A bestiary of Buendias

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is unlike any other book I’ve read. It took me some time to get into though. I wasn’t hooked by the first page by any means. There was time to tune in, however, as it’s pretty substantial at about 450 pages in length. To be fair, it would be, as it’s meant to cover a century and spans multiple generations. It follows the story of a single family through fortune and misfortune, though mostly misfortune.

A central theme of the novel is the instances where branches of this particular family tree get tangled and intersect. In other words, there is a fair bit of incest in it. This isn’t totally gratuitous and has literary significance, perhaps political too, even if I can’t quite pin it down; my knowledge of 19th-century Latin American history is rather rudimentary. I would suggest that a possible interpretation is that as the family/village/town/country isolates itself and closes itself off to outside influence and new energy, it has to turn in on itself and cannibalise to perpetuate. Obviously, genetically this doesn’t work and politically has disastrous consequences too.

I have read family sagas before – and actual sagas for that matter! The best of the former, in my opinion, are the Edwardian novels of DH Lawrence. This is different, however, as it belongs to a genre I have not had much experience with – magical realism. The way I’d explain magical realism is that for the most part, the action takes place in the ordinary recognisable world of our reality but with fantastical elements sporadically interspersed. These are described in a sober, matter-of-fact sort of way – they don’t disturb the fabric of this reality and are not acknowledged by the characters as supernatural. This seems, in a postmodern way, to hark back to a premodern worldview of the kind shared by the protagonists of The Name of the Rose for whom mystical visions, divine revelation and scholastic study are all perfectly epistemologically valid. It’s a world where unicorns and dragons can exist side by side in bestiaries with beavers, badgers and boars.

Some of the things that happen are weird but not implausible such as a character who eats soil compulsively when she is distressed or several characters who live to a preternatural age. Others are more straightforwardly otherworldly – a character ascends to Heaven and in a late episode it rains for seven years non-stop.

Perhaps Alasdair Gray’s writing shares some of this approach to the paranormal in Lanark and Poor Things. In German, the stories of ETA Hoffmann come to mind.

What I liked about One Hundred Years though, apart from this unique combination of reality and hyperreality, was its sense of the grand sweep of history told through characters who are for the majority of the time explicitly not at the centre of the action. There are two exceptions to this. Firstly Colonel Aureliano Buendia bucks the trend of his decidedly apolitical family and decides to dedicate his life to overturning the conservative establishment, which at this time means the aristocracy and the Church. Again there is an element of the hyperreal here where there is repeated reference to the 32 wars he ends up fighting in the name of the Liberal cause. This is where the novel started to really grab my attention and I was firmly on the hook. No characters are explicitly political up until this point. A week after finishing the book I realised that Colonel Aureliano reminds me of, or is associated in my head with, Ewan Tavendale II from Grey Granite, which is a vivid and angry conclusion to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair trilogy.

Marquez, I get the sense, is less involved in the urgent political issues of 19th-century South America. The indifference of other characters to the regime changes or their petty local concerns are less of a source of anger and treachery as they are when they are related by Gibbon in relation to 1930s Britain.

The second forthright and overtly political character of the novel, although more a militant trade unionist than a liberal militarist, is Jose Acardio Segundo. The betrayal he experiences – the banana company, virtually the sole employer of the town, uses an army of police to violently crush the strike he organises – is tragic but has both a weird inevitability and ambiguity about it. He, like his grandfather, Colonel Auerliano, is fixated on a number – 4000 dead (fired on by police at the mass demonstration). JAC is haunted by a memory/vision of bodies crammed into train carriages (which he somehow ends up on, having been wounded but not fatally) and being transported away from the scene of the massacre. I’ve called this a memory/vision because it’s unclear whether it truly happened in the way he describes and only one other character who lives his early years in a strange Stockholm-syndrome-sustained house arrest believes his account.

The novel’s ending is very satisfying, tying together several threads beautifully. We see the flowering of seeds planted on the first few pages, and spacetime is compressed so elegantly that we can pierce our way through 400 of them with striking clarity. At the same time, it’s not as if everything is explained. It’s not a whodunnit – rather, the themes that enter and retreat throughout the book coalesce beautifully. I am still unsure what it all means but I very much enjoyed the immersive journey it took me on.

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About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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