Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez
Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa
New York: Perennial Classics, 1998 (published as Cien Años de Soledad in 1967, translated in 1970)

Review Copyright © 2006 Garret Wilson — 28 May 2006 7:12am

“With every event in Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, my anticipation grew, wondering when the climax would be reached, the loose ends tied, the purpose achieved, and the mystery be solved until, reading faster and faster, I reached the end and nothing happened, making me wish I would have taken the time to enjoy each of the intricate, preposterous events along the way.”

Is that the effect Márquez wants to have on his reader? Toward the end of the book, it almost seems so:

It was the last that remained of a past whose annihilation had not taken place because it was still in a process of annihilation, consuming itself from within, ending at every moment but never ending its ending (434).

But I’m not sure that this is his point. I’m not even sure Márquez has a point at all.

When I first started One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was struck by its banality. Those Buendías were to be commended, of course, trekking across the mountains to found the mythical city of Macondo and all, but the sleep of apathy was creeping up on me until the magic carpet floated by and no one notice. Oh, they noticed that it was some new nifty invention, as those gypsies typically brought as they passed through town, but no one realized that it couldn’t really happen. So this must be a tall tale.

But as the story progressed, coasting for a while in the normalcy lane and then revving its engines for a quick spin through some off-the-trail excursion into outlandishness, I expected a rhyme, or a reason; in short, I expected Rushdie. I expected Gabreel and Ganesh and hairs of the prophet, all elaborate metaphors for some statement about politics, religion, or life in general. But the promising drops of absurdity never congealed into any larger Rushie-like plan; the incredulity-causing opportunities are never used, save perhaps the seventy chamberpots which are finally used by José Arcadio Segundo (337).

If Márquez has no point, he at least has a theme: everyone grows up, does lots of things, but is never really happy until they get old, slow down, and stop caring about doing things, basking in their own inward-looking gaze of solitude. Colonel Aureliano Buendía found solitude working in José Arcadio Buendía’s workshop creating gold fishes which he would sell for gold coins which he would then turn into more gold fishes.

Taciturn, silent, insensible to the new breath of vitality that was shaking the house, Colonel Aureliano Buendía could understand only that the secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude. He would get up at five in the morning after a light sleep, have his eternal mug of bitter coffee in the kitchen, shut himself up all day in the workshop, and at four in the afternoon he would go along the porch dragging a stool, not even noticing the fire of the rose bushes or the brightness of the hour or the persistence of Amaranta, whose melancholy made the noise of a boiling pot, which was perfectly perceptible at dusk, and he would sit in the street door as long as the mosquitoes would allow him to (216).

When death visited Amaranta and instructed her to sew a shroud, Amaranta followed the same path to solitude as the sat in silence for days on end, constructing her own burial garment:

It was then that she understood the vicious circle of Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s little gold fishes. The world was reduced to the surface of her skin and her inner self was safe from all bitterness. It pained her not to have had that revelation many years before when it had still been possible to purify memories and reconstruct the universe under a new light and evoke without trembling Pietro Crespi’s smell of lavender at dusk and rescue Rebeca from her slough of misery, not out of hatred or out of love but because of the measureless understanding of solitude (300).

And Úrsula, the longsuffering matriarch, as she neared the end of her life fell into a similar state:

Even though the trembling of her hands was more and more noticeable and the weight of her feet was too much for her, her small figure was never seen in so many places at the same time. She was almost as diligent as when she had the whole weight of the house on her shoulders. Nevertheless, in the impenetrable solitude of decrepitude she had such clairvoyance as she examined the most insignificant happenings in the family that for the first time she saw clearly the truths that her busy life in former times had prevented her from seeing (266).

But even these depressing conclusions of futility seem only haphazard pit stops in Márquez’ mad race with time. The José Arcadios and Aurelianos of the Buendía legacy become a blur that even Márquez appears unable to clarify, even though he repeatedly attempts to distinguish which is which and, in the case of the Segundos, why they might have switched. When the end comes, it comes not with a bang or even a whimper, but with a sigh for the spiraling family circle that, even in fiction, may not have ever existed.