Book Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez)

Some books take in time, and One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of those books. Some four months in the reading, this four-hundred page plus novel also encompasses time within its pages. Popularly considered as one of Márquez’s most celebrated literary contributions, if not the most celebrated of his works, this book has been on this reader’s list for quite some while. It is, once within its pages, an immersive read; however, herein lies a fundamental issue with what Márquez has produced — in returning to the pages, we must find our way back in.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Penguin Books, 1972, 2014, translated from the original Spanish by Gregory Rabassa; originally published as Cien Años de Soledad, 1967) details the various trials and tribulations of some six generations of the Buendía family. Following the arrival of a group of travelling pioneers — including José Arcadio Buendía and Úrsula Iguarán — in a remote area of Latin America, the founding of the village, and later city, of Macondo soon takes place. So begins the dynasty of the Buendías. It is, however, with the opening gambit of the predicament that will later be the lot of one of their sons, Aureliano, which Márquez chooses to entice us into the tale that will spread out in its pages. Aureliano, later to be known as Colonel Aureliano Buendía, faces the firing squad in the book’s opening lines. He remembers the day his father, José Arcadio, took him to discover ice.

Márquez proceeds to unfold the stories of various characters within the family in the form of interacting vignettes. There is a density to the whole, as illuminated by Alejo Carpentier’s 1975 lecture encompassing his descriptions of ‘the baroque and the marvellous real’, and Márquez confesses in the latter pages of his novel that there is a certain cyclical nature to time that he is portraying. That is to say, deep into the work, we begin to read recurring scenarios and situations between characters, and the by-then aged Úrsula is convinced that history is repeating itself. Márquez declares an interest in the idea that time plays itself out all at once.

Despite the developing appreciation of these concepts throughout the read, the density of it all is exacerbated by the deliberate repetition and re-use of the same character names across generations. It is appreciated, in context, why this is done, but there are, for example, twenty-two different Aurelianos (some merely sketched, such as seventeen of the sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, all by different women; some, such as the Colonel himself, are much more detailed in the author’s following of his life); there are four José Arcadios, and a further Arcadio, two Amarantas, and three characters named or partly named Remedios, as well as other characters who also step through the pages. Further to all of this, Márquez makes denser the weave by detailing twins and other brothers, and repetitions of relationships between male characters and their aunts. Such is the complexity of the family by way of its names, it’s a saving grace that the publishers have included a family tree on the opening pages. Without this the danger is that the reader returning to the book after a reading pause of some days might be tempted not to carry on: which José Arcadio or Aureliano is Márquez referring to here, and which aspect of whose vignette are we currently returning to?

What begins as a tale that appears to be one that will follow the life of a revolutionary, who faces and will escape the firing squad — albeit first from the earlier perspective of the Colonel’s childhood — becomes an exposition of digressions into tales of others. Certainly there are tales of fantastic beauty and those which linger in the memory afterwards within all of this: Márquez recounts the manner of Remedios the Beauty’s ascension to heaven; the way in which yellow butterflies flit around Mauricio Babilonia, father of the penultimate Aureliano, wherever he goes; the brief description of the yellow flowers falling after the death of José Arcadio, father of the Colonel. However, we are sometimes left wondering about the tale in progression if we leave it for a reading pause, even at a natural break in the writing. How is it that Márquez has kept track of the abundance of detail, as Carpentier has it, in these vignettes? The author returns, pages later, to a seemingly forgotten aspect of a tale once told, and the reader has either forgotten this and is reminded of it, or the reader has no recollection at all of the aspect he’s being reminded of. Such is the danger of lengthy reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

To the characters who live in its pages, Márquez also adds the evocation of the ghosts of characters who have died and who linger in the memories of the occupants of the house that serves as the central grounding piece of the dynasty. José Arcadio, the original and forefather, is visited by the ghost of a man he killed and who contributed to his desire to travel, in search of the sea, later founding Macondo. In turn, he, José Arcadio, after spending his final days tied to a chestnut tree in the failing of his faculties, is referred to as inhabiting the life of a ghost there, before quietly slipping from the pages as the years also slip by. Melquíades, a gypsy from the early days of Macondo, appears in slight apparitional fashion to subsequent characters from future generations in a room in the house which collects no dust, and in which those future Buendías struggle to translate Melquíades’ parchments, written, as it later transpires, in his native Sanskrit. Those parchments form a thread throughout the novel, a prophesy of the family, but Márquez ensures there are many, many threads to follow.

