Source of book: I own this.
This book was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. We tend to read contemporary books more than classics, but we have added a few in lately. This one has been on my list for a while, as it is considered to be one of, if not the, quintessential “magical realism” books.
Five years ago, I read the other well-known Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, Love in the Time of Cholera, which didn’t really have any magic involved, just a bit of coincidence (without which would the novel even exist?) The two books had some similarities, but they felt quite different in other ways.
It was also interesting reading this book at the same time as I saw Encanto, which drew pretty heavily on the book for certain elements (although not the plot exactly.) There are quite a few obvious references to the book in the movie, which I will try to mention in this post as they come up.
The book isn’t particularly kid-friendly, to put it mildly. There is plenty of sex, a ton of violence, incest, mass murder, firing squads, dead children, and plenty of disturbing imagery. It also leans heavily on the “magic” part of Magical Realism, with the fantastic and the miraculous taken for granted as normal occurrences. The heart of the book, however, is a dysfunctional family that repeats its struggles over the course of seven generations. If you look beyond the specifics of the magic and the coincidences and the hyperbole what you find is all too realistic and recognizable from life.
As in Encanto, the core of the family is the matriarch. In this case, Ursula Buendia, whose life is almost synonymous with the village she founds with her husband, Jose Arcadio Buendia (the first of several to come - the names repeat just like the dysfunction.) The Buendias end up fleeing and founding their village, Macondo, after an incident where another man insults Jose - calling both his manhood and his sexuality into question - after which Jose kills him. The ghost comes to the new village too - and the two of them essentially make up. This too has some parallel to Encanto, with a matriarch founding a magical village, with a central house whose fortunes are tied up with the family and the town.
Following the adventures and misadventures of the Buendia family over the course of 100 years - and 422 pages - takes some work. Fortunately, the book has a family tree, so you can keep track of who the different Jose Arcadios, Aurelianos, and Remedios are through the generations. I won’t lay out the plot here, other than to note some important incidents.
As is the case in Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez starts the book out of sequence, with a teaser of the future. He does this throughout the book, but particularly in the first half, when most of the story is still to come. There are also some flashbacks that clarify things that happened before, but weren’t completely explained. The focus of the book also shifts between characters, so that we see things sometimes from an omniscient viewpoint, but others from the perspectives of different characters.
The common thread, however, is Ursula. She isn’t just the matriarch, but she is in a metaphorical sense, the town, the family, the casita, everything. When she finally dies (at an impossible old age), the family, the house, the town - it all starts to crumble, and by the end of the book, it is all gone.
Speaking of the end, this book has one of the best endings I have ever read. Up until the last few pages, I was wondering how on earth Marquez was going to wrap things up. Would he just end the book arbitrarily? Would the remaining characters just all move away? But Marquez ties up the ends in a very magical realism sort of way, and one that echoes and corresponds to the beginning of the book, the village, the family, and everything else. I closed the book, and said “wow.” (Ditto for those of our club who were able to finish the book by our discussion.)
One of the other things in the book that seems to be a Marquez standard is at least one really icky sexual situation. This book has several, starting with the way the sons of Ursula and Jose have their children. Both of them (at different times) sleep with the prostitute/bruja/fortune teller Pilar Tenara, and she gives birth to their children, both of which are essentially adopted by the family.
Probably the ickiest one, though, involves the first Remedios, wife of Colonel Aureliano Buendia - Jose and Ursula’s eldest. After he has already knocked up Pilar, he falls in love (if that is even an applicable word) with one of the daughters of his father’s rival for administrative power in Macondo. But not one of the several older and very eligible daughters. No, he wants Remedios, who is age eight at the time. Clearly, she is too young to marry. So they wait. And then, there is this scene:
Aureliano Buendia and Remedios Moscote were married one Sunday in March before the altar Father Nicanor Reyna had set up in the parlor. It was the culmination of four weeks of shocks in the Moscote household because little Remedios had reached puberty before getting over the habits of childhood. In spite of the fact that her mother had taught her about the changes of adolescence, one February afternoon she burst shouting into the living room, where her sisters were chatting with Aureliano, and showed them her panties, smeared with a chocolate-colored paste.
