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Beyond Belief

Tom Hennigan

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, first published as Cien años de soledad by Editorial Sudamericana in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1967.

In our celebrity-obsessed age it is a tale that must spur on many a middle-aged writer toiling away in obscurity. In 1967, Gabriel García Márquez was a penniless forty-year-old journalist and screenwriter who had published some well-regarded but little read novels and short stories. A Colombian living in exile in Mexico City, he was on the fringes of the Latin American literary boom that had already made famous across the region such contemporaries as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, writers who were beginning to win excited attention too from critics and readers in Europe and North America.

García Márquez had just plunged his family into debt writing a book after an epiphany on the road to Acapulco finally revealed the voice with which to tell a story he had been gestating for over two decades. The process had left him so poor that once completed he could not even afford to post all of the manuscript to a publisher in Buenos Aires, being forced instead to send just half of it. On leaving the post office he and his wife went home and pawned a heater, a hairdryer and a liquidiser to raise the money to send the rest. It was worth it.

The book was One Hundred Years of Solitude and its publication by Editorial Sudamericana marked not so much a literary landmark as an earthquake, to use Vargas Llosa’s term. The leading lights of the boom immediately declared it an obra maestra. The first edition of eight thousand copies sold out in twenty days and within another month word of mouth quickly transformed it into a sensation all across a continent still giddily exploring a new collective cultural identity which had emerged in the wake of the political and social upheaval of the Cuban Revolution.

The story of the Buendía clan and their town of Macondo made an immediate mark on both elite minds and popular culture, getting awed reviews while racking up huge sales in a continent not exactly renowned for its love of reading. By the time it was published in English in 1970 the novel was already widely considered a literary masterpiece, hailed on arrival by The New York Times as “a South American Genesis”. It has since gone on to sell over thirty million copies in more than thirty languages ‑ in Spanish fiction only Cervantes’s Don Quixote has sold more and it has been on bookshelves for four centuries.

The novel has long since come to define Latin American fiction, not just of the boom period, and its famed magic realism has been credited, by its great admirer Salman Rushdie among others, with expressing “a genuinely Third World consciousness” that has shown writers from the global periphery how to slip the cultural shackles imposed by the world’s colonial powers. Just fifteen years after its publication, García Márquez was awarded the Nobel prize for literature and his fame is now such that among the dignitaries who travelled to Colombia to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the book’s publication were Bill Clinton and the king and queen of Spain.

But so outsized is García Márquez’s presence in the world of Latin American letters ‑ his global fame and stature ‑ that there has been the inevitable reaction. Before his death Roberto Bolaño, the most influential Latin American writer to emerge since the boom, expressed this antipathy best when he famously said that magic realism “stinks” and denigrated García Márquez as “a man thrilled to have known so many presidents and archbishops”. In the 1990s the McOndo movement emerged among a generation of young urban Latin American writers consciously rejecting the magic realism of Macondo and accusing those who continued to work in the genre as transforming “fiction writing into the fairy-tale business, cranking out shamelessly folkloric novels that cater to the imaginations of politically correct readers — readers who, at present, aren’t even aware of Latino cultural realism”.

Of course magic realism was not invented with One Hundred Years of Solitude. The style had achieved a measure of global prominence with the publication of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum eight years before and in his memoir Living to Tell the Tale García Márquez writes of the profound impact reading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in a translation by another early influence, Jorge Luis Borges, had on him: “I never again slept with my former serenity… [it] determined a new direction for my life from its first line, which today is one of the great devices in world literature.”

But the phenomenal success of One Hundred Years of Solitude created a publishing monster. As early as 1984 the craze among editors for magic realist texts from Latin America to satiate the demand it created led Julian Barnes to call in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot for a quota system for fiction set in South America:

The intention is to curb the spread of package-tour baroque and heavy irony. Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, of surprising honour and random cruelty. Ah, the daiquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing; ah, the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle.

And yet for all the acclaim and disdain ‑ whether for the book itself, its author or his legion of imitators ‑ One Hundred Years of Solitude remains something of an oddity. Though it now defines the Latin American novel, its magic realism is an outlier, not just among the great works of the boom but even within García Márquez’s oeuvre. Of his novels it is the only one to employ the style as a central element. Having used it thus in a masterpiece he never attempted to do so again, an astonishing display of confidence considering the success he achieved with it, but also the sign of a master. With overuse, every literary style risks debasement but magic realism is perhaps particularly vulnerable, its impact relying in part on the novelty of its blurring of the real with the fantastic. By moving on from it, García Márquez avoided accompanying its descent into trite mannerism at the hands of those who in his wake have spent whole careers mining the seam he abandoned.

