Content note: This article contains references to sexual assault, including of minors, and incest
I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude the summer I graduated high school, which I think we can all agree is the perfect time to read it. I had discovered Gabriel García Márquez’s short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” while the school year was still in session and ended up making it the third leg of the tripod that was my senior thesis about the literary and spiritual possibilities of fantasy with Dante’s Paradise and George MacDonald’s Phantastes. “Magical realism” has descended so far into meaningless buzzwordiness that it’s easy to forget what it’s like to encounter it for the first time — the almost hallucinatory vividness that comes from an author as obsessed with the grit and grime of everyday life as the miracles that intrude upon it. And what drew me in at least as much was the powerful melancholy of Márquez, the sense of that magic as a fragile thing battered by indifference and threatened with destruction.
And so I came to One Hundred Years of Solitude — in no small part because my mom had read it around the same age. It seems fitting it came out in the late ‘60s, a kind of global senior year, when artists everywhere seemed to wake up to the boundless possibilities ahead of them, especially in Latin American literature, where the era was known as “El Boom.”
The battle for the title of Great American Novel doesn’t look like it’ll end any time soon. Of course, when people say that, they mean the great novel of the United States of America. If we use the broader definition of the Americas, One Hundred Years’ history of the Buendía family becomes a tempting candidate. I was surprised to pick it up again and find it so much shorter than I remembered — just over 400 pages of pretty large type in my English edition, which the Spanish edition pads out with an even bigger font, still without scraping 500. That’s a hundred years in hundreds fewer pages than it took James Joyce to cover one day of some mope in Dublin. It doesn’t surprise me I’d filed it with the pushing-1000-page epics like War and Peace or Moby-Dick. This book really has everything, starting from Genesis, when ice was invented and the world was so new not everything had a name, to Apocalypse, from bodily functions to spiritual transcendence, the Edenic Macondo of its founding to the squalor and mass death left in the wake of the wars and the “banana plague,” expanding beyond even the century promised by the title to offer a complete history of the world.
How can you explain García Márquez’s efficiency in compacting so much into such a relatively small package? It’s tempting to suggest he followed his magic-realist predecessor Jorge Luis Borges in writing as if he was summarizing a longer work. But One Hundred Years is far too rich for that — what summary would have room for details like “a small carriage that looked like an enormous bat drawn by an asthmatic horse?” But it’s still hard to shake the impression that One Hundred Years was cut down from something much bigger, compressed like a diamond. García Márquez introduces the revolutionary Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s friendly opponent General José Raquel Moncada at the beginning of one chapter and kills him by the end of it, and those few pages are enough to make Moncada more fully realized than the protagonists of most novels and to make his death is such a shattering tragedy you read it as if you’ve really lost someone close to you.
It seems strange to say about a book I’ve only read in translation, but more than the narrative, the language of One Hundred Years has stuck with me. It’s rewired my brain and reshaped my own writing. But, as I’ve said, works in translation have taught me more about the possibilities of the English language than books intended to be read in that form.
Some credit for that may go to translator Gregory Rabassa, who seems to have created a Spielbrick-like fusion between himself and García Márquez. Looking back and forth between my English and Spanish editions, I sometimes found it hard to tell the difference. Even García Márquez has said he prefers One Hundred Years in English; he said Rabassa’s “fidelity is more complex than simple literalism.”
Which isn’t to say Rabassa’s literalism isn’t one of his strengths. As anyone who’s taken even the most rudimentary Spanish knows, the language doesn’t have possessives outside of pronouns like “mi,” “su,” etc. A lesser translator would anglicize with apostrophes, but Rabassa knows the importance of preserving García Márquez’s rhythms, creating striking phrases that could have existed no other way: “her hand of an angelic messenger” “their snorting of a many-headed dragon” “his august head of a tormented emperor.”
If García Márquez uses words whose English equivalents are rarely used, Rabassa refuses to give One Hundred Years into the flatness of a fluent speaker. He lets phrases like “funereal bronze bells,” “episcopal velvet,” and “the pestilential attack of the chamber pots” stand as they are. And he’s not above letting his own voice come through, either — if an alliteration in García Márquez’s Spanish doesn’t work in English, he’ll find another pair of words to alliterate, and maybe add some more alliterations of his own. (The effect this had on me should be obvious to anyone who’s been reading my writing for any amount of time.) And sometimes, he just gets lucky, like when García Márquez’s semi-mythical bard Francisco el Hombre transforms in English to the internal rhyme of Francisco the Man.
On the other hand, Rabassa has said One Hundred Years “translated itself. You know, there’s only one way you can say it.” And it’s true — much of the strength of Márquez’s writing comes from his use of imagery so vivid even the most incompetent translator couldn’t fuck it up. I remember hearing García Márquez say in some documentary I found in the college library and no doubt will never find again that he writes by building descriptors on top of each other. That’s the kind of thing they teach you not to do in school, but without it Gabriel García Márquez wouldn’t be Gabriel García Márquez. And yes, it’s another way I’ve been unable to shake his influence, whether for good or for bad I can’t say.
