When I (Bethany) was a kid – say about six, seven, and eight years old – and would visit a friend or invite a friend over to play at my house (in an arrangement that Americans had thankfully not yet started to call a “playdate”), I remember that my friends and I would often spend most of our time DECIDING what to play. This was the age of the toy entourage; everywhere I went I was trailed by dolls and doll clothes and art supplies and plastic carrying cases full of crap. A typical get-together with a friend looked like this: 1) we were overwhelmingly happy to see each other, and there was shrieking and jumping around, 2) we identified a play area – a bedroom or playroom or living room, 3) we unloaded all the plastic crap into a pile on the floor, mixing the host’s possessions and the guest’s possessions willy-nilly, ensuring that clean-up would be as chaotic, time-consuming, and tearful a process as possible, 4) we began divvying up the dolls or horses or whatever other toys between us, conducting long debates about who would use which item, and which doll or other lump of plastic would “be the mother” (there always had to be a mother), trading and negotiating and bartering in a process that resembles nothing as much as the NFL draft, 5) we painstakingly laid out the play area into various territories, planning out rooms, houses, swimming pools, stables, and that sort of thing, and then 6) the guest’s parent would arrive to pick her up. And then every time – every single time – we would throw fits, complaining that we didn’t even get a chance to play and life was so, so unfair.
Jill and I didn’t know each other yet in those days – we didn’t meet until we were sophomores in high school – yet our joint review of One Hundred Years of Solitude bears a fairly close resemblance to these predictable play sessions. We planned it out weeks in advance and were excited about it. We had to reschedule our planned writing time at least once – my fault, I think – and when the time came to sit down and work, I still had a few more pages to read. Our plan was to discuss the book in a free-form manner, in hope that brilliance would emerge. This is our one hundredth review, after all, and brilliance seemed like an essential ingredient. What we ended up doing can best be described as talking about talking about One Hundred Years of Solitude. We generated a lot of cool ideas and said, “Let’s talk about this!” but then we moved right along to other things, like manna from heaven and substitute teachers from high school who just weren’t up to snuff.
The end result is below. Obviously we didn’t accomplish anything, although we enjoyed tossing some ideas around. This dialogue is edited a little bit for the sake of coherence, but mostly this is what we would sound like if you invited Jill and me over to your house for dinner and we ended up ignoring you and talking to each other about books the whole time. Which we probably wouldn’t do. But we might.
BE: I still have 11 pages to go… if you want, you can start with kind of an opening statement with an introduction to what we’re doing and some general thoughts, and I’ll join in as soon as I’m done…
JMH: Okay, here goes. In honor of our one-hundredth book review on Postcards from Purgatory, we decided it would be fun to read a book individually and then jointly write a review. We hear we are pretty entertaining when we dialogue, or at least we think so. The book we decided on was Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The one hundred in the title made it an obvious choice and the ability to riff on the title of the book with the title of our review was also appealing.
Bethany did a bit of an intro to her thought on this book on this week’s (Editor’s Note: This was about 3-4 weeks ago now) Yarn Along post. So here are my introductory thoughts. I recently made a shelf on Goodreads titled “books I really should’ve read by now,” and this book was one of the first ones I put on it. I’ve loved magical realism for years and years, since we read Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits in AP English. That book also began my love affair with Latin American literature. As such, it comes as a surprise to most people that I had never actually read One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ll tell you why. I bought it at Green Apple Books sometime in the mid 1990′s but the only copy I could find was a pocket book with an ugly cover and very yellowed pages. I started it once, but couldn’t get past the aesthetics of my copy. When Bethany and I decided to do this project, I actually went out and bought a new used copy in the trade paperback format. This was also a bit tricky, because OHYOS was an Oprah’s Book Club book a while back, and I had to avoid copies with that horrible giant “O” sticker on them.
