experiences.
The story is set in a town called Macondo which as is characteristic of Gabo’s towns and cities has no geographical reference of its location. The story tells a tale about the inhabitation of Macondo by a group of people who have travelled for two years in order to find a new habitat. The city is supposed to be surrounded by water with no outside world contact, giving its residents the opportunity to develop their own culture without any external influences. This seclusion is the reason for their backwardness and when wandering gypsies find Macondo and display some of the latest inventions of the world, they inspire awe and make money in the process. The story is a chronicle on the setting-up and eventual destruction of Macondo hundred years later. It is a seven generational story of the family of Buendia, beginning with the patriarch who set-up Macondo and ending with the seventh Buendia and the rest being wiped out of the face of the earth along with Macondo by a massive cyclone, almost as if nothing ever existed before.
The story has a strong resemblance to the wandering tribes of Israel and how all the members can trace their lineage to one single family. Whether it is the exploitation of the Latin Americans by the US Corporates through the Banana plantations or whether it is the long years of Civil wars, whether it is change of regime between the Conservatives and the Liberals or whether it is the lack of government stability despite years of freedom from Spanish colonialism – the socio-political milieu of the intervening period is exhibited in great detail. Of course the underlying vehicle of messaging is the beautiful Gabo language, his mastery and artistry is evident in every single word used. His dexterity in painting a very vivid picture of the narrative completely transports the reader to the storyland.
Despite the huge literary accomplishments that the book achieves some flaws still stand out. To begin with, while the use of words is Gabo’s strength, this strength reaches such a high point in this novel that there is not a single word wasted throughout the book, and this makes it extremely difficult for the reader to carry on reading as there is never a relaxing moment. Another sore point of the novel is the non-linear storytelling methodology, the story keeps moving cyclically back and forth and it is difficult to understand who is making what comment in what time reference. Finally, the family members of the seven generations of a huge family have just four names and this makes it nearly impossible to follow each character and their contribution to the development of the plot – given also the cyclical narrative nature – and one is forced to reference back to the Family Tree at the beginning of the book and profusely thank the author for having included it.To enjoy and keep pace with the story one has to involve all the mental faculties.
‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is one of those rare books that can have several interpretations and in that it is unique because to a Latin American the book will bring out different hues compared to a non-native. The book never attempts to moralize on the various transgressions such as the huge levels of incest; it just maintains a fact statement style which is how life is anyway. The book is an invitation to that old world charm of ‘slow down and savour’ the reading rather than rush through it. In the end, the book is all about a magical and fantastic journey that absorbs one in its beautiful imagery and makes them leave everything else behind.
García Márquez at his house in Mexico City, November 2010.
Photograph: Miguel Tovar/AP
Gabriel García Márquez was born in Aracataca, Colombia, in 1928. He has written a great number of books, including the masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.
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