Clearly, this cannot end well, and it doesn’t. Remedios gets pregnant before her body is ready, and she dies from the trauma, which is a tragedy that haunts the whole family throughout the book. One reason for this is that Remedios, for all her youth and naivete, seems poised to become the next Ursula in the family.
Aureliano doesn’t cope well with this, and, after a complicated series of events, becomes a revolutionary, proceeding to participate in (and lose) an absurd number of uprisings, and become both a hated villain and a lauded hero as a result. The description of the political sides in these conflicts is fascinating.
The liberals were determined to go to war. Since Aureliano at that time had very confused notions about the difference between Conservatives and Liberals, his father-in-law gave him some schematic lessons. The Liberals, he said, were Freemasons, bad people, wanting to hang priests, to institute civil marriage and divorce, to recognize the rights of illegitimate children as equal to those of legitimate ones, and to cut up the country into a federal system that would take power away from the supreme authority. The Conservatives, on the other hand, who had received their power directly from God, proposed the establishment of public order and family morality. They were the defenders of the faith of Christ, of the principle of authority, and were not prepared to permit the country to be broken down into autonomous entities. Because of his humanitarian feelings Aureliano sympathized with the Liberal attitude with respect to the rights of natural children, but in any case, he could not understand how people arrived at the extreme of waging war over things that could not be touched with the hand.
I find it interesting how that is both similar to our present moment in the United States (particularly regarding the Religious Right) and yet very different. The issue of local versus federal control is quite secondary to the question of “who wins.”
This series of civil wars dominates the middle of the book. Apparently, Marquez patterned it after the Thousand Days War, but subsequent civil wars seem to fit well enough - including those after the book was published in 1967. Colombia, like the Buendias, seems doomed to repeat the same events. There are other historical events that come into the book, which I will get to in sequence.
The war leaves Aureliano a largely damaged man, and he retreats into his art (he makes little golden fishes), a vague obsession with Remedios (her dolls decorate his room for decades), and an increasing isolation from the rest of the family. Here is another parallel, perhaps, to Encanto: the “solitude” of the title is found in many forms, but most obviously in the way various family members shut themselves up in rooms, real or psychological, throughout the book. I thought this passage about Aureliano was perceptive:
But all of that had been wiped out by the war. Even Remedios, his wife, at that moment was a hazy image of someone who might have been his daughter. The countless women he had known on the desert of love and who had spread his seed all along the coast had left no trace in his feelings. Most of them had come into his room in the dark and had left before dawn, and on the following day they were nothing but a touch of fatigue in his bodily memory. The only affection that prevailed against time and the war was that he had felt for his brother Jose Arcadio when they were both children, and it was not based on love but on complicity.
This lack of ability to connect, to feel love, is widespread throughout the family and through the generations. In fact, it is the unusual cases where connection is made that stand out as not merely exceptions, but perhaps even threats to the family.
