Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad)

Author: Gabriel García Márquez

Date: 1967 (Editorial Sudamericanos), 1970 (Harper)

Publisher: Editorial Sudamericanos (1967), Harper  (U.S.)

ISBN: 0-06-074045-0

Length: 448 pages (the novel) + 10 pages of publishing history in 1998 paperback edition

Quote: “Macondo is surrounded by water on all sides.”

Only in wet weather, of course. Macondo is a fictional farm-turned-village-turned-town somewhere in South America, probably in Colombia. The fictional history of the founding family of Macondo, which is the subject of this book, charms North Americans mainly by its exotic, “believe-it-or-not” quality. A showman makes a fortune by demonstrating the powers of a strong magnet to ignorant villagers. A man trying to “double” his gold coins by melting them down with other metals , in lard, mysteriously reduces all his metal material to “a large piece of burnt hog cracklings.” A human child is born with a piglike tail and dies from loss of blood when a helpful friend cuts it off. And that’s only the prologue to this very long story of love and war, births and deaths and insanities, in an improbable, hot, damp, murky place.  Time passes, children grow up, elders die, babies are born, and the town grows up around them…

Spanish is in some ways a remarkably economical language. García Márquez can be a remarkably economical writer. The effect of a long series of news-of-the-weird incidents, some condensed down to passing remarks—or are they figures of speech?—in the course of a longer and weirder story, can be mesmerizing. It is the suspicion, if not the official position, of this web site that this effect is what has built up the perception that Cien años de soledad was a great novel, when in fact it may not qualify as a novel at all. That is, while reading the story I distinctly remember an impression that it had a plot, beyond just “What a weird and wondrous place the South American jungle is”—but now I find that I can’t remember what the plot was. What I came away with was “What a weird and wondrous place the South American jungle is.”

As in Chuck Shepherd’s “News of the Weird,” many of the scenes are gross-outs. It’s hard to open this book without one. I open it at random three times: First, a child suffering from pica is “cured” with a “dose” of orange juice and rhubarb, which might actually help, but “they had to tie her up like a calf to make her swallow the medicine.” Next, a lover presents to his beloved an “ermine cape soiled with blood.” Finally, a friend tears herself away from a long emotional conversation with “I forgot that today’s the day to put quicklime on the anthills.” There. You see.The characters in this story all seem a bit delirious even when we’re not told that they have any specific physical disease, which they often do. Since we’re told that Macondo is practically an island surrounded by swamps, where everything grows and multiplies prodigiously but not always healthfully, this may be the literal truth behind the fiction. 

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this long formless gush of anecdotes is that readers who want to be amused and/or allured and/or grossed out can open this book anywhere and find something funny, attractive, and/or repulsive.

“He gave his rifle to an officer who had been disarmed in the fight and escaped with Amaranta through a nearby street to take her home. Ursula was in the doorway waiting, indifferent to the cannon shots that had opened up a hole in the front of the house next door.”

“The only souvenir she kept of Aureliano Segundo was a pair of patent leather boots, which, according to what he himself had said, were the ones hewanted to wear in his coffin… ‘He has to come sooner or later,’ she told herself, ‘even if it’s just to put on those boots.’”

“Aureliano Segundo gave her not only the money from the special raffle, but also what he had managed to put aside over the previous months and what little he had received from the sale…According to his calculations, that sum would be enough for her studies, so that all that was lacking was the price of her fare back home.”

It’s wilder than the “Wild West” shows we have in North America, and will continue to entertain those who enjoy such anecdotes for a good long time. It’s too explicit for my taste; having read it once quickly I’m ready to pass it on, since if I’m going to think about the weirdest and wildest aspects of birth, death, and disease I prefer at least to think about them as facts, but hey, Oprah Winfrey loved this book. I just find myself bogging down in the sheer, well, bogginess of it. Washington is about as close to a tropical swamp as I can safely go.

But if English is your native language and you’re studying Spanish, you must read this novel in English, at least once,  because so many people admire García Márquez. You will receive copies of his books, of which this is perhaps the best known, in Spanish. You will need to look up the official translation to confirm that yes, indeed, what the author meant to say is as bizarre as you first thought, and sometimes more so. So here is this indispensable reference work, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I enjoyed BorgesEl libro de seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings) and Mi pais inventado (My Imaginary Country) more. (A funny thing happened when I typed in this paragraph. Amazon wanted to link something to the combined titles of the Spanish and English editions of the first opus citatus but then went into a sulk and refused to link anything to either title alone, although it has pages for both titles. The link widget behaved better with the newer book, though.)

While some editions of One Hundred Years of Solitude, like the one with the Impressionist-inspired jacket shown above, have gone into collector prices, what I physically own is the Oprah's Book Club edition, which is still fairly cheap on Amazon. If you want that edition, send $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to the appropriate address at the very bottom of the screen.