Some of García Márquez’s images have become so iconic even readers with the most passing interest in the novel know them — the priest who levitates when he drinks chocolate. The successive generations of Buendías shut up in the dark library translating the alchemist Melquíades’ scrolls. Remedios the Beauty, who ascends to heaven in a flutter of sheets while her sister-in-law only wants the sheets back. The rotting Spanish galleon full of tropical flowers. The invention of ice, which García Márquez has said the whole book sprung out of.
Even once you get past the hits, García Márquez’s store of images is inexhaustible. Úrsula Buendía, who manages to hold the family together even as she enters her second century and shrinks to doll size. The zoo-brothel of Pilar Ternera, the even more ancient madam who fathered multiple generations of Buendías and outlives even Úrsula because she stopped counting. All the harebrained schemes José Arcadio I picks up from his association with Melquíades, many of them ordinary modern conveniences re-enchanted through the patriarch’s eyes. Rebeca arriving with a bag full of her parents’ bones, which resonated enough with Toni Morrison for her to write it into Song of Solomon a decade later. “Melquíades’ body, abandoned to the appetite of the squids.” The dying Jose Arcadio II(confusingly not the same character as José Arcadio Segundo who should really be Tercero)’s blood trailing through town until it reaches his mother’s door.
But magic realism didn’t turn the literary world upside down just by collecting shiny images, magpie-like. That would just be skin-deep, and García Márquez goes deeper than that, creating an ethos that makes the supernatural the most natural thing in the world. Melquíades dies twice, returning the first time simply because he got bored. José Arcadio I’s most lasting friendship is with the ghost of a man he killed over a cockfight. The animating paradox of magic realism is that the wonders become more wondrous because the characters treat them so matter-of-factly — just think of Fernanda and the sheets. In the same way, the ordinary becomes magical: the opening line about the invention of ice has been quoted to death, but García Márquez’s elaboration a few pages later also deserves notice: “The chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken into colored stars.”
Despite the importance placed on it in the title, time is no more solid than death in the world of One Hundred Years. While keeping to that timeline, it manages to encompass everything from the birth of the world to the modern day. And even that modern day somehow includes a French dandy who rides on a penny-farthing bicycle generations after Macondo opened its first movie theater, “with lion-head ticket windows.”
It’s tempting to say One Hundred Years took off so spectacularly around the world because it presents a gringo-friendly picture-postcard vision of an exotic land where the naïve locals regard the mundane with wonder. I don’t doubt at least some readers were drawn to it for those reasons, but if so, they weren’t reading too closely. (I include in that number Harold Bloom, who introduced his volume of essays on the novel by denying García Márquez his imagination, citing a story of stereotypical superstition from Haitian dictator Papa Doc as proof.)
García Márquez, banned from the US for years due to his friendship with Fidel Castro, doesn’t shy away from harsh political realities with Colonel Aureliano Buendía and his 32 wars, all lost. And while the first half of the book presents a Noble Savage paradise, “where no one was over 30 and no one died,” its decline is laid squarely at the feet of the colonial central government and the village’s later economic colonization by a US banana corporation, which García Márquez pointedly calls a “plague.”
That’s not to say there aren’t any missteps in Márquez. The Buendías themselves are descended from an earlier generation of colonizers, and, as John J. Devney Jr. and Juan Manuel Marcos point out in Bloom’s volume, Úrsula Buendía, the unbending moral center of the book, makes her fortune on slave labor. And if it’s up for debate whether he exoticizes his own homeland, García Márquez certainly enjoys exoticizing more distant locales, with his Street of the Turks, his wonder-working Romani, his evocations of pianolas from Italy and education in Brussels. Like so many taboo-busters — incest, adultery, and general perversity is everywhere in One Hundred Years — García Márquez occasionally butts up against taboos that actually do matter. I can forgive Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s infatuation with the prepubescent Remedios Moscote because it’s mercifully brief. I have a harder time swallowing that the only Buendía “in a century who had been engendered in love” was engendered in a relationship that began with a rape, let alone when I read it concurrently with Caitlin Casiello’s article on the thorny question of rape in media.
Even hitting such a sour note so close to the end can’t sink One Hundred Years. The characters are too vivid for that, characters like José Arcadio II, who disappears with the Romani as a boy and returns as the apotheosis of every tall tale hero. Or his obsessive father and namesake, with a new impossible project every day so much like the father from Street of Crocodiles, or Melquíades with his hat like a raven’s wings, whose store of mystical wisdom suggests a history as long and rich as One Hundred Years itself. García Márquez even predicts the modern political cartoon when the insomnia plague steals Macondo’s memory and José Arcadio I labels everything in town. I still have a little pencil star in the copy I read exactly a decade ago by the phrase “the paradise of shared solitude,” and those still strike me as some of the most beautiful words anyone has ever wrote. Most of the other contenders are somewhere in this book too.