I should mention some of the strange triangles in this book. One of the most memorable is the feud between Ursula and Jose’s daughter, Amaranta, and the adopted sister Rebeca. The latter shows up with her parents’ bones one day, with no explanation of who she is or why she was sent to the Buendias. She becomes part of the family, but remains odd. She has pica, and thus eats dirt and plaster and other stuff. Anyway, she and Amaranta fall in love with Peitro, an Italian music teacher who comes to the village. He is portrayed as somewhat effeminate, and indeed is mistaken for gay for quite some time. He becomes engaged to Rebeca, but the furiously jealous Amaranta manages to delay the wedding for years. At that point, Jose Arcadio Jr. returns, huge and strong and tattooed, and Rebeca throws Pietro over for him. Because they are technically “siblings” despite no known blood connection, this causes a huge scandal, and both are estranged from the family. Pietro then tries to woo Amaranta, but she has…issues. First, she believes she has killed Remedios (remember her?) through her hatred of Rebeca - the curse, so to speak, wasn’t aimed well enough. Second, she is still furious at Pietro for not choosing her first. So she rejects him. He then kills himself, and Amaranta burns her hand in penance. She then withdraws into herself for the rest of her life. I think the craziest thing about this whole episode is just how violently Amaranta’s hatred for Rebeca burns - and burns for her entire life too. Her last disappointment is that she fails to outlive Rebeca, even though it has by that time been decades since either has had any love life or other connection. She spends her last years sewing a shroud for Rebeca, with the intent of restoring her corpse - Rebeca has turned into a decrepit wreck by that time - and putting on a funeral of magnificence.
She worked out the plan with such hatred that it made her tremble to think about the scheme, which she would have carried out in exactly the same way if it had been done out of love, but she would not allow herself to become absent by the confusion and went on perfecting the details so minutely that she came to be more than a specialist and was a virtuoso in the rites of death.
I already mentioned the weird triangle between the two brothers of the second generation and Pilar Tenera, who is one of the other women who essentially holds the town together.
Then, there is the case of the fourth generation, where there is Jose Arcadio Segundo and Aureliano Segundo - twins, who may have switched identities as children, and are later buried in the wrong graves. They too sleep with the same woman, Petra Cotes, but in the end it is Aureliano Segundo who ends up with her. They become lovers, but never marry, in large part because Aureliano marries Fernanda, a beauty from a ruined aristocratic family. He never loves Fernanda, but they have children, whereas he and Petra - who he eventually lives with most of the time - do not. But when he and Petra have sex, their animals mate like crazy, making for great wealth. At least for a while.
This triangle is bizarre in so many ways, although also believable (I have had some cases that were not too far off from it, honestly.) Aureliano Segundo also has fits of passion for Fernanda (but not love), one of which is described like this. Fernanda resists sex for a long time, then finally gives in. Well, sort of.
Indeed, when the period was over, she opened her bedroom with a resignation worthy of an expiatory victim and Aureliano Segundo saw the most beautiful woman on earth, with her glorious eyes of a frightened animal and her long, copper-colored hair spread out across the pillow. He was so fascinated with that vision that it took him a moment to realize that Fernanda was wearing a white nightgown that reached down to her ankles, with long sleeves and with a large, round buttonhole, delicately trimmed, at the level of her lower stomach. Aureliano Segundo could not suppress an explosion of laughter.
“That’s the most obscene thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he shouted with a laugh that rang through the house. “I married a Sister of Charity.”
He never does get her to take off the nightgown, but they manage to conceive three children in 20 years anyway…
As Ursula ages, she becomes blind, but everyone else in the family is too self-absorbed to notice. She gets around by memory, feel, smell, and other senses. I thought this observation was interesting, about how Ursula was actually able to find lost things, because of her memory of routine.
On one occasion, Fernanda had the whole house upset because she had lost her wedding right, and Ursula found it on a shelf in the children’s bedroom. Quite simply, while the others were going carelessly all about, she watched them with her four senses so that they never took her by surprise, and after some time she discovered that every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and almost repeated the same words at the same hour. Only when they deviated from meticulous routine did they run the risk of losing something.
It is easy to sympathize with Ursula, who is often the only sane person in a family of lunatics. (Actually, it would be fully accurate to say that only the women are remotely sane and responsible in this book. The men are big babies who act irrationally over and over and over.) A great scene occurs about two-thirds of the way through the book, when the unearthly Remedios the Beauty (generation 4) has been miraculously carried off to heaven, and Aureliano Segundo has started up his loud parties again, that Ursula “felt irrepressible desires to let herself go and scamper about like a foreigner and allow herself at last an instant of rebellion, that instant yearned for so many times and so many times postponed, putting her resignation aside and shitting on everything once and for all and drawing out of her heart the infinite stacks of bad words that she had been forced to swallow over a century of conformity.” Ursula lets out a booming “Shit!” that startles everyone in the family. Great moment.
