One Hundred Years of Solitude reads like a history which takes place in a dream. The novel follows five generations of the Buendía family, from the patriarch, José Arcadio’s founding of the city of Macondo, to its destruction many years later. This was my first experience of the ‘magical realism’ genre, and I had been expecting something along the lines of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, although perhaps without the emphasis on horror. In some ways, this comparison is accurate – the ‘magic’ that occurs in the novel is not a force in the world of the story which is governed by an internal logic, as we might find in a fantasy novel, it is somewhere between fairy-tale and surrealism: at times the story’s supernatural elements come as ghosts or as prophetic utterances, at others, they seem more like metaphors which actually take place, like when one family member, who lives in another part of town, dies, and has a line of blood trickle from their nose and across the town, finding its way to the family home. Unlike Kafka though, Márquez does not present us with any close psychological investigation – we are one step removed from the characters, and while we are sometimes told what they think, we do not generally experience events through them.
Another possible point of reference for reading this novel was Wuthering Heights – both are cross-generational tales about families with far fewer names than people (the Buedía’s include four José Arcadios, five Aurelianos, an Aureliano José, an Arcadio and several combinations of Úrsula, Amaranta and Remedios, not to mention seventeen illegitimate Aurielianos), but while Wuthering Heights is very much about how one generation can affect the next, the Buendías seem to move across the years on the impulses of an inescapable fate, rather than motivated directly by the actions of their forebears. Some traits, however, do recur across the generations – fanatical drives towards unattainable goals and a compulsion to unmake and remake the same things over and over again.
While the title gives us a very precise ‘one hundred years’, time keeping within then novel is much less precise. While events fall in roughly chronological order, we might follow one character along one thread of their narrative, only to be told down the line that ‘this was about the time…’ that something key in another character’s plotline occurred a few pages earlier. Some events seem to act as anchor points, referred too long after (or sometimes long before) they actually happen, as memories or pieces of narrative prolepsis; the novel opens with the sentence ‘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’ – both events which become anchor points later on. This can be a little confusing, but the large cast of similarly-named characters is much more of a hindrance in this regard than the temporal vagueness. The anchor points, and the use of recurring motifs help to prevent the novel from feeling unfocused, but it does sometimes seem to lack a clear narrative drive; while there are peaks and troughs, there is no familiar overarching pattern of rising action, climax, falling action. What we get instead is a sense of the epic, even when the novel’s concerns are primarily domestic. We follow entire generations of this family from birth to the grave against the backdrop of a city’s journey from obscurity to prosperity to abandonment, and all the while, history marches forwards with its relentless drive towards modernity.
While they often seem isolated from the rest of the world, the citizens of Macondo are not wholly unaffected by history. Its drawn out, brutal civil wars between barely distinguishable liberals and conservatives, its occupation by an American banana company and subsequent labour troubles, rhyme with the history of several nations in the region. At times, the novel seems to move very quickly through these broad sweeps of history, but some of the most effective writing comes when Márquez slows almost to a standstill.
The multi-generational approach means that this novel covers a much broader sweep of human life than many other works of fiction. Not only do we see childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age represented for us, we see it represented repeatedly across many important characters. Cycles of growth and decline provide much of the structure for One Hundred Years of Solitude, but after a while it is the sense of decline and decay which sticks in the mind. The old frequently outnumber the young in the Buendía household, with a number of characters living far beyond their expected years. Sometimes, like Úrsula or Santa Sofía, work quietly away in the background, holding the household together; some hold on to ancient grudges and regrets, some fall into obsessive routines, some decline into madness. Even those who have died occasionally reappear. The house itself, one of the first built in Macondo, probably ranks alongside the House of Usher and Satis House as one of the great symbolic homes in literature. When the family and the town prosper, new rooms are added, when the family sees a change in matriarch, new furniture is brought in, and when the old begin to outnumber the young, cracks appear until eventually entire wings of the house are abandoned to the ants.
The novel often feels meandering and unreal, but that often seems to be the point. The characters are engaging, if not always fully rounded, and the last couple of pages bring the rest of the book into some sort of focus. I suspect this won’t be my last foray into magical realism.