But the critical disrepute into which magic realism has now fallen should not take away from the original artistic achievement that is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Something of a child prodigy, García Márquez had first attempted, when just eighteen years old, to write a novel that gave “form to all the experiences that in a certain way had affected me in my childhood”. But the effort failed for lack of a tone that made credible to him the world of his youth, which he has said took place in a “very sad” large house with a sister that ate earth, a grandmother who could divine the future and numerous relatives with identical names who never made much distinction between “happiness and dementia”. The key, eventually revealed on the road to Acapulco, was to “tell the story as my grandmother told me hers, starting from that afternoon where the kid is brought by his father to know ice … a linear history where with every innocence the extraordinary enters into the daily”.

A writer with a healthy disdain for the academic-industrial complex that has deployed whole divisions to study his work, García Márquez has modestly claimed that the novel’s magic realism was the means of creating “a poetic record of the world of my childhood”. And what of those who saw in the book a parable or allegory for the history of humanity? “No ... the critics, contrary to novelists, do not find in books what they can but what they want.” This might be an admirable defence of his readers’ interests against the intellectualism of the academy that he so despises. But of course One Hundred Years of Solitude is no mere family saga. García Márquez has written a novel that is so rich and dense with suggestive metaphors that a text already infused with a metaphysical quality thanks to its magic realist style takes on a scriptural one, though one laced with an earthy humour not found in most sacred texts.

On the first page we find a world “so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point”. But we are not in Eden but rather the world after the Fall. Macondo’s founders, José Arcadio and Úrsula Buendía, have fled the ghost of a neighbour he has killed, leading a band of followers “toward the land that no one had promised them”. They are cousins whose families are terrified the union will produce a child with a pig’s tail, leading Úrsula to deny herself to her new husband, who murders when provoked about his supposed impotency. The town they found will suffer its own version of the Flood and be struck by a plague, in this case of insomnia, an episode inspired by García Márquez’s reading of that great pagan mythmaker Sophocles. Six generations after its Genesis the book ends in Apocalypse with “a fearful whirlwind of dust and rubble being spun about by the wrath of the biblical hurricane”.

This biblical framework is reinforced by the revelation at the end that the story of Macondo is scripture but, lest that sound too portentous, it also something of a literary in-joke. As the final hurricane gathers strength, Aureliano Babilonia, the last of the Buendía line, rushes to decipher the Sanskrit parchments left by the gypsy Magus Melquíades, only to realise that they contain the story of his own clan. He finds himself “prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments” which reveal Macondo “would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments”. The last Buendía’s realisation that he is nothing more than a character in a text – biblical or otherwise ‑ whose world will end when the reader reaches the last page recalls Borges, the great player of textual games, who described One Hundred Years of Solitude as “a great novel, although I believe it has fifty years too many”.

Though Argentine, Borges was never interested in exploring Latin American themes in his work and rarely used its settings to frame his meditations on the nature of time, infinity and reality. The fictional universe conjured up by the blind seer of Buenos Aires is wholly self-referencing, maintaining a determined autonomy from the quirk of fate which landed him on the South American continent. But the work of his admirer is firmly rooted in the history of Colombia and Latin America and it is because of this rootedness that One Hundred Years of Solitude reads as a metaphor for the continent’s history, Melquíades’s parchments retelling it as both allegory and myth. It is this surely that explains the book’s continuing hold over the popular imagination across Latin America.

The cover of the first edition was inspired by one of the first of many of the striking images that García Márquez gives us in the story: “When they woke up, with the sun already high in the sky, they were speechless with fascination. Before them, surrounded by ferns and palm trees, white and powdery in the silent morning light, was an enormous Spanish galleon … The whole structure seemed to occupy its own space, one of solitude and oblivion, protected from the vices of time and the habits of birds. Inside, where the expeditionaries explored with careful intent, there was nothing but a forest of flowers.” The Spanish Conquest is again alluded to when José Arcadio uses magnets obtained from Melquíades to hunt for gold, only succeeding in unearthing “a suit of fifteenth-century armour which had all of its pieces soldered together with rust and inside of which there was the hollow resonance of an enormous stone-filled gourd. When José Arcadio Buendía and the four men of his expedition managed to take the armour apart, they found inside a calcified skeleton with a copper locket containing a women’s hair around its neck.”