Another interesting moment involves the increasingly pietistic Fernanda, who has gotten even more uptight over the years. Her older daughter, Renata Remedios (“Meme”) has fallen in love with an unacceptable young man - he is a mere mechanic, even if he is surrounded by clouds of butterflies. (Another reference to the book in Encanto…) After all, Meme has been raised to be a useless beauty, and should be destined for a great husband. But attempts to isolate Meme backfire, she gets pregnant, and is then shipped off to a convent for the rest of her life.
Her son is shipped back in a basket, and Fernanda is determined to hide the truth. (Which she does, with rather tragic effect eventually…) The best line in this scene is after the nun who delivers the child expresses skepticism that Fernanda’s cover story of a baby floating in a basket will be believed. Fernanda replies that if they believe it in the Bible, they should have no issues believing it from her either. And then this:
The nun lunched at the house while she waited for the train back, and in accordance with the discretion they asked of her, she did not mention the child again, but Fernanda viewed her as an undesirable witness of her shame and lamented the fact that they had abandoned the medieval custom of hanging a messenger who bore bad news. It was then that she decided to drown the child in the cistern as soon as the nun left, but her heart was not strong enough and she preferred to wait patiently until the infinite goodness of God would free her from the annoyance.
That’s poisonous on so many levels. Particularly the bit about her confidence that the “infinite goodness of God” would result in the child’s death.
There is a second historical event that dominates the second half of the book. A banana corporation comes to Macondo - this is literally the source of the term “Banana Republic.” US policy for over a century has been to use the military (and other weapons) to ensure that certain corporations (the Dole Corporation and the United Fruit Company were particularly notorious offenders) were able to exploit the resources of Latin America without any interference from the government or peoples of those places. Hence, they overthrew democratic governments, installed puppet dictators, and otherwise interfered in any political movements that might interfere with profits.
The book describes this process, from the coming of the company, to the pillaging of the natural resources and enslavement of the population, to the eventual (and inevitable) strike which was met by the banana company machine-gunning the entire workforce. As over-the-top as this sounds, this part of the book is not magical realism, but actual history. There are so many great moments in the chapters that describe the entire sequence, but I particularly loved the way that Marquez describes the impossibility of pinning down Mr. Brown, the head of the company, who simply changes identity. This is mirrored by the way that corporate identity and the use of US law has allowed the corporations behind the massacre to evade responsibility. This has been in the news over the last decade, at least the sort of news that we lawyers follow. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be for US courts to refuse to allow redress for egregious behavior by US corporations. It’s just those people who suffer, after all. I have a few quotes from here that are definitely on point.
It was there [the higher court] that the sleight-of-hand lawyers proved that the demands lacked all validity for the simple reason that the banana company did not have, never had had, and never would have any workers in its service because they were all hired on a temporary and occasional basis. So that the fable of the Virginia ham was nonsense, the same as that of the miraculous pills and the Yuletide toilets, and by a decision of the court it was established and set down in solemn decrees that the workers did not exist.
First, this is literally how farm corporations today avoid liability for hiring undocumented immigrants and paying them below minimum wage. They are all hired from “labor contractors” who have no assets, and can simply reorganize as a new company if sued. So the actual deep pockets never bear any responsibility. Second, if you want to understand what CRT is all about, it is about this sort of shit - the use of legal and political systems to continue the exploitation and oppression of vulnerable groups. Who can be dismissed as “not existing” in any meaningful legal sense.
