About a week ago I posted a Facebook status that read, "When you read a book that's so good that you start reading another one concurrently just so you can make the first one last longer... I know, I know. I have a problem. #bookworm." This is that first book, the tortured and multi-faceted history of a fictional Colombian family which, in addition to being a classic novel, also contributed to its author earning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
First there's the patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, who leads an exodus to establish the town of Macondo. His de-facto leadership of Macondo cements the Buendía clan's status as a prominent family in the town. His obsession with gaining knowledge, outlandish inventions, futile experiments, and being on the cusp of modern science eventually causes him to lose his mind. Always keeping people in line is Úrsula, the matriarch and businesswoman who protects her family at all costs, letting no one and nothing get in her way. She puts her everything into raising her children and grandchildren, only to be shamed and bewildered by the decisions they make as adults. She spends much of her later years mourning her dead loved ones and endeavoring to not be an aging burden on her family.
Colonel Aureliano is the dreamer turned cynic. He is the younger son, the middle child who has powerful premonitions all his life. The quiet, timid, thoughtful and curious boy who finds joy in poetry and silverwork leaves home a young man and returns a revolutionary. A war-making, baby-making legend who can't die even when he tries and who, embittered, no longer has any hope or feelings upon returning home for the last time. José Arcadio is the first-born son. This prodigal son and well-endowed oldest child impregnates his secret lover and then runs off with gypsies, only to return home over a decade later and make a living by prostituting himself to local women. That is, of course, before marrying his adopted sister and using his family name to steal land from the poor.
Rebeca is said adopted sister, brought to the family after her parents have passed away. At first she is a shadow of a child who refuses to talk and eats dirt out of anxiety. Over time she transforms into a passionate woman who trades her long-term engagement to one man for a fling and hasty marriage to her newly-returned adoptive brother José Arcadio. And then there's Amaranta, the youngest child and only biological daughter. As a young woman she vengefully schemes to steal the affections of Rebecca's fiancé, only to continually reject him once he becomes hers. Her rejection pushes the man to suicide, from which point she refuses to marry any man and concentrates on raising her family's children for the remainder of her life. One of whom, her nephew, becomes a warrior and her on-and-off lover for a period of time.
Whew! And those are only the first and second generations! The book takes us through each branch of the Buendía family tree (which coincides with Macondo's history from founding to flourishing to collapse) through seven generations, or 100 years. And it is full of almost anything one might expect in a disturbing yet compelling story. Family drama, love, sex, bitterness, war, incest, infidelity, secrets, tragic twists of fate, remarkable feats of endurance and ingenuity, violent pride, the destruction and revival of hope, the recycling of names and curses, blemished family legacies, the detriment of neglect and willful forgetting, and various instances of people being weathered by life and the passage of time... It's a saga. One that is also shrouded in fantasy with hauntings, resurrections, flying objects, telekinesis, meetings with the dead, ascensions to Heaven, and premonitions. García Márquez creates this world with such artfully descriptive and yet subtle language that the dark nature of its events pierces the heart but doesn't make the reader feel weighed down.
García Márquez also never lets us get comfortable in the moment for too long, always reminding us of Macondo and the Buendías' impending demise as he takes us through the steps leading to both. Solitude obviously plays a large role in such doom, as each member of the family has their own experience of disappointment and detachment from the world around them which leads them to suffer through life and mitigate their dreary circumstances in one way or another. Each character lives a passionate life, but no one dies happy. From what I can tell many are turned off or even sickened by this novel due to its content. And admittedly, the descriptions I've given above do make the characters seem like horrible people. But as I read more and more of this family's mess, I just could never write them off. Some eye-rolling and head-shaking here, a few tsk-tsks there, but I was consistently enthralled by the richly muddled lives these people live. Perhaps I'm in an oddly non-judgmental moment right now, but I think more credit is due to Marquez's ability to paint characters as relatable people and lay out all their flaws and icky "stuff" without either glorifying or condemning them.
"But the lucidity of her old age allowed her to see, and she said so many times, that the cries of children in their mothers' wombs are not announcements of ventriloquism or a faculty for prophecy but an unmistakable sign of an incapacity for love. The lowering of the image of her son brought out in her all at once all of the compassion that she owed him" (249).
"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 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" (396).