Through the initial growth of Macondo we witness the formation of a new society in a New World, followed by the arrival of the state and all its corrupting influences. A mayor is appointed and uneasily coexists alongside the Buendías, who achieve a measure of wealth. Reinforcing this historical interpretation is the fact that two central elements of the narrative are directly based on events from Colombia’s violent history. Though all of them are treated with affection, the closest the family gets to providing us with a hero is Colonel Aureliano Buendía, son of José Arcadio and Úrsula. He is the hero of thirty-two civil war campaigns whom García Márquez makes a signatory of the historical Treaty of Neerlandia. Endless warfare for his Liberal principles eventually corrupts Aureliano: “Lost in the solitude of his immense power, he began to lose direction ... He was weary of the uncertainty, of the vicious circle of that eternal war that always found him in the same place, but always older, wearier, even more in the position of not knowing why, or how, or even when.” As one of his childhood friends, serving under him warns “You’re rotting alive.”

While this exploration of Colombia’s uncivil wars drives the middle section of the novel, the final third is dominated by its portrayal of US imperialism through the representation of a massacre by the Colombian army of banana workers in Ciénaga in 1928. This happened in the year after García Márquez was born in nearby Aracataca in Colombia’s banana region and to this day what actually took place remains obscured by government and corporate misinformation. An unknown number of workers demanding better conditions from their US employer, the notorious United Fruit Company, were killed by soldier strike-breakers. Such was the extent of the cover-up that the death toll of three thousand used by García Márquez in the novel has since morphed for many in Colombia into the historical number of dead at Ciénaga, in the absence of an official alternative. José Arcadio the Second is the sole witness to survive the novel’s massacre, only for no one to believe him, provoking his eventual retreat into solitude, while the company covers up the massacre by means of a biblical flood that marks the start of the last, fatal decline of Macondo.

So if One Hundred Years of Solitude is, as seems clear, a meditation on history as well as a poetic record of its author’s childhood, what then are readers, particularly Latin American ones, to make of its end, in which Macondo “would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men”? A strong strain of fatalism has been noted in García Márquez’s work and is also found in subsequent novels that directly tackle the region’s history. The dictator novel The Autumn of the Patriarch and the historical fiction The General in His Labyrinth both share strongly tragic visions. Behind its abundant humour is One Hundred Years of Solitude a cry of despair at Latin America’s historical “failure”?

The novel’s magic realism helps provide a more nuanced reading that is perhaps closer to the author’s intent. In the text, magic realism is set up in contrast to the scientific progress which José Arcadio is determined to bring to Macondo. Early in the first chapter he warns his wife: “We’re going to rot our lives away here without receiving the benefits of science.” He wants to move the settlement closer to civilisation. She refuses to budge. In light of the subsequent downfall of the Buendías and the wiping of Macondo from the face of the earth, the novel’s magic realism can thus be read as a criticism of its inhabitants’ failure to embrace science, to find the “civilisation” that José Arcadio sought and was denied. It becomes, in the words of Edwin Williamson, “a manifestation of the malaise that causes the decline of the Buendía family”.

Without access to science the Buendías are no match for the forces of modernity when they arrive in the town in the form of the banana company, which imposes its will on them: its carpetbaggers dine at their table without even knowing who the Buendías are, even insulting Úrsula by offering to pay, thinking they are in a hotel. As the generations pass, the novel becomes increasingly immersed in its own magic realism and the fantastic until “nobody was able to tell for sure where the limits of reality lay”. The family is sunk in nostalgia; time ceases for them to be linear and becomes circular. As the ancient Úrsula exclaims: “It’s as if the world were repeating itself.”

By the time we reach the sixth generation we meet an Aureliano who has: “learned by heart the fantastic legends of the crumbling book, the synthesis of the studies of Hermann the Cripple, the notes on the science of demonology, the keys to the philosopher’s stone, the Centuries of Nostradamus and his research concerning the plague, so that he reached adolescence without knowing a thing about his own time but with the basic knowledge of a medieval man”.

The family’s turning away from the world is also expressed by another device – the Buendías’ incest. As we have seen, incest played a role in Macondo’s founding and affects every generation until the sixth finally produces the child with a pig’s tail so feared by Úrsula. García Márquez himself has drawn attention to the importance of incest in the novel, saying what interested him in it “was above all to tell the story of a family obsessed by incest, and which, in spite of every precaution taken for several generations, ends up having a child with a strange pig’s tail.” Incest is another profound expression of rejecting the wider world and looking inwards. The sixth Aureliano is not even aware that he has procreated with his own aunt so remote by now is the family from history, even its own. Cut off from reality and history he instead immerses himself in the occult practice of deciphering Melquíades’s parchments, finally succeeding after the birth of the deformed child, the end result of the family’s century of ever deepening solitude.