Time passes within the various travails of members of the Buendía family, whose matriarch, Úrsula, mother of Colonel Aureliano, is a familiar if steadily ageing presence. Children are born, grow, and are abandoned by Márquez in decaying houses till old-age or packed off to the nunnery, forgotten by the reader until the author deems to have them resurface, if they will; or else they leave the house and Macondo, often returning from their travels across seas, from adventures in search of mysteries and myths, only to reach disturbing ends after Márquez has built them up so much in his overlapping vignettes. Such is death in reality, but nevertheless the suddenness of Márquez’s treatment of characters we’ve grown accustomed to over hundreds of pages is affecting. Even Úrsula, at the age of 122 before she lost count, has a death barely given half a paragraph, close to the four-hundred page mark. The Colonel’s eventual demise is likewise briefly attended to, as is his father’s, José Arcadio, who we follow through the fledgling pages of this novel in his ever-enthusiastically imagined schemes and inventions. Márquez writes time quickly, in some senses, despite the expanse of it in the whole of this work, and chooses not to dither too long in dialogue.

Characters are imbued with solitude throughout: such seems to be at the heart of Melquíades the gypsy’s prophesy. Even the house, which sees within its walls the hospitality of Úrsula, the revolutionary comings and goings of Colonel Aureliano’s various campaigns, in his returns, the unrequited and illicit loves and fervent vengeful preoccupations of Amaranta, Rebeca, Amaranta Úrsula, Remedios the Beauty, Aureliano Segundo and Fernanda, et al, seems to wear an air of solitude in itself. The house’s fortunes wax and wane, from the abundant times of Aureliano Segundo to the slow and suffocating stiffness of formality that his wife, Fernanda, later imposes on it, as Úrsula turns blind with age. Fernanda’s darkness consumes pages. Eventually, the house is swamped by four years of constant rain, but nevertheless Fernanda insists on persisting with the staunch formality of her own upbringing. The period of rain is bleak, and Márquez draws it with such skill that we want it to end as much as the characters do. At this time, at the height of bleakness, Márquez brings back Fernanda’s son, another José Arcadio, after her death, who she had sent to Rome to learn to become a Pope. He is as stiff as his mother, but there have been no papal studies. There is brief light though, following José Arcadio’s untimely demise, with the return of the penultimate Aureliano’s young aunt, Amaranta Úrsula, Macondo being a stronger pull than her study and husband in Brussels.

Time happens both quickly and slowly within Márquez’s novel. We forget about certain characters, such as Pilar Ternera, a madame, a prostitute, mother of an earlier Aureliano and an Arcadio, whose fathers are brothers: Márquez brings her back later in the work, at the age of 145 at the last count, fantastic though this is, then he lays her to rest in a vault beneath her final brothel. Rebeca, from the earlier days, slowly decays in a house we see nothing much of, and we forget that she’s there until Márquez tells us that now she’s finally died. We met her when she was young, dragging the bones of her parents in a sack. So much has happened between then and the final pages.

Such is a useful summary of One Hundred Years of Solitude: Márquez packs in so many details, so many vignettes, and so many characters that we struggle to remember it all. Maybe the same is true of generations. Maybe, as Márquez writes, we may see time as cyclical, repeating, or all at once because the ‘marvellous real’ of it all, as Carpentier has it, is that the extraordinary is the ordinary, and vice versa. Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is certainly a read that is immersive, if not a little frustrating with its dizziness of repeated character names, and this reader recommends an immersion of something more like four days rather than four months: time is an essential component of this book.
 
 

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