One Hundred Years at Forty

Gabriel García Márquez’s sumptuous and tragic vision of the modern world

Illustration by Katie Yamasaki

Gabriel García Márquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude have had a very good year. Celebrated in 2007 were the novel’s fortieth anniversary of publication, the twenty-fifth anniversary of its author’s Nobel Prize, and Márquez’s own eightieth birthday.

Colombia devoted all of March to honouring Márquez; at the end of the month, its port town of Cartagena hosted a gathering of thousands that included the king and queen of Spain, Bill Clinton, Carlos Fuentes, and other luminaries who came to express their admiration. The fourth International Congress of the Spanish Language, a triennial international meeting of scholars, was held in Cartagena, coinciding with the Márquez fanfare, while the Real Academia Española (rae), the language’s governing authority, announced that it will publish its own edition of One Hundred Years.

This decision reflects the novel’s enduring cultural influence and virtually unrivalled popularity among Spanish-language books. Over 30 million copies have been sold, making it second only to Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which had a four-century head start and is the only other book to receive the honour of an rae edition. Meanwhile, Márquez’s hometown, the depressed backwater of Aracataca, held a five-day birthday party, featuring eighty volleys of fireworks at just after midnight, a military parade, and a dedicated Mass. Aracataca is wild about its most famous son, and ironically proud to be the inspiration for Macondo, the ruined Eden at the heart of One Hundred Years. Last year, the town held a referendum to change its name to Macondo. Reality inspires fiction inspires reality. Almost. The referendum failed, a sad, strange joke that feels as if it could have slipped off the novel’s pages.

M any of us first read One Hundred Years around the same time we fell for such books as The Stranger, On the Road, and Siddhartha, but Márquez’s work remains compelling while these books now feel like young flings. Writers such as Albert Camus, Jack Kerouac (whose On the Road is being feted for its fiftieth anniversary this year), and Hermann Hesse relied upon the fresh excitements of early serious reading, while Márquez appeals to our ageless openness to beauty, our lifelong desires for humane fantasy lives, and our maturing sense that the world is both darkness and blinding light. Through magic realism, Márquez found a way to describe modern human reality in its fluidity and strangeness, life as a fever dream of history and family from which we are never more than half awake. But how does he bring it off without seeming forced in his conceits, predatory in his challenge to our imaginations?

Márquez is often compared with William Faulkner and Salman Rushdie, the former cited among his most influential predecessors, the latter noted as one of his most influential successors. Were it not for the high-modernist novels of local Mississippi life that make up Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha universe, we wouldn’t have Márquez’s tragic and wonder-filled world of Macondo. And were it not for the darkly fantastic plays on family and history to be found in Macondo, we wouldn’t have the fabulist India of Midnight’s Children. But unlike Faulkner and Rushdie, Márquez has always been far more than an academic darling or critics’ pick. His early fame may have come from his magic realism, but his enduring popularity owes more to his willingness to devote his linguistic richness, density of meaning, and formal innovations to an old-fashioned storyteller’s directness of plot, morality, melodrama, and humour. Nowhere is this integration more apparent than about three-quarters of the way through One Hundred Years, when Fernanda, the high-born wife of Aureliano Segundo, a descendant of Macondo’s founder, finally speaks out against the indignities of being married to a lazy wastrel. Her lament takes up nearly three pages and comprises exactly one sentence, which builds to an invocation of her dearly departed mother and father, who, because of their saintly lives, have received “from God the privilege of remaining intact in their graves with their skin smooth like the cheeks of a bride and their eyes alive and clear like emeralds.” Aureliano answers this searing daylong grievance: “That’s not true . . . He was already beginning to smell when they brought him here.”

