Gabriel García Márquez, a Nobel Prize winning Latin American author of magical realism fiction, died recently in April 2014. Having remembered enjoying his writing style, I was inspired to pick up his famous One Hundred Years of Solitude to re-read. What I remembered from reading it for the first time several years ago was a single impression: the feeling of reclining on a bench in a beautiful garden on a sunny day with a cool breeze blowing. Hailed as one of the greatest novels of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude focuses on seven generations of the Buendía family in the city of Macondo. This novel should be on everyone’s “to-read” list for its unabashed depiction of humanity.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez
Originally published: 1967 (1970 in English), Colombia
1. Macondo as a Character
Having a city depicted as a character is nothing new in fiction, but with Macondo García Márquez has created a unique place to serve as the novel’s setting. Both realistic and mythical, Macondo draws diverse people to it, drives some of the central Buendía family away from it, and becomes a political hotbed during civil unrest.
Macondo is a fictional city founded by the first generation of the Buendía family, José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula, during their search for a better home. García Márquez follows seven generations of Buendía family members as they grow up and grow old in Macondo. The home that José Arcadio and Úrsula build becomes home to some of each of the seven generations. Large and constantly changing to suit the needs and desires of the family members, the home comes to represent the Buendías and predict the fate of Macondo.
Macondo becomes a very important main character in the novel. As a character, Macondo is a bit of a hermit, choosing a slow, easy life—unless it is beset by surprising outside forces like the military or a banana company. Macondo does have clear childhood, adolescence, middle age, and old age phases as the generations pass and it grows old. The city prefers to remain detached from the rest of Colombia and act as a haven for all who live there. Macondo seems to possess mystical powers that provide its inhabitants with long life, escape from the world, and peace when they need it most.
2. The Cyclical Nature of Life and Family
One of the big themes of One Hundred Years of Solitude is that there is something cyclical about family generations. Aside from the tradition of naming offspring with the same repeated names as their fathers, uncles, and mothers, many of the family members share the same traits and fates. There is a workshop in the house set up by the first José Arcadio that a few of his male offspring inhabit at different times in their lives. Some share his obsessive nature as they pour over indecipherable manuscripts left by a passing gypsy, while others share his interest in chemistry and try their hand at changing metals or reviving alchemy. Úrsula warns against incest within the family and declares that the product of such incest will be born with the tail of a pig. This warning is repeated over and over as nephews fall in love with aunts and the mysterious origins of some of the Buendías cause lovers to not know if they are related or not.
With the repetition of personal natures within the family, García Márquez explores the question of whether there is something important—and perhaps even inevitable—about being born into a certain family. Would the fate of your grandmother impact the way you experience life? Would sharing a name with your great uncle change the way you interact with the world? In the ethereal, but still very real, Macondo, the cyclical way life moves within generations of a family is depicted as inescapable fate.
3. Magical Realism
Magical realism is a style of fiction in which the everyday world is infused with magical elements. García Márquez, as a Latin American author, comes out of this tradition, and he has inspired others to take up this fiction style (like Salman Rushdie). Magical realism is one of my favorite fiction sub-genres, and García Márquez does an excellent job of creating a place where reality and magic combine that is fully believable and enjoyable to read.
What makes this genre fascinating for me is the way that García Márquez is able to make the events of the novel seem realistic, even when they are clearly magical. I attribute this to his tone, which presents all information as though it is happening or has happened—similar to the way a storyteller tells tall tales. If you have not experienced magical realism before, be prepared to suspend your disbelief and let the story take you along.
4. The Spectrum of Love
Bound up with the theme about families and fates, One Hundred Years of Solitude also probes into the spectrum of human love. While some of this love is certainly passionate and sexual, there is also an array of examples of familial love, even between those who are not directly related. García Márquez writes about love as the most natural thing we do as humans but is also not afraid to show examples of the corruption of love. There are love affairs that are void of substance, those that break families, and those that are kept secret out of fear.
Probably the best thing that García Márquez is able to do is to present each experience of love in a non-judgmental way. Sure, other characters may have opinions about the relationships, but the narration does not try to privilege this one or that one as the greatest, best or purest love. García Márquez recognizes the complexity of people and the variety of relationships that they experience throughout their lives. The same even tone that does not distinguish between reality and magic is also employed when describing the actions of the characters—events happen because they did and characters act as they will.
5. Reading as Exploration
What I found, especially after reading this book for the second time, is that García Márquez has made the reader an explorer. Certainly one of the reasons people read is to gain knowledge, but with fiction the purpose is commonly entertainment. While One Hundred Years of Solitude includes fantastic stories and magical happenings, the core of this book is exploring humanity through the example of the Buendía family. Through the stories of the generations the reader is able to experience the variety in and the connections between families and, to a larger extent, all of humanity.
García Márquez does not specifically call for the reader to wonder about their own life or their own history, but one cannot help doing just that as they walk around the Buendía home for years with this family.
As I re-read this novel, I did feel the sensation again of sitting in a garden on a warm summer day, and I know that it is the Buendía’s garden I’m imagining because their home, their family, and their city of Macondo have become woven into my life too. We have shared humanity together and explored what that means.
I highly recommend, for the 5 reasons I’ve mentioned, that you give One Hundred Years of Solitude a try. It may seem odd in the beginning with the magical realism and the stark tone, but by the end the Buendía family and Macondo will feel like home.