Last year I read ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, Garcia Marquez’s novel of a love story in old age, so I thought I knew roughly what ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ would be like. As it turns out, I was ever so slightly wrong… The casual prose dragging the reader languidly through decades in the life of its protagonists was the same; however, the content, while still set in Latin America and dealing with love, lust and family life, was, to put it mildly a bit different.
In my last post, I compared Nick Earls’ short stories to Haruki Murakami’s novels in the way that the everyday is described in great detail while being peppered by events which are slightly less real; little did I know that this style of writing (‘magical realism’) was coined to describe the work of South American novelists like Garcia Marquez. From flying carpets whizzing past the window to four-and-a-half-year rainstorms, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ has something for everyone without turning into a fantasy book, and the reader can accept these abnormal occurrences without it affecting the enjoyment of the story.
At the centre of the book is the tempestuous Buendia clan, whose patriarch, Jose Arcadio, strikes out from his hometown with his wife, Ursula, in an attempt to escape the ghost of a man he killed, and founds the town of Macondo in an uninhabited part of his country. A century later, after walking the reader through the experiences of the children, grand-children, friends, concubines, lovers, partners and animals of what, at times, is a hugely powerful and culturally dominating family, the book ends with the disappearance of all that has gone before and the town’s return to its earlier obscurity.
The Buendia family are a collection of larger-than-life characters, from Jose Arcadio and the long-lived Ursula, to their sons Aureliano and Jose Arcadio and a whole host of their descendants, many of whom share their forefather’s names. The men of the family, often divided over the six featured generations into the calm, calculating Aurelianos and the aggressive, hard-living Jose Arcadios, build, fight, whore and die; the women, most of whom marry into the family, are either scheming, tenacious and hard as nails, or beautiful and somewhat detached. Over and over again, names are handed down, children are brought up, and the same mistakes are made. Although it seems as if the Buendias are merely a victim of circumstances, we finally find out that their rise and fall has been predicted all along.
Despite the size of the Buendia family, theirs is not a house of laughter and love (although a theme of barely suppressed and finally unwtting incest runs through the tale), with many of the family members preferring to keep themselves to themselves, some to the extent of locking themselves in a small room for years at a time. The solitude of the title refers to the lack of support for each other and the looseness of the ties which would normally bind a family together. While the women do try to keep the family (and the house, a symbol of the family) together, time eventually defeats them all, and everything returns to its natural state.
However, the solitude refers not only to the Buendias, but also to Macondo, the town which the original Jose Arcadio founded. The completely new town gradually grows and becomes more and more important owing to Aureliano’s role in the country’s political wars, finally becoming a centre of commerce with links to the outside world by road and rail. However, as time passes, so do the temporary riches; the outsiders leave again, the buildings crumble, and the town is once more isolated from the rest of civilisation. In the space of the hundred years of the title, the town is born, expands, is ruined and disappears.
The book ends in a whirlwind of emotions (amongst other things…), and it takes a while for the dust to (literally) settle on what has happened and to think about what the whole point of the book was. One rather obvious one is, as was discussed in Sophocles’ famous plays, check your girlfriend’s birth certificate (just to make sure that the names on it aren’t the same as the ones on yours); the story begins and ends, and largely hinges on, incest and its consequences. Another one is slightly more palatable but no less important; nothing lasts forever. Just as civilisations rise and fall and football teams go from losers to champions to idiots again, the fortunes of people and places can move in cycles, swinging between famous highs and ignominious lows. It’s something we should all be wary of at the time of our great successes. Time and fortune may lift us up, but they can always send us crashing back to earth.