This book is the story of the Buendía family of Macondo, in an unnamed Latin American country, though we can assume it’s García Márquez’s homeland of Colombia, in an indeterminate time frame. Okay, it’s one hundred years in the life of the Buendía family, but it’s not clear when the hundred years begins or ends. This lack of determinate setting is one of the few things about magical realism that bothers me. I like to know the when and the where of things. I also enjoy knowing ages of characters. The ages of the characters in this book were generally pretty vague as well, until they got downright ridiculous. I mean, come on. Úrsula was supposedly one hundred and forty five when she died. That’s just silly.
BE: I’m done! I just have to go to the bathroom really quickly and then we can start. (should we include this part on the blog?)
JMH: Yes! We have to talk about potty breaks.
Correction of Úrsula’s age: she is supposedly between one hundred fifteen and one hundred twenty-two when she dies.
I swear someone was one hundred forty five….
BE: Pilar Ternera was 145.
JMH: And that is also ridiculous.
BE: This provides a good introduction to the point I wanted to begin with. Even though I do want to get into the details of the magic realism, I wanted to start with the fact that for me I was struck by how much this novel reminded me, in its language and its characters and its plot, of the Old Testament. Characters living to ridiculous ages is one example.
JMH: I haven’t read the Old Testament in a long time, so you’re going to have to elaborate more.
BE: There is also something very Genesis-like in the opening of the novel, when “the world was so recent that many things lacked names,” and there are babies that supposedly appear in baskets like Moses and all kinds of events that seem like versions of the Biblical plagues.
BE: The main purpose of the novel, though, other than to be beautiful and fascinating and introduce the world to a new form of storytelling (all of which it does beautifully) is to trace the lineage of the Buendía family down to the arrival of a new kind of creature (the baby with the tail of a pig), which may or may not be a new species (I believe it is referred to as a new “race”), while the purpose of the Old Testament is to trace the lineage of the ancient Hebrews through Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and so forth down to King David, and if one’s perspective is Christian, the whole purpose of all THAT is to demonstrate how special the lineage of King David is because his is the lineage of Jesus.
JMH: It’s interesting that the baby that appears in the basket here, Aureliano (MeMe and Mauricio Babilonia’s son), was the end of the family, not the savior of the race like Moses was.
BE: Right – although Aureliano is the one who finally deciphers the parchments that reveal the secrets of his family, so if you think of knowledge as a form of salvation, then he does provide a sort of ironic salvation for his family.
The baby with the tail of a pig sounds horrible to us, of course, but like Jesus his birth was foretold for generations.
Oh! And also… there is a ton of crucifixion imagery surrounding the time when Colonel Aureliano Buendía faced the firing squad (wrong Testament, I know, but bear with me)
I was just surprised because I was expecting to see so much Faulknerian influence (as GGM himself has said that he couldn’t have written the book without Faulkner), and I did see some, but the primary influence I saw was Biblical, as if GGM was trying to rewrite the creation myth and the foundation myth of “his” people – who, of course are both Christian (his education was Christian) and pre-Christian, as he was raised partially by his grandparents who still held on to some pre-Columbian traditions.
JMH: But the new creature ends up being covered with ants and dragged away by the ants. Dead. Right?
BE: Yes, the ants carry him away.
JMH: The last few pages of this book got a bit weird. Do you think that it was a nod to this book on Allende’s part when Clara the Clairvoyant in The House of the Spirits refused to name any of her children after anyone else, because it made confusion in her notebooks that bore witness to life? All the Aurelianos and Arcadios got more than a bit confusing. I was glad for the family tree in the front.
BE: The confusion in the naming in this novel drives me nuts, and I do think the Allende reference is probably intentional. But I also think GGM does this on purpose to show how the patterns repeat themselves in each generation, that time is circular, etc.
JMH: I’m sure he did it on purpose for just those reasons. What was Faulknerian to you? I’m trying to think if I saw any of that.
BE: Mainly circular time. This novel really seems to embody Faulkner’s idea that “the past is not dead; in fact, it’s not even past.” Also, the tendency toward long wavelike sentences with subordinate clause after subordinate clause.
