And but so, here we are: book #2. And the first book not on the TIME 100 list. That didn’t take long, did it?
I feel like I have to start my blog post with a beautiful, remarkable opening line, just like the one that starts 100 Years of Solitude:
“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…”
So I’ll give it a try:
“Many years later, when he had read over 100 books, and his brain had turned to a kind of half-sentient paste, Daniel Pryce was to remember those halcyon days when he was only on Book #2…”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and One Hundred Years of Solitude is his most influential book; it was recently voted the single most important piece of writing in world literature. This is because One Hundred Years of Solitude is the centrepiece, the epicentre, of the literary genre that would come to be known as ‘magic realism‘, or more commonly ‘magical realism‘. Before Marquez, Gunter Grass had dipped his Teutonic toes into the genre with The Tin Drum, the story of a half-grown mental patient, who willingly refuses to become an adult and witnesses the German invasion of Danzig and Poland during the Second World War. The Tin Drum has some of the hallmarks of magical realism, but it is Marquez who truly invented the genre as we know it today. Think about the authors that have taken direct influence from Marquez: Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Neil Gaiman.
In the first 50 pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez introduces a world where the magical and the ordinary blend in seamless unity. Marquez has offered explanation for his mesmeric style of mixing the mystical with the quotidian:
“The tone that I used was based on the way my grandmother used to tell stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness.”
And so we have plagues of insomnia, inflicting amnesia upon the inhabitants of an entire village; a gypsy who falls to his death in the Java Sea, but returns from the grave, only to die and be reborn again and again, aged and ashen and toothless; a flying carpet; a half-snake man, who is beheaded, and then regrows the head; attempts to photograph God; a levitating priest, who seems to draw his holy power through the drinking of chocolate; and the eternal search for the philosopher’s stone. Combined with all of this is the everyday lives of the village of Macondo, situated deep within the steaming swamps of tropical Colombia; marriages, births, love, sex, work, war, politics, religion. It is this perfect jumble of the supernatural and the mundane that make up One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Marquez presents all of this in the pure language of myth and folk tale, the kind told around camp fires on lonely nights, passed from generation to generation; the whole novel, in fact, is inter-generational (like I, Claudius, you’re going to spend some serious goddamn time looking at the family tree in the front of the book; male characters in this book are all called either Jose Arcadio Buendia, or Aureliano Buendia, or some variation thereon; the female characters, at least, mostly have unique names). In this sense, the magical elements take on the nature of fabrication, of grand storytelling, or of primitive explanations for technological advancements; Arthur Clarke once stated that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The initial pages of the book concern the attempts of the ageing patriarch of the village to become an alchemist, after being introduced to perfectly scientific phenomena such as magnetism and telescopes by a troupe of travelling gypsies; in everything, he sees magic, God, the spiritual world, where inhabitants of Europe at this time would understand that these things are simply technological advancements. Even an early-20th century Frenchman, for example, taken from his existence and dropped into the tumult of early 21st century society, would believe in magic, pure and simple.
So the book can thus be seen as the story of the modernization of a formerly isolated rural village, told from an undisclosed point in the future when, it seems, thing have turned enormously sour. However, it is also an attempt to tell the story of a kind of utopian society, plagued by the unfortunate necessities of the world; Macondo, we are told, is initially, founded as a place where everybody is equal:
“Jose Arcadio Buendia, who was the most enterprising man ever to be seen in the village, had set up the placement of the houses in such a way that from all of them one could reach the river and draw water with the same effort, and he had lined up the streets with such good sense that no house got more sun than another during the hot time of day. Within a few years, Macondo was a village that was more orderly and hard-working than any known until then. It was a truly happy village where no one was over thirty years of age, and where no one had died.”
This utopian vision, however, is increasingly interrupted, first by a local magistrate who orders everybody in the town to paint their houses blue, then by a priest who insists on building the grandest church outside of Rome, and then, finally, by war. Throughout, Jose Arcadio Buendia battles for his original vision of Macondo, even attempting to rid the priest of his faith through logical arguments. Marquez himself was enormously critical of the Colombian state and of religion; his non-fiction writing, for international newspapers, is often deeply political and concerned with individual freedoms. One Hundred Years of Solitude seems and extension of his partisan views on the governing of his own country.
I’ll attempt to sketch out a vague history of Colombia and throw the events of the novel into some kind of context, and also talk about whether ‘magical realism’ is a detrimental term, in terms of post-colonial history.