So, the strike came after this, and the company massacred the workers. Only Jose Arcadio Segundo survives (much like an eyewitness of the real-life massacre), and he can’t convince anyone that he is telling the truth. The people have disappeared, yet nobody will contradict the official government report. Near the end of the book, this is taken to its logical extreme:
Those fickle tricks of memory were even more critical when the killing of the workers was brought up. Every time that Aureliano [sixth generation this time] mentioned the matter, not only the proprietress but some people older than she would repudiate the myth of the workers hemmed in at the station and the train with two hundred cars loaded with dead people, and they would even insist that, after all, everything had been set forth in judicial documents and in primary-school textbooks: that the banana company had never existed.
This is what the current jihad against accurate (non-wytewashed) history in schools being waged by the American Right is really about: the ability to control the narrative, and deny that the past actually happened. Those of us now considered “leftists” are the ones who insist that the banana company did in fact exist, and that the massacre happened. (Just fill in the realities of slavery and Jim Crow and the Native American genocide and redlining and…you get the idea.)
As the book winds down, the various characters who are not part of the Buendia family start leaving town - and often the continent. One of the most poignant scenes at the end is when the old Catalan bookseller finally manages to return to his old country, only to find that all he has of it is nostalgia.
[A]lthough he himself did not seem to notice it, those letters of recuperation and stimulation were slowly changing into pastoral letters of disenchantment. One winter night while the soup was boiling in the fireplace, he missed the heat of the back of his store, the buzzing of the sun on the dusty almond trees, the whistle of the train during the lethargy of siesta time, just as in Macondo he had missed the winter soup in the fireplace, the cries of the coffee vendor, and the fleeting larks of springtime. Upset by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his marvelous sense of unreality and he ended up recommending to all of them that they leave Macondo, that they forget everything he taught them about the world and the human heart, that they shit on Horace, and that wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.
Damn, that’s depressing. But not exactly wrong. By this time, the Catalonia of his childhood is long gone, and the Macondo of his prime has faded away too. All he is left with are those two nostalgias for times that can never come back. As Don Henley put it in of my favorite songs:
Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.
A little voice inside my head said:
"Don't look back, you can never look back."
I thought I knew what love was.
What did I know?
Those days are gone forever.
I should just let 'em go, but…
You can never go back. For those left in Macondo, the end is rapidly approaching.
It was the last that remained of a past whose annihilation had not taken place because it was still in a process of annihilation, consuming itself from within, ending at every moment but never ending its ending.
That is a fantastic sentence. It evokes the way that stars die, but also the way that any movement, culture, everything really, dies. We can see it now in the way that the American Right is consuming itself from within, and trying to take everything else down with it. And that is how the book ends too. The last living Buendia, Aureliano Babilonia, has finally figured out all of the Sanskrit writings of Melquiades, the gypsy who visited the family in its early years, which have puzzled the various Aurelianos for a hundred years. He finally sees the entire story of the family - all of the secrets and tragedies - laid out for what they are. And he also sees its end.
Macando was already a fearful whirlwind of dust and rubble being spun about by the wrath of the biblical hurricane when Aureliano skipped eleven pages so as not to lose time with facts he knew only too well, and he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror. Then he skipped again to anticipate the predictions and ascertain the date and circumstances of his death. Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
And that is how the book ends.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is an unusual experience, quite the trip, and not always the easiest book to get into. I kind of doubt I would have gotten it in my teens, for example. Maybe not in my twenties either. But in my forties, I can say that I recognize its genius, its power, and its timelessness. There is so much more I could have said in this post. I haven’t even gotten into the question of Marquez writing such sexist characters while obviously aware of how gross they are, or the socioeconomic metaphors and how they related to the Columbia of his lifetime, or the deeply held antiwar beliefs that Marques promotes in all his books, or the history of the Roma in South America. There are so many layers to this book - indeed layers upon layers in each chapter. We spent a couple hours discussing it at our club, and there were so many insights and personal connections and stories and more that we shared over this book. This was a good choice to start out our year of discussions, and I always learn so much from our club. (Consider that a plug for joining a book club, preferably with people who love literature.)
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