In a stroke, we move from the heights of tortured Faulknerian passion to callous sitcom humour, the congenitally insensitive husband shrugging off his wife’s eloquent suffering. Márquez makes moves like this throughout the novel, effortless shifts from high to low that convey the natural intersection of these registers. Just so, the feats of magic realism for which the novel is best known are always written off as ordinary happenstance: pots fall off tables at a child’s prediction; lengthy, infectious bouts of insomnia and amnesia befall the town; chatty ghosts befriend their old companions and murderers; swarms of yellow butterflies signal illicit love; rain falls for years, only to give way to an apocalyptic drought. In fact, for its faithfulness to life in its absolute fullness — life as the interplay of the miraculous and the mundane — and for its multiplicity of styles, voices, and genres, ranging from morality fables and tragic romances and kitchen table aphorisms to high-cadenced introspection, song and poetry, social satire, and war chronicle, we should look past Faulkner and even Cervantes to discover Márquez’s chief predecessor: the Bible.

One Hundred Years of Solitude concerns seven generations of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio, founds Macondo and then, upon meeting the gypsy Melquíades, a charismatic huckster, prophet, and storyteller, devotes his life to gaining “contact with mystery” through alchemy, invention, and exploration. His ambition and his achievements rarely align, but consistent failure, mockery, and skepticism never dissuade him from his next pursuit, whether it’s trying to find a secret route to a distant civilization, adapting magnifying glasses for the battlefield, or building an ice factory. Meanwhile, in the early parts of the novel, his namesake younger son begins extending the family line by having a baby by Pilar, the town oracle and love expert. The elder José’s wife, Úrsula, leaves in search of the unnerved new father, who runs away with a band of gypsy merchants. Úrsula’s search is also a pretext for getting away from her frustrating husband, who seems only partly concerned by these family dramas, because he has finally found some success in scavenging the gold from his wife’s jewellery.

A father and husband like José endears in his unflagging aloofness, abusive authority, and consummate self-involvement only because he’s not related to you. But before we can dismiss him as a figure of ridicule, Márquez reveals his greater humanity. Having loudly predicted a great miracle in the offing, José shouts, “That was it! . . . I knew it was going to happen,” when something unexpected occurs: his wife comes home. In Úrsula’s five-month absence, during which José was outwardly consumed with his laboratory fantasies, we learn that in fact “He [had] begged in the depth of his heart that the longed-for miracle should not be the discovery of the philosopher’s stone . . . but what had just happened: Úrsula’s return.” Only Márquez won’t give us blissful marital reunion: “She did not share his excitement. She gave him a conventional kiss, as if she had been away only an hour, and she told him, ‘Look out the door.’” José obliges and sees a host of newcomers in the street, migrants to Macondo from the modern town only two days away that Úrsula, not her wildly determined, geographically obtuse and loving husband, discovered in passing. Márquez’s characters, however exotic, always retain a deep and poignant humanity of a kind we typically expect from more realistic, even sentimental novels.

One Hundred Years develops simultaneously by way of the Buendía family’s expansion and the historical development of Macondo. Reworked Biblical motifs figure throughout, including a plague of insomnia that becomes a plague of amnesia. More saddening and consequential, however, is the Biblical fall the characters experience. They lose their wonderfully comic paradise when the state descends upon Macondo, installing a nominal figurehead to oversee the town. Escorted by armed soldiers, Don Apolinar Moscote orders household searches for weapons, and introduces national electoral politics that no local finds interesting, let alone comprehensible. Aureliano, José’s second son, marries Moscote’s youngest daughter, Remedios, and receives lessons from his father-in-law in the differences between Conservatives (God-fearing, obedient, and family minded) and Liberals (godless, power-sharing, lovers of bastards). He also watches as ballot boxes are rigged and threats invented to maintain establishment rule.

Márquez is as masterful at plotting political intrigue and unfolding the brutalities of warfare as he is at summoning lyrical beauty and heart-rending romance. But as evenly compelling as the material is, one cannot help but wish differently for Macondo — that it remain preserved from the bloody, cynical reality of worldly affairs. Instead, a people “who lacked political knowledge” fall under the sway of politics and bullets, and the middle part of the novel is dominated by a tragic narrative of civil war, with Aureliano forsaking all else to lead an attempted revolution that is at once heroic, vainglorious, pathetic, and cruel. One shudders to witness Aureliano’s change, from his display of innocent shock at his father-in-law’s blithe realpolitik machinations, to his own blithe realpolitik explanation to a one-time comrade on the morning of the man’s execution: “‘Remember, old friend,’ he told him. ‘I’m not shooting you. It’s the revolution that’s shooting you.’”

