García Márquez / One Hundred Years of Solitude / David Gallagher
From the archive, 28 June 1970: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Observer review (of translation by Gregory Rabassa) by David Gallagher
The Guardian, Thursday 17 April 2014
England is now certainly the last remaining civilised country in which the extraordinary zest and originality of contemporary Latin American fiction has not been recognised.
At a time when the novel appears to many to have generally burnt itself out, Latin Americans have boisterously resuscitated the genre by presenting sheer original subject matter in a vigorous language and a correspondingly original form.
And of the dozen or so most distinguished recent Latin American novelists the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez has been one of the most impressive, and certainly the most spectacularly successful.
A persistent trait of contemporary Latin American fiction has been the presence in it of a curious strain of fantasy: thus in a story by Julio Cortázar a young man coolly vomits up little rabbits.
One Hundred Years of Solitude has been written with the recent Latin American literature of fantasy so firmly in mind that on one level it operates as parody of and reflection on what has gone before. Writers like Borges, Fuentes, Rulfo, Cortázar and particularly Carpentier are all obliquely alluded to and self-consciously parodied in the novel.
Far from indulging in portentous literary games, however, García Márquez's novel aims helpfully to interpret and illuminate what has gone before, offering an explanation and a context to what often seemed purely gratuitous fantasy.
For One Hundred Years of Solitude demonstrates the extent to which the fragile distinction between reality and fantasy depends on the context and assumptions of time and place.
Thus in so remote and improbable a backwater as the swampy village of Macondo which the novel describes, the lunatic ravings of the mad priest who announces the arrival of the Wandering Jew, and the sombre visitations of the ghosts of departed friends, are far more real than such magical novelties as ice, magnets, trains, films and telephones.
And after trains and film shows are introduced to Macondo who can be surprised when the village is subjected to a rain of yellow flowers that covers the streets like a vast carpet, or when a girl is conferred the privilege of assumption, like the Blessed Virgin Mary?
The villagers are far more astonished to find in the cinema that 'a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears of affliction had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one.'
There is no agreement among the inhabitants of Macondo on the exact location of the borderline between fantasy and reality. Yet not even Macondo's most obsessed lunatics are so arbitrary in their deployment of fantasy as the Colombian Government and its ally, American capital.
Thus a strike in a banana plantation that an American company establishes in Macondo is discouraged by the company lawyers' assertion that its workers simply do not exist: '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.'
When the workers finally do strike they are all shot and their bodies are secretly whisked away from Macondo by train at night. Yet a solitary surviving witness of the incident is not able to convince anyone that the slaughter ever occurred, and future generations of Colombian children are to read in their school textbooks not only that there was no slaughter, but indeed that there was never even a banana plantation in Macondo.
Many of the ingredients of contemporary Latin American fiction are packed into this novel. As in other novels, particularly in Carpentier, a savage nature voraciously devours civilisation if it is riot hectically kept at bay; the cult of male virility is fervently, if periodically and humorously, sustained; and as in many Latin American novels, human events are seen ultimately to unfold not progressively but cyclically.
Thus we see Macondo go through laborious alternate cycles of prosperity and decay before finally being swept into the swamp by a cyclone.
All human activity may indeed seem fleeting and cyclical in a continent ravaged by earthquakes, floods, droughts and cyclones. One would anyway not expect a linear view of history to emanate from the imagination of a continent notorious for its inability to achieve significant development.
One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of six generations of the Buendia family, the leading family of Macondo, all of whose males are called Jose Arcadio or Aureliano. Their story is a story of endless repetition, of eternal return.
May it, finally, be hoped that this enthralling, exceedingly comic novel will not encounter the lazy indifference that other Latin American novels have met with in this country.