JMH: At one point I found a sentence that went on for like three pages.
BE: My least favorite thing about magic realism (at least at this moment) is the way it so often seems to serve as a substitute for real characterization. In this novel and others, including The House of the Spirits, I think, each character is known by only one or two characteristics, which are usually created through some form of hyperbole. I think of this as “tagging” rather than characterizing, and it is something that many authors do with their MINOR characters in order to cement them in the readers’ minds, but major characters are usually more fleshed out. This relates to the repetitive naming, I think, and I do think GGM does it on purpose – the idea that individual personalities don’t matter. But I don’t like it – although I like many other elements of this book. The biblical and mythological overtones actually helped me to like this book more, since I don’t expect traditional characterization in mythology and scripture.
JMH: That’s true. These characters are not true individuals to be known, more cogs on a wheel to demonstrate how things never actually change, etc.
BE: I’m going to toss a few other ideas out there – let me know which ones you think are interesting and worth talking about: 1) that this novel is not really about solitude but about loneliness, since most of the time the characters have plenty of company (there are a couple of exceptions), but the Aurelianos and certain other characters have sort of a melancholy or solitary air about them. Why do you think both GGM and his English translator chose “solitude” instead of “loneliness” for the title (other than the fact that it’s a more interesting word in my opinion)?
2) Does this novel have a protagonist? In some ways to me it seems to be “about” its women more than it’s “about” its men, since the men are the ones who embody the patterns. The women do have personalities that are more fleshed out than the men. The women also tend to become more energetic as they age, while the men tend to become shut-ins and are often dependent on the women in their old age.
JMH: Interestingly, “soledad” can be translated into “solitude” or “loneliness.” “Soledad” when it’s voluntary translates to solitude, when it’s involuntary means loneliness. I remember seeing the word “solitude” a ton in the book, but not loneliness. I wish I had been paying more attention now.
BE: That’s interesting about solitude and loneliness – now I really do wonder why GGM chose the word. “Solitude” of course contains the Latin root “sol” for “sun” – which is connected to the idea of a center (since the earth revolves around the sun) and also connected to the idea of a monotheistic god.
BE: Oh – and more ideas: 3) I also see a motif here that I see in other works of literature that are from or take place in equatorial climates – specifically in The Bend in the River and in The Poisonwood Bible – in which humans sort of have to race against nature in order to survive because plants grow so fast and insects and other small creatures come in uncontrollable swarms. I enjoy this when I see it, although it would never occur to me to use this motif myself since I’m so used to a natural world that humans feel fully in control of.
JMH: And the center of this book is, I think, the Buendía house. Everything comes back to it.
I think we should definitely address the concept of solitude/loneliness, and the idea of nature overcoming the town. The concept of a protagonist is also a good one, too….
BE: The language is amazing too. I have so many favorite passages: “Pilar Ternera let out a deep laugh, the old expansive laugh that ended up as a cooing of doves. There was no mystery in the heart of a Buendía that was impenetrable for her because a century of cards and experience had taught her that the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.” (396)
“the house had plunged into a crisis of senility” (358)
“the chancre of blind obedience” (302)
JMH: Yeah, I didn’t mark hardly anything. I would have had to have marked the entire pook.
BE: I hate it when I have to mark the entire pook.
JMH: Shut up.
BE: Oh, and 4) The significance of sleep and 5) smells. And there is also a lot of poison coffee in this book. If I were a Márquez character, I would never drink the coffee.
BE: All the smells in the book – Ursula finding her way around by smells when she’s blind, the various odors that are attached to different characters. These characters all have a sense of smell that is almost canine.
JMH: And what exactly is Melquiades? Maybe he is the protagonist.
BE: I don’t think Melquiades is the protagonist, since he doesn’t really grow and change as a result of the actions of the novel, but in a way he is sort of a god-figure, since he knew everything that was supposed to happen before it happens, and he is also the source of inspiration who keeps pushing various Buendía to continue to learn, create, invent things, study their world, etc.
