Friday, September 12, 2008

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

From the favourer: "It was the numerous characters and the way he wrote the story that made me think "Wow!" - it is so complex with all the (partly perverted) details, I didn't think anyone could make something like that up. It does not happen often that I actually like a book that others tell me to read because it is a classic."

So after so much reading for the judging, I thought I’d pick something not too taxing to read from the favourites list. I hadn’t read any Marquez before, and I thought from the look of it “Yes, that looks like an enjoyable piece of literary fiction that won’t be in any way confusing or require me to keep 100 years of characters who all have the same name in my head at once.”

I can hear those of you who’ve read this book laughing at me from here.

One Hundred Years of Solitude follows the fortunes of a family line in the fictional small town of Macondo over at least a century. Births, deaths, marriages, wars, people who are followed around by clouds of yellow butterflies, cousins who float up towards heaven and are never seen again – you know, the usual stuff.

When I told people I was having real difficulty understanding this book, they usually replied “it’s magic realism”, as if this explained things. Magic realism is when weird shit happens in everyday life and you need to accept that and move on, buddy. It didn’t actually occur to me as I was reading it that the fantastic bits were anything out of the ordinary; perhaps as my reading intersperses non-genred literature with fantasy novels it all seemed perfectly acceptable.

I think the main reason I found this book so difficult to keep straight in my head was that everyone has the same name. Alright, not just one name, but considerably less than your fair share. We start with Jose Arcadio Buendia. It’s all his fault. He has children: Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Jose Arcadio, and Amaranta. Colonel Aureliano has a son called Aureliano Jose, and, by all different women, seventeen other sons named Aureliano. They become known as ‘The Aurelianos’ throughout the book. Jose Arcadio has a son named Arcadio, who has children named Aureliano Segundo Remedios and Jose Arcadio Segundo. Aureliano Segundo has children named Renata Remedios, Jose Arcadio and Amaranta Ursula. Renata has a son named Aureliano, and Amaranta Ursula has a son named Aureliano.

Got that? It’s rather like that chapter in the bible where everyone begets everyone else. I didn’t work that out on my own either, there’s a family tree at the start of the book. For a while I kept referring to it, trying to work out who everyone was, but all I was begetting was a state of confusion so in the end I decided just to go with the flow and not worry too much about keeping all the Arcadios and Aurelianos straight. I’m not sure if this was the best idea, because sometimes an Arcadio died and it didn’t mean much to me as I had thought he was the Arcadio who had died a few chapters earlier. Paul suggested maybe they’d make a movie of the book and then I’d be able to tell everyone apart, but I have a suspicion it would be like when I watch Westerns – every man has a moustache, brown clothes and braces and may as well be the same actor. Looking closer at the cover of the book, I’m thinking I might be right in this:

So, just as I was despairing of having any thoughts about this book other than “who?”, I started to notice a building up of repetitions and circularities throughout the generations of the family line.

A theme! Thank God!

The Aurelianos are all psychically sensitive and intelligent, the Arcadios are all physically powerful, characters repeat the actions and mistakes of their forbears (and their forbears often turn up as ghosts to watch). The women tend to reject the men who passionately love them (which leads to the men committing suicide and the women – who really did love their suitors – spending the rest of their lives in regretful mourning). Some characters fight this repetition – like trying to name their children something other than Aureliano or Remedios, but fortune always intervenes and draws them back into the family cycle.

The notion of this circularity is evoked subtly in the middle of the book by Ursula, who notices “that every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and almost repeated the same words at the same hour.” Towards the end of the novel it is noted more explicitly again by Ursula: “time was not passing…but that it was turning in a circle” and by Pilar Tenera: “the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.”

So by the time I finished, the notion of circularity had kind of strung it all together for me, and I felt a bit less dumb (I can save the pregnancy-brain-shrinking excuse for another day).

And it is actually a very enjoyable book in terms of the act of reading, with healthy amounts of sex, plus some incest thrown in for good measure (with that many people with the same name, I suppose you’re always going to end up shagging your aunt at some point). Of course I’m reading it in translation, but it’s beautifully written and translated, without that ‘pared back’ feeling some translations seem to have. There’s a lot of fragments that stay with you after reading this book – the construction and destruction of the little gold fishes, Jose Arcadio Buendia’s experiments with alchemy and pianolas, seeing ice for the first time in a gypsy tent.

The whimsy of the magic realism is nicely tempered by Marquez’s sense of humour and the ridiculous (I have a bit of a low tolerance for books that get too whimsical). When folding the sheets one day, Remedios the Beauty floats up into the air and disappears, and everyone hails it as a divine event. Fernanda, on the other hand “burning with envy, finally accepted the miracle, and for a long time she kept on praying to God to send her back her sheets.” Fair enough too, sheets are expensive.

I laughed at Gaston, who “was not only a fierce lover, with endless wisdom and imagination, but he was also, perhaps, the first man in the history of the species who had made an emergency landing and had come close to killing himself and his sweetheart simply to make love in a field of violets.” Which is all a bit Spike Milligan somehow.

For quoteableness, you can’t go past: “The world must be all fucked up…when men travel first class and literature goes as freight.”

And I’ve learned my lesson. My son will not be named Arcadio.


lili said...

I did exactly the same thing. WHY DO THEY ALL HAVE THE SAME NAME!?

But, you know. Beautiful novel.

Anna said...

And moustaches. Not that it says so, but I'm SURE they all have moustaches.