When I read The Master and Margarita recently, I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it, for I don’t think of myself as being a fan of fantasy fiction or magical realism or whatever genre of literature that fits in. (I do like Kafka a lot, but that feels like a different kind of surrealism to me. I honestly don’t know if his stuff is typically classified as being of that same genre, but my gut tells me it shouldn’t be.)
So that got my hopes up a bit for the even more highly regarded One Hundred Years of Solitude (the blurb on the back of the edition I happen to have actually identifies it as “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race”).
But, alas, while I definitely didn’t hate the book, and I surely got at least something out of reading it, I must confess that my reaction to it contained a much greater element of “So what’s all the fuss about?” than I’m comfortable admitting.
Stepping back, I suspect it’s my reaction to The Master and Margarita that was more the fluke, that typically fantasy novels like these will only appeal to me to a quite limited extent.
Set in the town of Macondo, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the story of multiple generations of the Buendía family. Over the course of the novel, you get to know a dozen or so main members of the family, their peripheral family members, friends, and acquaintances, the town, the country it’s in, and the world of that historical period.
Though “get to know” is probably overstating it, due to the writing style. Some contextual information that would automatically be included in a conventional novel is left out entirely, and some must be inferred uncertainly from other things that are stated. There are anachronisms and contradictions (probably—though maybe there’s some really convoluted interpretation that makes it all consistent). There are possible and probable supernatural occurrences, again depending on the interpretation. What the characters believe and say includes certain such fantasy and supernatural elements that indicate that, frankly, most or all of them are ignorant if not insane, but the omniscient narrator tells of such things as well. Even beyond their superstitious and supernatural beliefs, most of the characters are also eccentric (again, if not outright insane) in terms of their sometimes bizarre behavior.
So it’s the kind of book that makes it difficult if not impossible to get your bearings and understand where you are and which parts of what you’re reading you’re supposed to take at face value and which parts are myth, delusion, or symbolism.
Some of it is written in kind of a poetic, indirect style that’s hard to describe, but that makes it even harder to grasp what is being stated. Again to contrast it with The Master and Margarita, in that book you’d be told straightforwardly that a giant, human-sized cat walking on two legs attempted to board a train and was blocked from doing so. It’s an utterly bizarre, impossible occurrence, but it’s clear at least what’s supposedly happening. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, there’s much that’s equally or more bizarre, but it’s described in a more dreamlike, ambiguous manner, like the difference between looking at something and glimpsing it out of the corner of your eye.
The most basic elements of place and time aren’t even clear and consistent. Macondo is a fictitious town, but where is it supposed to be? The country it is located in is never identified, so the reader can’t even know if it’s a real country or a country that is as unreal as the town itself.
Where is this unnamed country? Almost all the evidence implies Latin America certainly. There are a few mentions of the Caribbean as being at least close by, so that implies either an island in the Caribbean or a country in Central or South America with an Atlantic coast along the Caribbean. If it’s supposed to be in a real rather than fictitious country, then I suppose Colombia (the home country of the author) is the best guess. But then very late in the novel Macondo is more directly identified as “in the Caribbean,” so that makes it sound more like it’s on an island rather than in a mainland nation like Colombia.
But I say “almost all the evidence” rather than “all” because there are occasional elements that cast some doubt even on its being in or near the Caribbean. For instance, Gypsies, Arabs, and Turks regularly pass through the town, which makes it sound more like Europe than Latin America. Of course this counter evidence is dwarfed by the evidence in favor of Latin America (there are occasional mentions of Indians nearby, when people go to Europe they travel a great distance overseas, Gringos come down from the north to make trouble, and on and on), but it’s still there and limits the confidence with which one can guess the location.
Macondo’s location is also ambiguous in the sense of how remote it is or isn’t. At times it’s presented as if it were truly in the middle of nowhere. José Arcadio Buendía, the patriarch of the family, establishes the town after some treacherous journey from a swampy region. He then at times explores a considerable distance out from Macondo in various directions, seeking a route to the sea, to better land, to civilization, to something, with no luck. He doesn’t bother going back the way he came, because he knows there’s nothing to speak of that way if one wants to make the grueling journey at all, but he’s hopeful about these other directions and so is quite disappointed to learn there’s seemingly only nothingness wherever he heads.
