Monday, August 24, 2009

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude for the 2nd or 3rd time. It’s the Great Columbian Novel, a fact often obscured or missed by North American and European critics who designate it a “Latin American” novel. While Gabo deliberately generalizes his tales, never explicitly naming the country in which the novel is set, many of the background events (Liberal-Conservative wars, banana massacre, etc.) are recognizable incidents from Columbian history. I wonder how many North American readers appreciate this, understand that they’re reading a kind of ‘national epic’ of 19th and 20th century Columbian history rather than a generalized, mythologized, ‘South American’ fable.

The most serious flaw I find in this reading is that Gabo forces too big a cast upon himself. There are simply too many Buendias, and the author doesn’t sufficiently individualize them all. (He’s great, but he’s not Tolstoy.) So as we reach the halfway point, the Aurelianos and Arcadios of various generations tend to blur together, and I find myself repeatedly turning back to the genealogy chart in the front of the book. If Gabo had cut out a generation, this flaw might have been less noticeable, but which scenes would we want to lose, which beautiful images would we eliminate?

Reading the book after the 2000-2001 Bushite takeover of the U.S., I feel an eerie shock of recognition in some scenes, particularly the stolen election that leads Col. Buendia into rebellion (so much like the events of late 2000 in that most Caribbean, that most Latin American, that most magic realist of our United States). A new, deep-freeze chill also accrues to the banana massacre and its Kafkaesque aftermath of delusional official denials. Here is where magic realism becomes realism proper, reflecting hallucinatory reality.

Again and again the book surprises me, even upon re-reading. It is a triumph of the engaged imagination, a great left-wing novel that is also (rare thing) a great novel, fully deserving its prestige. Its strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses, rendering them negligible, barely worth mentioning beside the great plagues of insomnia and amnesia, the suicide attempt of Col. Aureliano, the ascension of Remedios the Beauty, the train of corpses, and so much more.

This is a novel as lush and fertile as a Columbian rain forest (and filled with as many intoxicating substances), a book of Dantean inventiveness and richness. Yes, I’m gushing now, but this novel deserves it. Gabo’s inventiveness does not flag (as Grass’s does in Tin Drum); even the last two or three chapters contain marvels: the “brothel of lies”; Aureliano and Amaranta’s amour fou in the house that succumbs to nature exactly as they do and is destroyed along with them; the old Catalonian bookseller with his shopful of treasures that the citizens of Macondo see as so many piles of printed junk; the tour de force ending in which the last Buendia reads of his own death at the moment it occurs–a very tidy clearing of the stage.

The book is a supreme example of writing that is both politically engaged and wildly imaginative. There is enough melancholy and wistfulness in Gabo’s tone to keep his fantasy from becoming mere whimsy. And it’s a melancholy born of the nightmares of Columbian history, a history like a freight train packed with corpses (a central image of the novel’s second half), a wistfulness born of what that history might have been. It’s not a perfect book (I’ve mentioned a few flaws above), but it is one of the very greatest.

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