BE: I think it’s amusing that there are “gypsies” in this novel set in south America.
JMH: Apparently the gypsies got around. God-figure. Yes. That’s what I meant.
BE: If anything Melquiades is sort of a catalyst for the story of the Buendía. He provides them with a Pandora’s box to open, a puzzle to solve. He sets them on their journey. Which raises interesting questions about fate: do we have a fate if no one is around to tell us what it is?
JMH: Ha. How about this: would the Buendía family have come to an end if Aureliano hadn’t translated the scrolls?
BE: Yes, I think that is more or less the same question I was asking. Since he was almost finished translating them when the winds finally came and blew everything away, you can say that the destruction would have happened anyway – but if he hadn’t spent so much time translating them in the years prior, maybe he would have done something to prevent the destruction of the town.
But back to the gypsies for a second – I think it’s both funny and significant that Macondo is simultaneously a tiny town in a swamp that is constantly being eaten by ants and some kind of destination for travelers from around the globe. The American banana company makes sense, since they would be looking for a remote location – but the gypsies are constantly showing up, plus there are a bunch of Turks and Arabs, and every so often “the latest Paris fashions” are mentioned. The town sort of seems to grow and shrink depending on the needs of the moment, which I think is “true” in an emotional sense when it comes to how people feel about their hometowns – which sometimes seem small and embracing and stifling and at other times seem infinitely rich with variety, regardless of how big or small they actually are.
JMH: Do you want to discuss the banana company as a symbol of North America/Europe colonizing/overrunning Latin America? The stuff with the banana company and the trains full of the thousands of dead bodies was interesting to me, mostly because it didn’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the book.
BE: Sure – I think there’s a ton in this novel about western encroachment into Latin America. The first paragraph of the novel is a wonderful mish-mash of European and pre-Columbian references: adobe, gypsies, Macedonia, alchemy, nails and screws, gold, a suit of fifteenth-century armor.
JMH: It’s this concrete tragedy (that is later denied) where the rest of everything that happens has this sort of flowing/hazy/not quite real feel to it. And then the banana company is gone and it’s almost like it never was there.
BE: Yes, the political elements seemed more like something out of Allende than out of this novel. Even Colonel Aureliano Buendía and his 35 unsuccessful civil wars taste of “real” Latin American politics in ways that the rest of the novel doesn’t.
JMH: But even the reality of Col. Aureliano Buendía having 35 different civil wars fits in with the feel of the book better than the mass killings at the train station. There’s a hyperbole to that many wars that makes it work. Does that make sense? But a mass killing at a train station just seems like it doesn’t fit. Of course, a living person waking up in a train full of dead bodies is appropriately placed in this book.
BE: I don’t know… I see what you mean about the hyperbole, but I think it applies in a similar way to the killings at the train station. And I think part of the point is that somewhere off in the distance is a corrupt government that is violent and terrorizing and not at all cute and whimsical like the rest of the novel and that has a great deal of power over people’s lives, even though most of the time the characters are oblivious to what it is doing.
JMH: Okay, I buy that. As I was typing it occurred to me that multiple train cars full of dead bodies was a bit hyperbolic, especially when the train cars were leaving a small town in the swamp.
BE: I also think that “love” in this novel is interesting – I am thinking of Ursula’s thoughts about Colonel A.B. when he is dying: “She realized that Colonel Aureliano Buendía had not lost his love for his family because he had been hardened by war, as she had thought before, but that he had never loved anyone, not even his wife Remedios or the countless one-night women who had passed through his life, and much less his sons. She sensed that he had fought so many wars not our of idealism, as everyone had thought, nor had he renounced a certain victory because of fatigue, as everyone had thought, but that he had won and lost for the same reason: pure and simple pride” (249.
There’s more in this passage that’s interesting that I want to get to in a minute, but first I wanted to connect this to a statement at the end that says that the final Buendía baby, the one with the pig’s tail, was the only Buendía ever conceived in love.