Speaking a few years after the book’s publication García Márquez noted: “Nobody has touched upon what really interested me in writing the book, that is, the idea that solitude is the opposite of solidarity; I believe it is the essence of the book … Solitude considered as the negation of solidarity is an important political concept. Nobody has seen it … Macondo’s frustration comes from there … It is the lack of love.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude was written during the early years of the Cuban Revolution. Like most of the boom writers García Márquez, a committed socialist, was a supporter and remained one even after other leading lights of the movement broke with Havana in 1971 over censorship. In the years before writing his breakthrough novel he had even worked as a correspondent for Cuba’s Prensa Latina news agency. Considering the book’s preoccupation with the region’s history the interpretation by Marxist critics that the hurricane that destroys Macondo is a moment of revolutionary change deserves attention. In this reading One Hundred Years of Solitude is a critique of Latin American history until 1959 and Cuba, when the failure of solitude was replaced by socialist solidarity.

But this is just one possible reading and unlikely to explain the book’s appeal outside of Latin America, where it has captivated millions who know little of Colombia’s civil wars, care less for Fidel’s revolution and are scarcely worrying that the bleak ending signifies García Márquez’s colonisation by imperialist cultural prejudice in apparently producing another Latin American novel that explains to the region’s readers why they cannot get history “right”.

For all the attention devoted to it, One Hundred Years of Solitude remains a mysterious creation that easily shakes off any attempts to hang firm conclusions on it. Its incest might indeed both track and explain the decline of the family but then at the birth of the final Buendía, with his incestuous pig’s tail, we are told this baby boy is “predisposed to begin the race again from the beginning and cleanse it of its pernicious vices and solitary calling, for he was the only one in a century who had been engendered with love” ‑ only for his negligent father to then let him to be killed by ants.

So what does explain the book’s appeal? One answer is surely that its narrative structure is, in terms of the modernist novel, a straightforward one, though each encounter with it can yield up remarkably different interpretations, even for the same reader, as this one has experienced over three readings. What does it matter if some find in it the very allegory for the history of humanity that the author did not set out to write? Every new or returning reader has much to offer as there is still no consensus as to what the book is.

The other source of its appeal and perhaps the most important is that One Hundred Years of Solitude is a very funny book. We are told that the character named Gabriel García Márquez leaves Macondo for Paris just before the town is destroyed bringing with him “two changes of clothing, a pair of shoes, and the complete works of Rabelais” and his alter ego’s novel is full of bawdy humour derived from sex and sexual delinquency and the less glamorous bodily functions. The incest of the Buendía family is played repeatedly for laughs, as are death and religion. When the beauty Remedios ascends into the sky while folding sheets one afternoon her fanatically religious sister-in-law Fernanda is left “burning with envy, [though she] finally accepted the miracle, and for a long time she kept on praying to God to send her back her sheets”.

The novel has numerous false trails which constantly seek to disorientate readers. We are ambushed immediately in the famous first line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” From this beginning we reasonably expect that the novel’s one hero will be executed, only to discover later on we have been misled from the start. Thus the author playfully confuses our expectations, forcing us to ask if he meant what he said when he described his novel as something of an in-joke for his writer friends and “completely devoid of seriousness”, warning that critics who take on the responsibility of decoding all riddles in a book are “running the risk of sayings stupid things”. The historical gravitas of the book, its moral seriousness, is consistently being sent up by its own humour.

But this humour exists alongside García Márquez’s obvious compassion for his characters, though they do not show much of it for each other. Their creator always gives them a poignant humanity even though they may be murderers, warmongers, whoremongers, wastrels, scolds or prudes, condemned to be wiped out in the end without “a second opportunity on earth”. But in the opportunity granted to them in the novel he endears them to us in all their destructive, tragicomic glory. The characters give his fantasy its credibility. García Márquez has created a vision in Macondo which is, we are told at the end, “the city of mirrors (or mirages)”. He has given enough hints that we need to consider the possibility that it is just a mirage. But the continuing power of the novel over readers almost half a century after its publication suggests for many it is a mirror held up to ourselves.

The last word might go to García Márquez’s great contemporary Mario Vargas Llosa, who in his 1971 critical study of his work History of a Deicide, hailed One Hundred Years of Solitude as: “a ‘total’ novel, in line with those dementedly ambitious creations which compete with reality as equals, confronting it with a qualitatively equivalent image of vitality, vastness and complexity. This totality manifests itself more than anything in the plural nature of the novel which is simultaneously things which appear contradictory: traditional and modern, local and universal imaginary and realist. Another expression of this ‘totality’ is its unlimited accessibility, its ability to be in reach, with distinct but abundant rewards, of each reader whether intelligent or an imbecile, the refined reader who enjoys prose, contemplates its architecture and deciphers its symbols and the impatient one only waiting for the next crude anecdote. Literary genius in our time is typically hermetic, minority and claustrophobic. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a rare case of a great contemporary literary work which all can understand and enjoy.”

Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent for The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.