Cliché be damned, this needs to be said: One Hundred Years of Solitude is a book able to draw laughter and tears from page to page, even from sentence to sentence, and not just by way of the main characters’ grandly tragic and comic lives, whose intersecting trajectories — which double, even triple across generations in name, habit, fate, and folly, and occasionally by way of incestuous affairs — remain fresh long after first reading. Upon rereading, what’s striking is the power of passing, perhaps forgotten occasions. For instance, readers may recall the swarms of yellow butterflies but not the characters and subplot associated with them. Their appearance heralds bouts of illicit romance involving Meme, a fifth-generation Buendía, and Mauricio Babilonia, a handsome mechanic employed by the banana company that invades Macondo partway through the narrative. When, inevitably, the lovers are found out by the girl’s mother, Meme is confined to her bedroom, which she only leaves at dusk each day to bathe in the family’s scorpion-infested bathroom. Her mother, made suspicious by the daily appearance of yellow butterflies in the house at the same hour, informs the mayor that a thief is about, stealing hens. That night, Mauricio Babilonia is shot through the spine while “Meme was waiting for him, naked and trembling with love among the scorpions and butterflies as she had done almost every night for the past few months.”

The striking balance of dark and light that governs the novel from its famous opening line — “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” — gives way to a fuller darkness as the novel nears its conclusion. Macondo itself begins to fall apart; the destruction starts in earnest with the massacre of protesting banana plantation workers by government forces, an act that, upon its completion and the swift removal of bullet-riddled bodies by train, officially never happened. Meanwhile, members of the Buendía family live increasingly attenuated lives, each in their own chosen isolation, locking themselves into workshops, bedrooms, old houses. By the novel’s end, one senses that a family so centrifugal and destructive in its lived-out passions provokes, simultaneously, a centripetal force in each of its members. In the novel’s closing pages, Márquez effects a resolution that intensifies the preceding energies, while also holding out the possibility of redeeming solitude itself.

Having lost both his lover-aunt and their pigtailed newborn son, the last of the novel’s twenty-two Aureliano Buendías spends Macondo’s final hours reading through the parchment prophesies of the gypsy Melquíades. Engrossed by the very same story we have been following, he fails to notice the strong winds tearing apart the house with “the wrath of [a] biblical hurricane.” This last Aureliano is also the town and the family’s lone survivor, and thus the novel’s culminating figure of solitude. His final act is to make sense of the prophesies that have brought him and us together to this very moment: “He began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror.” There can be no fuller act of identification between a reader and a literary character than to read the same lines at the same time, which Márquez brilliantly brings off on the final page, joining the imagined to the real in a criss-crossing harmony. This identification between reader and character invests the novel’s abiding sense of solitude with a subtle if literal sense of fellow feeling, which makes the apocalyptic final sentence the more bearable:

Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that [Macondo] would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment Aureliano . . . would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

But the condemned races of this sacred book do indeed have second opportunities, and more still. Great and original books, and few among the moderns are greater or more original than One Hundred Years of Solitude, are read and reread and read still more. Their influence is enormous and is felt beyond tributes and celebrations, in the ever-expanding readerships they gain, and in those books and films whose existence we could not imagine were it not for their predecessors. More than anything else, though, One Hundred Years of Solitude matters like few other books of the past fifty years because it gives us licence to envision the modern world in its absolute fullness, to know the story of our times as an ongoing chronicle of fecund, destructive glory.

Randy Boyagoda
Randy Boyagoda is professor of English at the University of Toronto and author of six books, including, most recently, Dante’s Indiana.