My latest whim is to try to choose a single word to describe a book I’ve just read. For One Hundred Years of Solitude, I’m going with bleak. Because, really! What a dreadfully depressing 458 pages.
The basic story (spoiler alert) is that of a family, the Buendia family, living through the rise and fall of a teensy town in a dusty corner of South America. Maconda (the town) is born rather inadvertently, weathers a war, blossoms when a banana company establishes itself there, and fades into oblivion again after the company massacres thousands of its workers and withdraws.
The Buendia clan is small, made up of a few people with very similar names. It’s an obnoxious choice on the part of Mr. Marquez; I was constantly referring to the family tree at the front of the book to keep the Arcadios, Aurelianos and Amarantas separate. And yet, the blurring of names across generations comes across as deliberate – the Buendias can’t escape their names, they can’t escape who they are. They’re destined to stupidly repeat the history of their parents and grandparents.
And let me tell you, that history is miserable. Bleak.
The Buendias are like a bunch of Israelites during the time of the judges: each person doing what is right in his or her own eyes. Even the narrator doesn’t seem to have a conscience; he simply reports in his silent bystander-ish way – admittedly using poetical and stirringly lovely language – on the increasingly nasty lives these men and women are living. We start with some visits to prostitutes, then ramp up to fathering seventeen children with seventeen different women, and before you know it, men are lusting after pre-adolescent girls, dreaming of having sex with their aunts and dabbling in bestiality. It’s revolting. For all the energy the Buendias devote to sex and passion, they don’t understand the first thing about love.
The story ends, inevitably, in death. The town slowly dies, and finally the last two Buendias bring forth a disfigured child; the poor little thing is eaten to death by fire ants and then his parents die, too. In the final act, a hurricane rips through what little of Maconda remains, annihilating everything.
What can you say about a book in which all is meaningless; sex is confused with love; truth and goodness are forgotten; and all the sins of previous generations are inescapably echoed in the lives which come after? It’s a story opposed to the hope and truth found in Jesus Christ.
I should add that I think One Hundred Years of Solitude is best known for its style. The author uses a device called magical realism, in which he uses the same tone when talking about daily life as he does when talking about something fantastical. So there’s this nonchalance about the supernatural: when a young woman meets a man whose appearance is always preceded by a swarm of butterflies, for example, nobody stares or wonders. Rather, that’s just the way things are. The same is true for invisible doctors performing invisible surgery, a girl getting swept up into heaven, and the blood of a corpse intentionally seeping across streets and sneaking under doors. It makes for interesting and rather disconcerting reading.
But the nihilism of the book dwarfs the novel literary devices and pretty turns of phrases, so that even though reviewers breathlessly declare, “One Hundred Years of Solitude has influenced nearly every important novelist around the world,” I’d recommend leaving this book on the shelf.
Next up: Scoop by Evelyn Waugh