But if the town is so extraordinarily isolated and pretty much inaccessible, how do the Gypsies and others keep visiting routinely, and why does this surprise no one? As the book progresses, Macondo if anything seems to be in the middle of the action as far as the political and military developments in the country, and while maybe some of the lessening of its isolation could be attributed to advances in transportation technology, there’s something more going on; there’s an exaggerated, fantasy element to its sometime remoteness that goes beyond just that railroad tracks to it hadn’t yet been laid down or whatever. It’s more like Kafka’s The Castle, where the protagonist spends the entire book trying, and failing, to figure out how to get to the castle, but presumably not because it truly is inaccessible (people come and go to work there daily, for instance), but because there’s something surreal or nightmarish about his specific experiences.
Time is at least as ambiguous as place in the novel. When does One Hundred Years of Solitude take place? Well, to start, from the title one would assume it takes place over the course of a hundred years, and that’s at least roughly consistent with some of the clearest evidence. I’m thinking mainly of the life spans of the Buendía family members and their acquaintances. Multiple of them live to be over 100, but I think all the ones who make it that far were already alive at the start of the novel, and most or all of them were already adults. The oldest age attributed to any of them at death is 140 or so. I don’t recall her age being mentioned early in the book when she first appears, but I didn’t picture her as already 40 or more. So if I didn’t have the title to go by, I might have guessed the events of the book take place over the course of something like 120 years, but in any case, based on the characters’ stated ages, the “one hundred years” of the title certainly seems to be at least in the ball park if not exact.
But those ages aren’t the only evidence. If you infer the time period instead from the technology, from occasional world events (that are typically not mentioned but implied), from what the characters know and don’t know, etc., the book seems to take place over the course of many centuries if not longer.
Certainly by the end there are 20th century type things going on—the dictatorship, the civil wars, the unions, the political and military clashes between left wingers and right wingers, the exploitative American corporations and their banana plantations, airplanes, and on and on—but earlier there are times it feels like Macondo is some isolated little Medieval town.
The townspeople are stunned, for instance, when the Gypsies show them ice. This occurs early in the book, and so you could say that even in the 19th century the people of a remote town near the equator with no mountains might never have seen ice. But we’re not talking about a tribe of Indians that have lived for countless generations in the Amazon jungle. These people are—probably, though there’s always ambiguity—Europeans who just arrived. Macondo, after all, is founded early in the book, so its inhabitants all came from elsewhere before that. And I doubt there were many Spaniards or whatever in the 19th century for whom ice would be some stunning, magical thing they’d never seen or heard of before.
Some of their seemingly old fashion ways could be attributed to this just being a backwards town in the middle of nowhere that “time forgot,” but just like with the inaccessibility there are exaggerated or fantasy elements to its backwardness.
If you wanted to, you could probably explain away a good portion of the supernaturalism in the book as false beliefs, hallucinations, and delusions and such of some of the characters, but not all. (Unless you were to posit that the narrator is also delusional and hence unreliable, in which case I suppose you could dismiss all the implausible elements.) There are lots of ghosts in the story, for instance, but that could always be a matter of superstitious people falsely thinking they see and talk to ghosts. At one point, the Gypsies amaze the townspeople by zipping around on flying carpets; if you didn’t want to allow for actual supernaturalism, maybe you could speculate this is some kind of unexplained conjuror’s trick. But in the end—again, unless you dismiss the narrator too as unreliable—I think there’s just too much magical stuff going on for it all to have natural explanations.
The edition of the book that I have includes a family tree diagram for the Buendía family, starting with José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula Iguarán Buendía. Certainly this helps, but I still found myself getting lost trying to keep track of the various Buendía generations. There’s lots of unlikely coupling, including incestuous (though I was sufficiently twisted around trying to figure out who was who and how they were related to each other that I’m not at all confident of the frequency of incest). Children are born to couples that differ greatly in age, married couples, unmarried couples, characters with their mistresses, and characters with prostitutes. There are adoptions. There are lies or false beliefs about the parenthood of some characters.
