One Hundred Years Of Solitude
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
How can any list of must-reads ever be complete without including Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The “greatest Colombian who ever lived”, affectionately called Gabo, is considered by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. Indeed, he won most of the top Literary awards (Nobel prize for Literature certainly as also Neustadt International prize for literature, often compared with Nobel).
One Hundred Years of Solitude, the epic story of the seven generations of the Beundia family, took Gabriel Garcia Marquez a full 18 months to complete, writing a few hours every day. During this time, he had to sell his car to feed his family, and his wife had to get groceries on credit. But what a success it turned out to be, selling over 50 million copies (a typical bestseller sells ‘only’ 10,000 copies!) and fetching Marquez international fame. Originally published in Spanish in 1967, it was later translated into English and 46 other languages.
The influence of his upbringing is clearly visible in his work. Marquez spent most of his childhood with his grandparents. His grandfather was a very famous Liberal party Colonel, an upright no-nonsense man with a strong sense of values, and you would find a similar character in this book too. His grandmother would tell him stories of ghosts and premonitions and weave them into their daily lives, and that is where he developed his signature theme of magical realism, where magic and reality merge to create a beautiful story. [His other great novel Love In The Time Of Cholera, where a romantic couple finally meets only when they are 70, was influenced by his parents’ own love affair.]
One Hundred Years of Solitude has themes from real Colombia history and events like the struggle between Liberals and Conservatives, or the banana plantation massacre are graphically captured. Along with these ‘real’ events, the story of a family unfolds, with a lot of magical elements thrown in (like ghosts of former family members). The characters are very endearing and real and make you laugh and cry at the same time, and that gives the novel a lasting appeal.
Jose Arcadio Buendia, banished after killing a man (who had insinuated that he was impotent) becomes the founding patriarch of the city of Macondo, the city of mirrors where history and time repeat across the generations. Always interested in new inventions that gypsies would bring, Jose bought many such things from them including alchemy sets, ice machines, astronomy sets, etc. Towards the end, he goes mad and is tied to a tree till his death.
Next important character of the story is Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Jose Arcadio Buendia’s son whose character completely transforms after his child-wife dies in labor. He then decides to join the liberal army and fight injustice wherever he could. After starting thirty such uprisings, he attains a mythical status in Colombia as an invincible hero. Towards the end, he is captured by the Conservatives, but his brother saves him. He carries on fighting but realizes that even the Liberals have shunned the high ideals they started with, that the struggle has become more about pride and has been futile. Disillusioned, he lives in solitude and dies alone, leaning against the same chestnut tree where his mad father was tied for so many years. And ironically, the future generations of Buendias doubt his existence altogether.
There are many other characters. Ursula, the matriarch of the family and Arcadio’s wife who continues to live till the last generations; Amaranta, their jealous daughter who attempts to kill her sister but remains a virginal spinster throughout; the 17 sons of Colonel by 17 different women who are all assassinated as revenge against the Colonel; or the final seventh-generation Aureliano who is devoured as a child by ants as his parents had committed incest. In the end, Macondo is hit by rainstorm that lasts for 5 years and destroys the whole city.
The novel has no single plot or timeline, but interwoven stories as the seven generations go through a series of fortunes and misfortunes, testing both their fates and faith. Interspersed also are the ‘real’ stories of the beautiful country Colombia – romancing alternately the Liberals and the conservatives – and experimenting and struggling with different politics like the rest of Latin America. And then of course is the magic of ghosts and premonition and yellow flowers falling from the sky. Marquez lives up to his own famous maxim on the ideal novel which “should perturb not only because of its political and social content but also because of its power of penetrating reality; and better yet, because of its capacity to turn reality upside down so we can see the other side of it”. Solitude is a running theme in the book, across the family generations, a reflection perhaps of the melancholy in human lives. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he explained the Latin American experience: “in the face of oppression, pillage, and abandonment, our reply is life. Neither flood nor plagues, nor famines nor cataclysms, nor even eternal war century after century have managed to reduce the tenacious advantage that life has over death.” And it is this ode to life that One Hundred Years of Solitude remarkably captures.
This is a complex story with a lot of repetitions of the names of men and women of the family over generations. Most men are named either Jose Arcadio or Aureliano; even their build and personalities are repeated like Arcadio’s are generally big, strong, and gregarious whereas Aurelianos’ are smaller, introverted, and pensive. Similarly, women are named either Amaranta, Ursula, or Remedios, and sometimes even a mixture of these names. We have to keep going back to the family tree again and again. The book is perhaps not for everyone (some say that you have to have lived the Latin American experience to really ‘get’ the novel) and the first 50 pages are hard to read. But once we get through the complexity, there is a world of magic realism to relish.
Why you should read the book: Read it for its beautiful narration and magnificent scope, read it for a perfect blend of history and magical realism where “everything conceivable and inconceivable is happening at once”, read it for its philosophical undertones. Read it to understand that sadness and love go hand-in-hand, just as good things will have bad within them. And read it because it carries the Latino experience – its social and political history – across the world.