This book has taken me six weeks to read. That might not seem unusual to some of you, if you’re used to taking your time, but, in order to give you something with which to compare my progress, I finished the whole of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in five weeks. And, sure, the World Cup is on at the moment, and that is a distraction, but there is always football I could be watching, and do watch, and yet I usually still manage to read sixty or seventy pages a day. Why is it, then, that One Hundred Years of Solitude took me so long? Well, I had a kind of breakdown about a quarter of the way through the novel, precipitated by a scene in which a flying carpet zooms past Jose Arcadio’s window. That fucking flying carpet has caused me weeks of misery and mental strain.
I’d read One Hundred Years of Solitude before, five or six years ago. I remember loving it, being fully enchanted and engrossed by it. So I knew, of course, that it contained elements of what people like to call Magical Realism; I could recall certain scenes, in fact, in which the magical or fantastic played a part; and I have, throughout the years since first reading the book, continued to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, some of which I consider to be amongst the very greatest literature ever written. Bearing all that in mind, then, you would think that as I commenced this reread that my enjoyment would be almost guaranteed, and that there would be very little that could surprise or dismay or bother me. And sure enough I really enjoyed the first twenty or thirty pages, but I then came to that scene with the flying carpet. And, honestly, I completely lost my shit.
As a mature reader [in contrast to when I was a child and didn’t give a fuck about these things] I’ve always understood and appreciated Magical Realism in the same way that the great Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier used the term lo real maravilloso. I’ve never been interested in Midnight’s Children, I do not like Haruki Murakami or Angela Carter; those kind of books and writers strike me as being higher-brow versions of Harry Potter. I’m not at all interested in characters that grow wings or shoot fire out of their arses or any of that crap; it’s just a bunch of fairytale or mythic cliches. And I love genuine fairy tales and myths, but I baulk at the idea that appropriating them for your own work automatically makes it magical or imaginative or inventive. It is, in fact, quite the opposite, it is lazy and tedious. Carpentier, however, was concerned with the magic of reality, with the idea that what exists, what we know to be true and real, or possible, can be fantastic or awe-inspiring, can seem even fictional or unbelievable.
Before rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude I thought that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work was closer to Carpentier, or at least Rulfo, than what Rushdie et al have churned out. It is certainly how I see Love in the Time of Cholera [which I read last year] and even Autumn of the Patriarch. Autumn does, on the surface, feature examples of what you could call the genuinely magical, but it is a book about a dictator, about, specifically, the control and abuse of power and information, and the myths and legends, hearsay and superstitions, that rise up out of these conditions. So, when the dictator, for example, is said to have sold the sea, one is meant to question the truth, the reliability, of this anecdote. That is entirely different from asking you to take on face-value the existence of a spell-casting Wizard.
Even so, even though I don’t like books that feature Wizards and trolls and people who can, I dunno, grow at will or some shit, at least, in most cases, I get it, at least the author’s intentions and aims make sense to me. My problem with One Hundred of Years of Solitude this time around, and the Magical Realism in the first part of the book, is not solely that I just don’t like, and find lazy and unimaginative, the idea of flying carpets in a modern work of fiction, it is what it meant in relation to the story Garcia Marquez was telling. Let me explain: Jose Arcadio Buendia, the founder of Macondo, is shown to be a man interested in understanding his world, a man of questing spirit who wants to know how things work. He is proto-scientist who is amazed by ordinary phenomena, like ice and photography. Fine. But he happens to live in a world where people come back from the dead, and where flying carpets exist, and yet never seems to bat an eyelid. I found this incongruity troubling. I struggled to believe in, or even accept, Jose because he seems completely uninterested in the genuinely fabulous. It could be, of course, simply bad writing, but I don’t want to buy that because I like Garcia Marquez and hope he was smarter than that.