Also that for a while I was thinking that maybe Ursula is the protagonist, since she seems to be the only one who ever learns anything from the events of the novel (except for Aureliano at the end, maybe). But I’m not sure how valid I think that theory is anymore.
Also from that same passage on p. 249: “One night when she was carrying [Colonel A.B] in her belly she heard him weeping. It was such a definite lament that Jose Arcadio Buendía woke up beside her and was happy with the idea that his son was going to be a ventriloquist. Other people predicted that he would be a prophet. She, on the other hand, shuddered from the certainty that the deep moan was a first indication of the fearful pig tail and she begged God to let the child die in her womb.”
There is so much Christ imagery connected to Colonel A.B. (the idea that people thought he would be a prophet, the crucifixion imagery before his firing squad incident, when the sores in his armpits make him hold his arms out to the side, and the way he sort of becomes mythologized later in his life and after his death, when there are mysterious sightings of him and lots of people don’t believe that he exists. But this doesn’t fit in very well with the other Biblical imagery in the novel.
JMH: I wondered about those armpit sores. I meant to look up if they were representative of some sort of STD.
BE: One reader’s crucifixion imagery is another reader’s STD, I guess. Also, I meant to ask you – did you like it? Do you like it more than Allende, the same? How does this novel contribute to your already-well-developed feelings about magic realism?
JMH: I did like it a lot. I liked seeing it as the parent of The House of the Spirits. On some levels I like it more–I think Marquez is a better writer than Allende, and if it weren’t for him I doubt she would exist as a writer. But Allende is better at character development (not necessarily in The House of the Spirits, but in her later books), and then there’s the whole she’s a woman thing.
JMH: Yeah yeah. I’m getting better. I do read books by men now, you know.
BE: By the way, I do think the characterization in The House of the Spirits is better than in this novel.
BE: But about the idea that this book is the parent of all magic realism: I don’t know – now I kind of think that the Bible is the parent of all magical realism. Am I allowed to say that?
JMH: But that stuff in the bible all REALLY HAPPENED.
BE: So they say. I seem to remember a certain 9th grade religion teacher at SI teaching us that the manna from heaven was really pigeon shit.
JMH: Who? Was that Mrs. O’Malley?
BE: Yes, Mrs. O’Malley. That may have been the only moment of her class that I enjoyed.
JMH: You know she went on maternity leave about two weeks into the semester I was supposed to have her. Leaving us with the horrible Mr. Wilson, nSJ. He was a prize.
BE: Was he only there as a maternity leave replacement? I remember the name but not the face.
JMH: Not sure. He wasn’t back the next year.
BE: Oh, and I take that back about the pigeon shit incident being the only moment in Mrs. O’Malley’s class that I enjoyed – I also enjoyed the day when she yelled at all five of her classes because someone had complained to his/her parents because she called him/her a “little shit,” and the subject of her rant was that you shouldn’t complain if someone calls you a little shit. You can complain if someone calls you a fucker, but not if someone calls you a little shit. With 23 years of hindsight, that actually strikes me as damn good advice.
JMH: I wonder if that’s why she went on maternity leave and never came back?
BE: I actually think she did come back after we graduated. She might actually still be there now (but even if she’s not, I’m pretty sure she was back for a while).
JMH: Oh that’s nice. I thought she was funny.
BE: Just checked the website – not still there now.
And that’s the end. There was actually a little bit more, about how we were both in the mood to read something light next and about how cool it would be if the religious right started to boycott our blog because of what we said about the manna from heaven (not that the religious right reads our blog now, but whatever. It was an offhand comment.) But there you go: our one hundredth review. Not bad for a blog that’s only been around for eight and a half months, staffed by two bloggers who are also busy doing things like working, moving cross country, taking cats to their acupuncture appointments, taking naps, knitting, shopping for new cars, following exercise regimens, taking pictures of cats, breaking up cat fights – and, of course, reading.
And thanks to all of you for reading, too.