Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo. Macondo era entonces una aldea de veinte casas de barro y cañabrava construidas a la orilla de un río de aguas diáfanas que se precipitaban por un lecho de piedras pulidas, blancas y enormes como huevos prehistóricos. El mundo era tan reciente, que muchas cosas carecían de nombre, y para mencionarlas había que señalarlas con el dedo. (p. 81, Catedra edition)
Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel, Cien años de soledad (translated into English in 1970 by Gregory Rabassa as One Hundred Years of Solitude), is perhaps one of a handful of 20th century fictions that have had an impact far beyond that of the tens of millions worldwide that have read it over the past 47 years. Its codification of Colombian (and by extension, Latin American) post-colonial history gave a voice to a region whose literature prior to the mid-20th century had largely been dismissed as provincial, as not worthy of the respect rendered to Western European and North American national literatures. As the most famous of the “Boom Generation” novels, Cien años de soledad has been quoted by politicians across the globe and has served as an inspiration (and later a point of departure) for two generations of Latin American writers.
Yet the accolades can get in the way of a deeper appreciation for what García Márquez achieved here. It is too tempting to fall in line with what others have said, often in a gushing, adoring fashion, about this novel. It could be viewed as being predominantly about X, Y, and Z, without the reader stepping outside of those blurbs and reviews’ interpretative schemae. Useful as these models are for understanding what is transpiring within the novel, especially on the symbolic level, they can rob the reader of that pure joy of what considering what the import of each phrase or sentence might be, even if (especially if?) they are ignorant of much of the allusions, historical and literary alike, that García Márquez makes. Sometimes it can be best for the reader to experience them like the early inhabitants of the fictional town of Macondo do in the passage quoted above, as if they were in a world that “was so recent that many things lacked names and in order to mention them you had to point at them with a finger. (translation my own)” There is much to discover within the world of Macondo, the city of mirrors, that sometimes it behooves the reader to wander through its pages, piecing together, as six generations of Buendías attempt to do, the clues embedded within this rich text.
Cien años de soledad covers seven generations of the Buendía family, first introduced in García Márquez’s earlier novels. It is here in this novel, however, that nascent themes from those earlier novels mature and bear bittersweet fruit. Ranging from the immediate post-colonial period of the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, Macondo and its founding family incorporates much of Colombia’s conflicted, troubled past. In the cycle of the boisterous Arcadios and the brooding Aurelianos can be seen a symbolic tale of passion and greed, of pride and sorrow. The language of the early chapters resembles in many fashions those tales found in the Book of Genesis in that the feats of the early generations seem outsized and otherworldly, creating a sense that what is transpiring is irreal and yet intimately and intricately tied to a very real past and present.
Yet these moments of levitating priests and resuscitated gypsies do not detract from the very real events encoded within them. The section with the house colors foreshadows the rise of strong men and the marking of seventeen bastards with a permanent Ash Wednesday cross symbolizes the connections between belief and violence, between the desire to hold power and the urge to reform. Time and time again, García Márquez revisits these elements, culminating in the four years, eleven months and two days of rains that follow the massacre of 3000 striking banana plantation workers and the village’s subsequent forgetting of their collective fate. These events echo those of Colombia’s violent early 20th century, from the time of the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902) to that of La violencia of 1948-1958. A prior knowledge of Colombian history will enhance a reader’s appreciation for García Márquez’s embedding of these events within his Macondo tales, but it is hardly necessary for comprehension and enjoyment of this novel.
Cien años de soledad easily could have been a “political” novel, but its symbolic elements go far beyond references to the past and then-current events, moving more toward a deep, keen look at humanity and our roles as agents of order and change. Each character represents certain qualities, from the egotistical early Buendías to the forlorn romantics who frequently find understanding but not solace from their frustrated desires. The various modes of solitude have been addressed at length by others elsewhere, but it certainly lies at the core of this novel. Each character experiences their own form of solitude, from that of loss of mental capacities, to the laborious making and unmaking of items (many of which tienen vida propria), to unrequited love to love that distances them from outsiders. These presentations of solitude within the context of a novel in which passion is codified within magical events (like the profusion of butterflies or an afternoon assumption) is so well-realized in their intricacies that it is difficult to skim over even a single line without missing something beautiful and important.
For some, this richness of symbolic, powerful metaphors can be overwhelming, as there is so much packed within the margins of the novel. Indeed, multiple re-readings may be required to squeeze more from the text. But the effort is more than worth it, because García Márquez wrote a novel that is at the very least on par with that one of his primary influences, William Faulkner. In re-reading Cien años de soledad, I found echos of Yoknapatawpha County and its denizens. There is a kindred spirit between the Southern writer and the Latin American novelist that goes far beyond the literary techniques of stream of consciousness and the use of mythological elements to add depth to a core realist story. There is a spirit of resilience, of seeing great devastation and despair and using those violent elements to construct tales that speak to their readers on the most intimate terms. García Márquez’s prose is so exquisite, his characterizations so organic and well-developed, that his only major “flaw” may be that he has created a story that defies deeper analysis, because the more one delves into the individual threads that constitute this narrative tapestry, the more one risks missing the wondrous forest for a few fascinating leaves. Cien años de soledad was the first novel I read in Spanish when I learned the language a decade ago and this re-read only confirmed my positive impressions. It is one of my all-time five favorite fictions and each re-read has only served to add to my appreciation for what García Márquez accomplished here.