One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He is considered one of the pioneers of the ‘magic realism’ movement, pathopsychology a subset of postmodernism that concerns itself chiefly with telling things that are true, treatment even if they aren’t necessarily ‘real.’ He writes epic stories; this novel spans at least a hundred years, and six generations. Other novels include Love in the Time of Cholera, which was recently made into a movie. He is of Latino heritage, and is also considered a leader of the current Central/South American Spanish-speaking writers movement. His books, while originally published in Spanish, are all available in very well-done English translations.

Macondo is a city somewhere in Central America, founded by Jose Arcadio Buendia and his wife Ursula; he and a good deal of other people hacked through the forest to find the proper place to build. Over the course of the next hundred years, the town, largely isolated, rises to a peak of activity and prosperity, and then gradually sinks until it just dries up and blows away in the dust. Some of the Buendia family members become famous throughout the area, for different reasons — military, craftsmanship, etc. — and the strength of Ursula ties it all together for longer than imagined. Through it all, the Buendia family continues to lead the town, even when the years of moderate craziness and even some inbreeding bring the family down to a level never imagined by the first generation or two.

This is not a happy book. I think in some ways, the only remotely happy characters were Ursula and her husband (there are so many men named Jose Arcadio Buendia in the novel that I’ll try to identify them by station). Ursula had a very long life, and she accomplished a good deal during it, mostly involved with holding her family together and raising moderately successful children, grandchildren, and the like. Jose Arcadio Buendia (Mr. Ursula), although he eventually went crazy, lived a fairly long and intellectual life; even when he was tied to a tree, he spent a good deal of time philosophizing, and he didn’t seem entirely unhappy to be allowed to be alone with his thoughts. Other characters, unfortunately, die for love; go crazy unpleasantly; are killed in horrible fashions; fall in love with completely unsuitable people (including close relatives); take up the wrong cause; or a hundred other miserable situations.

Mr. Marquez (and his translator) did a very good job of keeping the different characters, all with the same two names (Jose Arcadio Buendia or Aureliano Buendia) distinct, but I was very happy that there was a family tree at the beginning of the book. For example, one of the Aurelianos has seventeen sons, all named Aureliano (by seventeen different women). A lot of the women have similar names, too: Amaranta, Ursula, and Remedios are three of the most common. Most of the Buendia children are male, though (hm: male author and patriarchal culture much? although yes, Ursula is one of the two strongest characters in the book), and their fathers tend to insist on the family names, despite Ursula’s conviction that the names control the personalities and the destinies.

In terms of genre literature, ‘magic realism’ is just a literary-sounding name for Latin-American primary-world fantasy — er, what we might call ‘urban fantasy,’ were it set in New York today. An angel (or perhaps a devil) shows up in Macondo one day. One of the daughters, Remedios the Beauty, ascends directly into heaven while hanging up the washing one day. Ursula lives to be well over a hundred — in the range of 135-150 years. Several other (female) characters do as well. A couple characters are born with a pig’s tail — while that is not exactly pure fantasy (humans are occasionally born with vestigial tails), the symbolism it takes on in the book makes it more of a legend than a genetic fact. There is a period where it rains for four years straight, and an insomnia plague where none of the characters sleeps for a couple years. All of these things are fantastic, to a point.

I still don’t understand where the line is between a fantasy novel and a work of literature. Based on the books I’ve read this week, a fantasy novel that ends unhappily could be considered a literary novel. Yes, of course, it could be a matter of quality, but I’m sure I’ve read spec-fic novels that were as good as the supposedly non-genre novels I’ve read this week. I have to admit that I’m definitely interested in reading other books by the authors I’ve read this week. The best of my fantasy novels do the same thing, though. I don’t know if I learned anything through this little exercise, but I would use this week of reviews as proof that you can’t judge a book by where it’s filed in a bookstore or library. One Hundred Years of Solitude, of course, gets 5/5 stars, although I would like to warn readers that the book is rather depressing.

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