So the various family connections are complicated, but I don’t think that’s the only reason I struggled to keep the characters and how they relate to each other straight. I think it’s also that I mostly didn’t care that much about the characters. They rarely came alive for me as flesh-and-blood people that I could empathize with, imagine meeting in real life, etc. I experienced them more as one might the characters in a fairy tale or some Biblical parable, as existing more as symbols or as vehicles for teaching some lesson or making some point.
And to the limited extent that they ever did feel like distinct, realistic individuals to me, I typically found them to be more disagreeable than not, which again limited how much I felt emotionally invested in them.
Which is not to say that none of them are at all likable or interesting, just that on average I found them less likable or interesting than either the characters in most novels or than real people.
But patriarch José Arcadio Buendía himself, for instance, is a somewhat interesting, and at times humorous, character. He is decidedly eccentric at the beginning of the story, and ends up stark, raving mad. He put me in mind of the kooky filmmaker father guy in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Perhaps some of what makes the characters often unappealing has to do with the “solitude” of the title. In part the title may be a reference to the way Macondo itself is depicted (sometimes at least, ambiguously) as so much in the middle of nowhere, but it fits the characters as well, as they tend to be emotionally isolated egoists, to be islands unto themselves. The word “solitude” recurs throughout One Hundred Years of Solitude, most often in reference to some lonely character lacking meaningful human connections.
Even where there is some sort of caring or connection, it tends to be either a kind of rote adherence to tradition or social expectation (so, more like “This person is my father, and in our culture it is obligatory to take care of one’s father when he can no longer take care of himself,” rather than genuine feelings that one individual has for another individual), or a passionate sexual thing that’s intense enough and frantic enough to feel more creepy and objectifying than a manifestation of love.
These mostly feel like broken, stunted people who are emotionally isolated from each other even when living under the same roof. They don’t seem to find each other’s company very pleasant, just as I as a reader mostly didn’t find their company very pleasant.
I would say the aspects of the novel that best reached me emotionally were those that were clear allusions to Latin America’s tortured social and political history. Again it’s mostly hinted at or talked around, or exaggerated in some fantasy manner, but you get a sense of the instability and hopelessness of the extreme corruption, the constant wars, the economic exploitation by rich American foreigners, and so on that have plagued so many of these countries.
Perhaps most chilling of all is a political mass slaughter. The workers of Macondo unionize and become more and more involved in politics, to the point that those in power decide their troublemaking has gone too far. Thousands of the union members and their fellow townspeople at a mass meeting are then gunned down in cold blood.
What’s interesting is the Orwellian aftermath. One of the characters—one of the Buendías—is in the crowd that is fired upon. Taken for dead, he is tossed into a railroad car, one of multiple used to remove the corpses from the town and take them to be dumped into the sea. He manages to escape and make his way back to Macondo.
There he finds virtually unanimous belief in the government propaganda story that has in the meantime been spread, which is that there was no massacre, that the crowd peacefully dispersed, and that all these people he insists were shot dead are all back home with their families, living their lives the same as ever. The townspeople treat him as delusional.
Taken literally, this isn’t realistic. I mean, I could see it, if, say, people looked scared and tried to hush him when he talked about this stuff, or if they theatrically contradicted his tale in too loud voices while sneaking a glance around to see who might be listening. That is, it could be somewhat realistic if people were clearly just giving lip service to the propaganda because they’d been terrorized into not talking openly about what they know happened. But it’s really not described that way. It’s described like they sincerely have no clue what he’s talking about and think he’s a nut.
You can’t shoot thousands of people dead in the street in a small town and have no one be aware it happened, or even aware that anyone is missing.
But still, in the context of a novel that’s intended to be a fantasy in certain respects, where you shouldn’t be looking to take everything strictly literally, it does kind of convey what it feels like to live in a society where the “official” version of events and what people saw and heard with their own eyes and ears can differ enormously, but where people have been trained that that official version is the only one that really counts and that they had better behave accordingly and not raise a stink about—or even acknowledge—those who have been “disappeared.”
I’m glad I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I’m not going to bluff and pretend I fully understand what allegedly makes it one of the finest literary works in history. Were I unaware of its reputation, I would say it’s inventive in style, thought-provoking at times, enjoyable at times, but nothing great.