You could argue that maybe Garcia Marquez was trying to be funny or ironic. Certainly, no one [or no reader or critic that I have ever encountered, anyway] appears to get the joke, but it could certainly be considered one. Here’s a man, Jose Arcadio Buendia, who is obsessed with the magic of ordinary objects, while ignoring the genuinely magical. Ho ho. Maybe. Or you could argue that Garcia Marquez uses inversion – that what is fantastic to us, in his world, is commonplace to Jose and vice-versa – as a way of highlighting the magic of our world, or even of heightening our experience of the everyday world; that by putting the everyday side by side with the fantastical, and yet showing a character ignoring the fantastical in favour of things that exist in our world, we are meant to approach our world with new eyes, with Jose’s eyes. I really like this idea, and yet if that was the case, if that is what the author intended, he failed. The reason for this is that it is difficult to buy into the idea of the magic of ice when there are flying carpets zooming around. One does not read this part of the book and think wow, ice is amazing, but rather this is absurd; fuck the ice, dude, steal that flying carpet. By providing a contrast, Garcia Marquez actually compromises, or makes us forget about, the possible magical appearance and qualities of ice; and this is in direct contrast to the effect that some of Carpentier’s work can have on you, which does genuinely make you see the world with new eyes, purely through the power of his descriptions. For example:
Something like a baleful pollen in the air – a ghost pollen – impalpable rot, enveloping decay – suddenly became active with mysterious design, opening what was closed, closing what was opened, upsetting calculations, contradicting specific gravity, making guarantees worthless. One morning the ampoules of serum in a hospital were found to be full of mould; precision instruments were not registering correctly; certain liquors began to bubble in the bottle; the Rubens in the National Museum was attacked by an unknown parasite immune to sprays; people stormed the windows of a bank where nothing had happened, whipped to a panic by a mutterings of an old Negro crone whom the police were unable to find.
[The Lost Steps, 1953]
Some critics have attempted to explain the Magical Realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude as a comment on Latin American culture or personality. They claim that Latin Americans believe, simultaneously, in a scientific approach to the world and the mythical or transgressive [a word I use to mean something beyond what we know and can explain]. To some extent, I think this is correct, or is at least on the right track. However, I think that the Magical Realism in the first half of the book is not, as far as I know, recognisably Latin American in flavour. I might be wrong, but flying carpets or a belief in flying carpets isn’t something that we would associate with Latin American culture, myths or superstitions. One could maybe argue, in that case, that Garcia Marquez was not making a point specifically about Latin Americans but about all people. Even someone like myself, who is categorically not spiritual, still finds himself praying sometimes or resorting to superstition. The magical and the everyday do co-exist for most of us, and perhaps that is what Garcia Marquez was getting at.
This idea can be taken even further. One Hundred Years of Solitude is, at least on one level, about the creation and development of a community, but it is also about the development of human consciousness. It is, bearing in mind what we were discussing in the previous paragraph, about primitive thinking vs enlightened thinking. The primitive is sorcery, the things that Jose and the Macondo residents accept without comment or question. On the basis of this interpretation, Garcia Marquez uses Jose as an example of man’s questing spirit, his rational impulse; or, more accurately, he embodies man’s first steps towards rationality, or enlightenment. Macondo is a world where myth and legend and science and understanding, where the primitive and the enlightened, co-exist. Primitive thinking, the belief in superstition, sorcery, miracles etc, is deeply ingrained, it cannot be easily thrown off. So, while Jose is tentatively beginning to make progress towards understanding the world around him, he still accepts the flying carpets and other supernatural or unnatural phenomena. Of course, this would only be satisfactory if the Magical Realism diminishes, or drops off, as the book progresses and as the years pass; and, unfortunately, that isn’t really the case, although the fantastic does become less theatrical, less spectacular.
In any case, I think that now we are getting closer to a satisfying argument, to getting the author off the hook, but we are still not there yet. It’s that carpet; I can’t move beyond that fucking flying carpet. Yes, superstition, primitive vs enlightened and blah blah blah…but why a flying carpet? The other stuff in the book, the blood returning home, the people returning from the dead, even the levitating, and so on, all that I am now satisfied with, all that fits in with my interpretation. But a flying carpet? No. It’s still sticking its tongue out at me. In all honesty, I think the justification for the carpet, the explanation for its appearance in the text, is far more banal. It is, I’m pretty sure, little more than a knowing nod towards one of the author’s influences, The Arabian Nights. As stated, this isn’t to disregard my previous argument, I think that holds for much of what we encounter, much of the Magical Realism in the book, but the carpet is specific to The Arabian Nights. Garcia Marquez does the same thing a number of times in the book; at one point he mentions an Artemio Cruz, who is the title character of Carlos Fuentes’ most famous novel, and also winks at Carpentier by namechecking Victor Hugues and using the phrase the lost steps.
