One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
July 2nd, 2013
Ahhh, long backlog of books to write about!
Let's start with One Hundred Years of Solitude. Hoooooooly granola, what a book. I'm having a hard time even summarizing it, mostly because I am too ignorant to fully appreciate it, but I'll try to say something intelligible.
One Hundred Years of Solitude chronicles in vivid, beautiful hyperbole* the fictional rise and fall of the Buendia family. It's all a metaphor for some specific historical events and a culture that was obviously deeply understood by the author and his intended audience but was completely lost on me.
You know that feeling as an American when you're watching some British comedy that's not funny to you at all, but you can't quite name why? There are obvious reasons why comedy might not translate, such as references to some specific politicians or celebrities that only a person of a certain locality would understand, but sometimes it's not as blatant as that. And you're watching this comedy and maybe the people around you are laughing, but to you, nothing. Blank. You have a perfect understanding of what's going on superficially, but the comedy was written with the probably-unconscious expectation that the audience has a some unspoken specific shared experience, while all you can feel is a dull, dumb frustration and a nagging sense of "I'm missing something." And maybe afterward, your British friends fill you in on the joke, but of course that doesn't retroactively make it funny; it just makes you think, "Oh okay, some British joke lost in translation."
That's approximately how I'd describe my experience reading this novel.
Whenever I read a book, I try to avoid anything that might sway my reading of the book (reviews, commentary, wikipedia, even the back cover of the book) so that I can have as unbiased of a reading as possible. All through OHYoS I could sense that several parts of the book had to be a reference for something, to some specific historical event — the war campaigns! the bananas! the slaughter of thousands of workers! — but I had no idea what it was. Only after finishing did I allow myself to look up what the heck this was all supposed to mean.
Wikipedia confirms: This novel is primarily a metaphor for the rise and fall of Columbia. Blargh. That's unfortunate for me. I'm ashamed to say that as an American, and as a person who is embarrassingly poor at history, I am wholly and completely unable to appreciate this essential aspect of the novel.
But I imagine that even if I retraced the novel event by event, and had some annotated guide that explained which parts are historically based on what, I doubt I'd come close to the same experience that a Colombian would have reading this novel. I'm not the target audience of the novel, and I am missing the experiences and history that author expects his reader to have internalized. In other words, it's all a big Colombian joke lost in translation.
Now, all that said, I can confidently declare OHYoS a masterpiece. It's a novel whose plot seems as critical to the novel as Animal Farm's plot is to it (i.e. extremely critical), and I just openly admitted that I do not understand the plot, and yet the OHYoS can stand alone independent of its premise, which is remarkable.
When a novel is wrung through the cruel hands of translation, the poetry of the language is the quality most frequently lost in the reencode, and what remains is the stark, cold, literal skeleton of a story.
I feel the opposite is true with OHYoS: whereas the plot is near impossible to translate because it's entrenched in an expected shared experience, the poetry is preserved because it is a poetry of imagery and ideas rather than words.
In the shattered schoolhouse where for the first time he had felt the security of power, Arcadio found the formality of death ridiculous. Death really did not matter to him but life did, and therefore the sensation he felt when they gave their decision was not a feeling of fear but nostalgia.
That is the universal appeal of the novel. The words themselves are a blunt but the idea — nostalgia at the face of execution — is universally poignant, funny, and true.
It also amazes me how masterfully this novel is layered at different levels of granularity. The author has intentional — and distinct! — messages he wishes to convey at the individual character level, to the generational level, to the Buendia's as a line, to the story as a whole, and all the scenes and observations in between. And somehow it all comes together cohesively and naturally, such that you wouldn't necessarily notice unless you take a slice of the novel and examine it.
Take, for example, Amaranta. We see her begin to develop as a character when she's a teenager heartbroken that Pietro Crespi chose her adopted sister Rebeca as his fiance. At this point Amaranta vows to do whatever she can to stop the wedding, even if she has to kill someone, and she employs scheme after scheme to delay the wedding. Sounds like the not-unusual theatrics of a jealous teen, until it gets to the point where she realizes she has no choice but to poison Rebeca. It's not out of evil, and she prays that some other catastrophe will occur such that she doesn't have to poison her sister.
Pause here. This is a brilliant use of a kind of hyperbole: most people don't go around literally plotting the murder of their rivals in love, but this side story becomes infinitely more real because Garcia Marquez goes to this completely unrealistic extreme. If Amaranta had simply given up, we the reader could dismiss this episode as a familiar and unremarkable example of one-sided love. But instead, the quietly disturbing scene forces you to feel Amaranta's torment, and the effect is potent.
The Pietro Crespi thing is just one event in Amaranta's life. We can analyze at Amaranta at a higher level of granularity, such as the pattern of her life as a whole. We see Amaranta grows up to reject all the men in her life, and again Garcia Marquez is using this extremity to convey the fear of heartbreak, the vulnerability of love, the protectiveness of loneliness.
And Amaranta is just one character in the novel. We can also analyze Amaranta as one member of the Buendia family, another member of the family who is destined to? desirous of? solitude, for whatever reason that may be. Another member of the family whose will power and energy are rendered useless because it's directed at protecting herself instead of thinking of community.
And so on. Point being, this is a brilliantly crafted novel, one that is ripe with opportunities for analysis. I feel saddened that I am unable to appreciate its primary thesis, but the fact that it's a masterpiece even without this is a telling affirmation of the quality of this creation.
There is more to say (there is always more to say!) but words, they are hard. Bullets for a few other thoughts:
- I thought the final scenes were brilliantly written. The gruesome horror of the infant's death. The pacing picks up and the final pages were a mind trip. Loved it.
- Throughout the book I noted a seeming reverence for the carnal, which, even though he is clear to distinguish it from love, he writes about sympathetically, in praise of it, celebratorily. So often sex without love is treated cynically (or possibly an American thing?) but Garcia Marquez writes every loveless incest sex scene (so many!) with beauty and respect. And yet again these scenes work on multiple levels: the other comment being that staying so interdependent (i.e. incestuous) is damaging on the whole, but each instance of it is often innocent.
*OK, technically the internet seems to classify this as magical realism, not hyperbole, because the "magical" aspects of the novel are not meant to be seen as exaggerations but as reality. Yet I'll argue that the author is employing magical realism in this novel so as to get the effect of hyperbole. Every time Garcia Marquez introduces magical elements, it's for the sole purpose of evoking a much more vivid emotional response than realism would allow.