A gallop through time

One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez
translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

This is one crazy book. I both loved and hated it. I took my time over it, reading just a few pages at a time, but I was never bored. Confused, surprised, shocked, maybe.

It is the 100-year-long story of the village Macondo in Central America and the family at the heart of it, the Buendías. The family found the village and ruin it, save it and destroy it, are worshipped by it and forgotten by it. It’s a family saga with a large and fascinating cast, but it’s not just that. Márquez uses magical realism to give added symbolism to certain moments, bizarrely making things literally happen that might have worked just as well metaphorically.

The timeline is not clear but I would guess it is roughly 1860s to 1960s. From humble beginnings the village gains a railway, motor cars, a pharmacy, a cinema. It plays a central role in wars and uprisings and yet its interaction with the rest of the unnamed country is minimal. Which is just one of the many references to solitude. Another example, and a nice example of the writing style:

“Taciturn, silent, insensible to the new breath of vitality that was shaking the house, Colonel Aureliano Buendía could understand only that the secret of a good old age is simply an honourable pact with solitude.”

A lot happens for 400 pages, and it is packed in largely by using a detached, minimal style. In brief scenes we learn the details of a character’s thoughts and torments, then by the end of the chapter their life will have been summarised and dispensed with. There’s a lot of death, much of it untimely.

With characters pairing off, reproducing and dying quickly, and a tendency to name all the descendants by the same three or four names, it can be confusing sometimes who is who. Handily a family tree is provided at the start of the book. As this shows each child’s parentage, many of whom are illegitimate, it might be considered a spoiler. But then Márquez starts the book by telling us the fate of the first character we meet, and teasingly dripfeeding more details through the early chapters. He repeats this with other characters and even with larger story arcs, but often by the time I reached the actual event I had forgotten the precursor.

Márquez manages to be very descriptive and evocative without using a lot of words or ever getting flowery. He creates a whole world for his characters within but somehow separate from the “real world”. It is an amazing, magical but also sad and suffocating place.

I had a couple of problems with this book. One was the speed at which characters were written out. Except for the odd few long-lifers, I would just be getting to know and be interested in a character and bam they would die. My other problem is the, err, sexual proclivities of this family. I’m not a prude, I’m reasonably open-minded and the adultery and whorehouses are one thing, but bestiality? incest? Too far for me to be comfortable with. And once again paedophilia comes up (the reason I was uncomfortable with Márquez’s other major work, Love in the Time of Cholera, and yes I know that in both cases it’s strictly ephebophilia but that’s still something I’m squirmy about). It’s like he’s trying to push as far as he can, see what he can get away with.

I was genuinely moved by but also disturbed by this book. I can see how it generates a lot of discussion but whether I liked it? I don’t know.

Cien Años de Solidad first published 1967.
This translation first published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape 1970.