Review | One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez (trn. Gregory Rabassa)

This took me a long time to read.

At times I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish this book. I had to keep pausing, and taking a break with something else. This wasn’t because I didn’t like it, exactly, but because I found it exhausting, emotionally and physically, to keep going. In fact, had I not been reading it as part of the Classics Club challenge, making a concerted effort to get through books I might not otherwise have read, I probably would have conceded defeat and returned it to the library.

Reading doesn’t take place in a vacuum; in the same way that one book affects one’s reading of the next, anything that’s going on in the real world has a tendency to affect one’s experience of a book. At a point in my life where I have a fair amount of unstructured spare time to try to fill productively, and am unremittingly single, it wasn’t at all easy to read about generations of people who spend their entire lives failing to find meaning in their endeavours or relationships.

But, with the aid of frequent rest-stops in the Discworld, I eventually made it. And, eventually, I was glad I did.

Reading One Hundred Years of Solitude

First 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.

The book opens with the foundation of the Colombian town of Macondo by utopian visionary José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula. At first the remote town has no contact with the outside world except for the annual visit of the gypsies, who bring the latest wonders in science and magic. Later, the fictional town’s development mirrors the historical convulsions of Colombia: civil war, the railway, a massacre of plantation employees.

Meanwhile, time turns in circles for the Buendía family, with names, misfortunes and illicit passions recurring like clockwork. Not a single descendant manages to make a truly meaningful human connection in the hundred years of the family line, despite between them going to every excess of consumption and passion. All the while, the cryptic writings of the gypsy Melquíades lie undeciphered in a locked room, and only the last of the line will finally make sense of them.

To put it like that makes it sound action-packed, turbulent, emotional. But it’s hard to summarise a book with so huge a scope, because from one page to the next it actually consists of a detached, unemotional account of the characters’ everyday interactions. In fact, the overwhelming sense I got was of monotonous apathy, of the characters’ growing resignation to their own solitude. The way the narrative flits backwards and forwards in time, foreshadowing characters’ futures from the very first sentence onwards, enhances the sense of inevitability. And as the circular passage of time brings the same events around again, things only get worse.

For me it was this dispassionate narratorial voice that made it especially difficult to take any joy from the text. Moments of joy, sadness and anger are indistinguishable from one another. While this is intriguing as far as passing off the magical as everyday is concerned (there’s no more wonder in flying carpets, or in Remedios the Beauty being blown away with the laundry, than there is in Úrsula’s candy animals), the lack of emotional development gives the narrative a relentless, even merciless feel.

There are odd moments of light-hearted humour (and they really do feel odd), such as the mischievous early life of Meme. Even here, though, as each fleeting instance passes, there grows the sense of inevitability that it will be swiftly crushed by the family’s almost active determination to bring misery to itself.

In this vein, I also struggled with the fact that, what with their vices, excesses, lingering resentment and general inability to be nice to each other, not one single member of the enormous Buendía family is even remotely likeable. This is with the possible and limited exception of Úrsula, whose dark predictions for each generation and almost comical exasperation as they come to pass are balanced by her grim devotion to her ‘madhouse’ and, later, the lengths to which she goes to retain her independence in her preternatural old age. But in general, this is not a book that you read in the hope of finding characters to identify with or admire.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Márquez even incorporates some mild body horror: the rediscovery of family members who have not left their rooms or houses for months or years and have become horrifically dilapidated; the corpses of soldiers in the civil war; the fate of the very last Buendía child. This is very, very grim.

All in all, it’s not a pleasant read. I say this cautiously, as an expression of my own experience rather than an objective judgement on Márquez’s writing. Such a feat of keeping hold of so many microplots, developing such an overwhelming sense of decline, and fitting it all into an allegory of a country’s struggle to claim an identity for itself, is clearly masterful. But for someone who hasn’t experienced that struggle or way of life, who has no point of reference with which to identify, it’s hard going.

However.

All of this – the unpleasantness, the apathy, the hopelessness, everything depressing about this chronicle – is changed by the very last two pages. I can’t think of another book where the last thousand-odd words bring such a flash of clarity to the preceding four hundred pages. In no other book I’ve read does the sheer exhaustion of navigating a century of unremitting family misery flip so suddenly and completely into a recognition of why it was necessary. This isn’t to say that the book becomes any less depressing as a result – it doesn’t – but it’s somehow made worthwhile by the realisation of what exactly this relentlessly unhappy chronicle actually is.

It’s not the only book I’ve read that pulls this kind of twist, but – whether because the mystery was present throughout, or just because it was such an effort to get this far – it’s by far the most satisfying in its execution.

So for all that the apathy and misery of the book is infectious, and despite the claims of the final sentence, I feel One Hundred Years of Solitude does deserve a second chance. I can see that it merits endless study and rereading. I just might read something a little more light-hearted first.

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