Perplexing, yet enchanting. This is how I can describe in a single line my view of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realist classic “One hundred years of solitude”. I can either say that the novel is an over-ambitious, confusing work or that it would take me some more time to appreciate it fully. I feel both of it now, though more of the latter.
A summary can be found here. It tells about the founding of an imaginary remote Latin American town called Macondo, it growth and its decline and along with it the story of six generations of its founders – the Buendias. Jose Arcadio Buendia and his wife Ursula are the founders of the town. A very helpful family tree can be found here. More than magical realism the novel brims with symbolism. In fact it would be hard to find a main incident which is not magical realist or symbolic or both. It is generally felt that this is more understandable than Marquez’s “The Autumn of the patriarch” – but I differ. “The Autumn…” though much more difficult to get into, is much easier to understand then this novel with loads of symbolism. Of course if one wishes, they can consider this only as a story of a family, disregarding all the symbolism.
But on another level it becomes the story of the entire mankind. In fact it is quite interesting to find out the exact meaning of solitude in this novel. I feel that all the main characters in this novel (belonging to Buendia family) have a trait of solitude. In some reviews it is noted that Ursula, the matriarch of the family who lives to more than a hundred years, is an anti-solitude character. But I differ with this. Ursula is a pragmatic lady and involves herself in making the family financially secure. But she does little else. She leaves the bringing up of the children to her Indian servants and is not even aware of their growth. The following quote brings this out clearly (p. 55)-
“So busy was she in her prosperous enterprises that one afternoon she looked distractedly towards the courtyard while the Indian women helped her sweeten the dough and she saw two unknown and beautiful adolescent girls doing frame embroidery in the light of the sunset. They were Rebecca and Amarantha”
Hence this is also a kind of solitude – where one is so involved with material welfare, that they lose track of others feelings. Based on this I would say that solitude here means any state where one is oblivious of some of the happenings around them. That may be because one is too much engrossed in earning money (Ursula), involved in politics and work (Colonel Aureliano Buendia), obsessed with science (Jose Arcadio, the founder), two people obsessed with each other (Aureliano(II) and Amaranta Ursula), obsessed with social status (Fernanda del Carpio) or engrossed in the bitterness of past events (Amaranta and Meme).
Many confusing symbolisms reveal themselves after some thought. The unusual fertility of the farm animals of Aureliano Segundo and his concubine, Petra Cotes indicate the limitless resources available to one at youth. As they grow old, the fertility of the animals decreases. As they have squandered their riches of the youth they are doomed to suffer during old age, as Aureliano does. However there a few symbolisms which have not yielded to me yet, like the flying to sky of Remedios the beauty or the strange murder of Jose Arcadio (the second).
The novel also tries to symbolically tell the whole story of the mankind, but because of the same symbolism it is still quite confusing as to what it really tells. When the founders arrive at Macondo, it is a pristine place and “many things don’t have their names”. The only contact with the outside world is through gypsies – who bring some useful innovations to them. It is interesting that the innovations which are regarded as magic at this period appear again at a later time, but are then considered science. Marquez also notes that later group of gypsies parade technology as a entertainment rather as being useful to life. It is interesting to ponder on whether this rings a bell with the current direction of technological progress.
The town then gets embroiled in politics, as Colonel Aureliano organizes many revolutions against the central government (to which Macondo finally comes in contact with). The important turning point comes when a company decides to setup a banana plantation in the town. Initially it brings in a lot of progress but finally thousands of workers are massacred in a strike and as the banana company leaves the town, its decline begins. Despite his reportedly communist leanings, Marquez doesn’t seem to explicitly say that the banana company brought decline to Macondo. He notes the ‘prosperity’ brought in by the banana company and the decline when they withdraw from the town in a more or less neutral way. It is for us to decide whether the company is to be appreciated for bringing in some prosperity or accused for starting the decline from the height of the prosperity. And of course for us to decide whether the company stands as a metaphor for capitalism in today’s world.
The false ideologies in politics and the futility of war are clearly brought out. Here I found that Aureliano’s character became quite similar to the General in “The Autumn…” with Marquez using the concept of “Solitude of power” – but Aureliano recovers just in time.
Also Marquez stresses on the theme that Time moves in a circle. This is very obvious based on many things in the novel, like the inventions of gypsies appearing later as scientific inventions, Jose Arcadio Segundo fighting and remaining incognito like his grand-father Colonel Aureliano Buendia and incest between Aureliano Jose and Amaranta repeating itself more vigorously as that between Aureliano (the last) and Amaranta Ursula. In the novel also this is mentioned several times. The incessant repetition of names also hints at the circular nature. An interesting question is “If Time moves in circles then why does the town come to an end?” The novel itself provides the answer –
(p.402) "…the history of 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."
Thus Time moves in a spiral rather than a circle! A spiral which points towards the inevitable destruction, because when people repeat the same mistakes, the family is not as strong as before to deal with the mistakes.
The novel also has some puzzling things towards the end – the whole story of the Buendia family is foretold in the parchments written by the gypsy Melquiades. In fact the name of the novel comes from the fact that a hundred years after the parchments are written, it is interpreted. Then is the novel the same as these parchments? Not likely because the novel doesn’t have this beautiful and chilling epitaph of the parchments (pp. 420) –
“The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants”.
Also a character with the name Gabriel Marquez (yes! with the same name), who is a friend of Aureliano (II) and descendant of a founding family, escapes from Macondo, just before it is destroyed. Is the whole story told through him?
Of course the last few pages of the novel happen to be the most puzzling. Especially the last sentence of the novel is as enigmatic as it is poetic –
“…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth”How can a race (or a town) be in solitude? The explanation I used to think of before reading the novel fully was that, the town was remote and always separated from the rest of the world. However, Macondo becomes well connected to the world around the time the banana company comes and even during its decline is connected by a rail road – only that it’s forgotten by the rest of the world. Now I think, this solitude has the same meaning as the others in the novel. In some vague way, it refers to the people of the town not paying enough attention and not taking enough efforts for the survival of the town. They are too busy earning and enjoying during the times of the banana company and after it leaves are totally shattered and they too begin to leave or stay passively in the society.
In trying to understand this novel I tried reading a few reviews online (by noted literature study aid publishers) and they seemed to be as confused as me! Quite a few reviews I read were contradicting each other in interpreting some of the symbolisms. In fact one of them interpreted that from the vigorous mating between Aureliano Segundo and Petra Cotes, Marquez favors sexual promiscuity, whereas his treatment of the sexual passion between Amaranta Ursula and Aureliano (II) would have easily disproved this. I am aware that there are entire books on this novel, but I would still like my remaining questions to be answered more easily. They could also be answered if I was to read the novel once again, but though I have the interest for it I don’t seem to have the patience for it now.
Irrespective of whether you want to peal away the symbolisms or not, this novel is certainly a good read – touching, comical and revealing sometimes, but always puzzling.