Sometimes it’s quite difficult to review a book after a single reading when the book is clearly a masterwork of literature that does multiple things at once. It’s even more difficult to review a masterwork of literature when everyone already knows it’s a masterwork and has written endlessly about it since its original publication. Unless you’re going to denounce it as trash, it’s hard to say anything new or noteworthy. Happily, this is a problem I now have, because after a few years of keeping it on the to-read list, I finally took the opportunity to introduce myself to Gabriel García Márquez and magical realism through the classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. And I have also fallen in love. This is happy since I now have a new favourite book. It is also a problem because I now have to write about it.
There’s no one story in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Or perhaps there’s only the same story over and over again, with variations on a theme. It will take some re-reading and pondering over this narrative, the saga of the Buendía family set in the fictional town of Macondo, to find which description is true.
I realized at some point that the novel’s major themes, motifs, and literary technique are all perfectly summed up in the famous opening sentence: “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.”
Immediately we are introduced to a key member of the family at a turning point in his life; but by the time the sentence is finished we’ve gone back to his early childhood and the focus shifts to his father. Temporal dislocation is a key tool in García Márquez’ literary toolkit. Throughout the book he surprises you with a casual mention of someone’s future death, then takes perhaps another fifty pages before it comes into the story’s present.
And then a man standing in front of a firing squad is fundamentally a man standing alone. The great tragedy that dogs the generations of the Buendía family is summed up in the word solitude. It takes many different forms, and happens for different reasons, but the Buendías are ultimately solitary people. They live in a kind of confinement, and even find ways to make their desires for love with another into an isolation from the world. They withdraw into their obsession and many do not find the happiness they once sought, and end their lives in solitude. But then again, it is connecting to the outside world that eventually leads to Macondo’s corruption and downfall. So which is better: solitude or connection? Perhaps its a question the novel seeks only to ask rather than answer.
Then there’s the ice. This brings us to the most celebrated aspect of García Márquez’ style and work, something we’ve dubbed as magical realism. He describes the fabulous and the mundane with the same serious tone, and the effect is not so much to bring the fantastic down to earth as to transform the ordinary into the miraculous, and at the same time transforms how we see ourselves and our world.
A little more than halfway through the book, Úrsula, the family matriarch, begins to go blind. She’s able to disguise the fact from the rest of the family by being intimately familiar with their habits and her other senses. But it also opens her perceptions about the natural world (discovering that the sun’s path shifts imperceptibly throughout the year) and, surprisingly, it also means that she understands things about her family she didn’t before:
Even though the trembling of her hands was more and more noticeable and the weight of her feet was too much for her, her small figure was never seen in so many places at the same time. She was almost as diligent as when she had the whole weight of the house on her shoulders. Nevertheless, in the impenetrable solitude of decrepitude she had such clairvoyance as she examined the most insignificant happenings in the family that for the first time she saw clearly the truths that her busy life in former times had prevented her from seeing.
Úrsula’s solitude comes from her changing condition, but it also turns into a kind of blessing; she does not lose her eyesight so much as she gains eyes to see what is true. Aureliano’s father took him to “discover” ice. What about ice needs discovering? In a South American town like Macondo, ice no doubt seems strange and miraculous. But more than that, García Márquez makes us feel the strangeness and the wonder when they touch the cold, wet surface and suddenly their world includes something new.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of those works that embody why we write literature: imagination expands our horizons and reveals the truth of the world in all its beauty and pain, and of the myriad ways in which we both love and hurt one another, the ways we are both communal and solitary, perhaps even at the same time. Imagination changes what we see and how we see it, increasing our empathy and our wonder at life–and hopefully cutting through the walls of the prison cells that hold us in solitude.