The Arabian Nights connection is a strong one. First of all, Garcia Marquez’s book reads like The Arabian Nights, in that it is essentially a series of short stories with a framing narrative. Both books are also concerned with the profane and the profound – with religion and morality, with births and deaths and sex – and with all levels of society; and both are, of course, magical and realist. Indeed, if there has ever been archetypal Magical Realist text, then The Arabian Nights is it, because the magical is completely accepted, or assimilated, is as natural and common place as eating and sleeping and anything else. Finally, I guess if you were to put the nod to The Arabian Nights in a political, cultural context, it would be in relation to the Arab diaspora, the influence of Arab immigrants on Latin America. I would love to be able to explore that further, but unfortunately I don’t have the necessary knowledge.
Now that I have exhausted, and to some extent countered, my reservations, I can finally move on to what I liked about One Hundred Years of Solitude. [Of course, none of you are still with me at this point, so I can say just about anything]. What I find most surprising about the popularity of the book is that it is episodic. Often episodic novels are disparaged; we are told that modern readers find them dull, or not engaging. Therefore, in some significant way, One Hundred Years of Solitude must be different from other episodic novels. It is, it is not like Don Quixote, for example, because there is constant variety. What I mean by this is that the characters are not doing the same things over and over again. This is, in part, because of the scope of the novel, and the huge cast of characters, but it is also, perhaps to a greater extent, due to the novel’s sophisticated, fluid, structure.
So while One Hundred Years of Solitude is certainly episodic, it feels whole. There is a clear sense of progression, of moving towards something, of an author trying to get you to an end point. It is part of human nature to want clear structure, to want a beginning and middle and end. In fact, it is part of our nature to want closure, to strive towards an end. I think this is important, and is often overlooked when talking about episodic literature; I love Don Quixote but I can understand why some people give up on it, because you never feel as though this is a story with an end in sight, with a conclusion. That is part of why I like it, I like the lack of structure, the lack of rigidity, but, still, even for someone like me, there were times I struggled to motivate myself to pick the book up. Aside from my flying carpet-induced mental breakdown I never felt like that whilst reading Garcia Marquez’s book.
It’s very often said that One Hundred Years of Solitude is a book about war, or civil war. And, yeah, it is, to a certain extent, but I think there are more interesting, overriding themes. The war sections of the book are excellent, and Marquez, as with Autumn and dictatorships, did a fine job at capturing the essence of what it must be like to live in wartime conditions over a long period of time, where information is contradictory, where men and generals can die multiple times and take on numerous roles, where power is fought for under the guise of conflicting ideologies, and so on. However, to my mind, the book is more so about the cyclical nature of time and history, about genealogy, about family and regeneration. For all those who – tiresomely, I must say – bitch and moan about the repeated use of the same names, this is why Garcia Marquez did it.
While I am on the subject of bitching and moaning, it’s funny to me that Garcia Marquez is considered by many [female] readers to be a sexist, almost offensive, writer, because, at least in his two major novels, his strongest characters are female. In One Hundred Years of Solitude the seemingly deathless Ursula is both the moral heart of Macondo and the novel; she is both the family matriarch and Macondo’s martriarch also. I particularly loved the scene where she threatens to kill her own son, the powerful Colonel Aureliano, if he goes through with his intention to have a friend of the family executed.
Like the book itself, this review really could go on indefinitely [don’t worry, it won’t]. There’s just so much to talk about, and that is one sign of a great book. And, make no mistake, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a great book, even though now that I have reread it I can say confidently that it is not his best [I prefer Love in the Time of Cholera]. It’s not perfect, of course, but it is frequently beautiful, intelligent, moving, surprising and imaginative; you can, in fact, feel the fevered creativity; every page is teeming with ideas. There will be many people, I’m sure, who will, in classic contrarian fashion, especially in the wake of increased interest due to Garcia Marquez’s death, try and tell you that One Hundred Years of Solitude is not all that. Ignore them; if you haven’t read the book then you certainly should. Just, please, for the sake of your sanity, let that flying carpet slide.