Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

04 Nov 2011

(Novel) One Hundred Years of Solitude by: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

(Reaction) One Hundred Years Well Spent by: Jose Angelo Singson

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The novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is a truly complex body of work: it is a homage to the author's familial roots and a means of coping with the violence he witnessed growing up. It is a political statement and a socio-theosophical critique. It is a mythologizing of his family, a means of coming to grips with the author's own very deep personal struggles and a metaphoric, critical interpretation of Colombian history, from foundation to contemporary nation and imagined future demise.

It is no exaggeration, therefore, to describe the novel as virtually oozing with themes and motifs. I will however, for purposes of brevity, focus on just a few of the major recurring themes. These themes are the ones that recur most and, by my interpretation, have the greatest personal significance to the author.

SOLITUDE: The words solitude or solitary appear virtually on every page and indeed solitude and isolation were matters that many characters struggled with throughout the book. Jose Arcadio Buendia, Amaranta, Ursula, Aureliano, Jose Arcadio Segundo were often alone, either by choice or by circumstance and are all but forgotten, for years at a time. Men from the Buendia family named Aureliano are often described as having a solitary air.

Even the town of Macondo suffered from isolation. It was cut off and estranged from the rest of the world because it was established in the inaccessible tangle of the Colombian rainforest. The solitude of the town represents of the colonial period in Columbian history, where colonies were not interconnected and had no real means of communicating with each other.

As the town was kept apart from the rest of the world so this isolation also affected the Buendia family. They became increasingly solitary and selfish. Often characters in the Buendia family lived only for themselves, and as such they came to embody the aristocratic landed elite that dominated Columbia for a good part of its history as a nation.

In fact the narrator comes to treat the entire Buendia Family as a separate people group, a distinct race if you will; tragically condemned to solitude. Because they are destined for isolation, like many creatures that have been subject to isolation, they will not get a second chance, i.e. they are doomed to certain death.

Senor Marquez intends for the theme of solitude to be read in several ways: socially, it is his personal protest against the Western world's practice of isolating ethnic minorities (ergo, subjecting minority groups to solitude by placing them in ghettos or reserves) refusing them access to the opportunities and resources of the developed world. Philosophically, it may also be seen as a comment on the nature of man, that man is indeed a social being. The novel therefore can be read as a huge comment that too much solitude is damaging to individuals and to society as a whole.

INCEST: The theme of incest is an offshoot of the theme of solitude and it plays a key role in the novel. Ursula was warned at the very beginning of the novel with that children born of incestuous relationships may be born with the tails of pigs and true enough, at the very end of the novel, a child from the Buendia family is born with a pigtail. For many families, incest is not a great threat, especially if they are exposed to or have access to a variety of social circles: school, church, and work for example. The Buendias however need to be constantly reminded of the dangers of intermarriage and throughout the novel are seen to be repeating this same error despite being haunted by the fear of producing pigtailed progeny.

The fact that incest is something the Buendias have to keep facing indicates how hopelessly and inextricably tied they are to the homestead. Far too solitary for their own good they are unable to look beyond themselves, again another characteristic the Buendias have in common with the old aristocratic colonial families. Historically also, incest was practiced by these old families to keep the family wealth within their family. This desire to maintain the wealth within the family is translated in the novel as a curse of sorts; a predisposition for incest that stains the Buendias which keeps them disengaged from society at large.

THE FLOW OF TIME: The novel interestingly, has several ideas concerning the interpretation of time. The story unfolds as a linear progression of events, both when talking about individual characters and Macondo's history, but Senor Marquez gives leeway for other understandings of time.

A great chunk of the novel talks of time as being cyclical or circular in nature rather than linear. Senor Marquez uses the history of Macondo and Buendias as metaphor for the circular nature of history.

The repetitious use of names and traits of the members of the Buendia family spanning over six generations are proof of this point of view of time. All male Buendias who are named Jose Arcadio are curious and lean towards being rational and are typically blessed prodigious strength and/or size. Those named Aureliano on the other hand are predisposed to being narrow-minded and quietness.

This repetition of characteristics reproduces the steps individual characters take and thus reproduce much of the same folly of the ones that preceded them. Ultimately, the town becomes little more than the backdrop of the succession of the same mistakes repeated again and again by the Buendia family who in turn are spurred on by some inborn character flaw or hubris in their nature. Through this cyclical treatment or view of time the novel also explores the issue of eternity even within the continuum of mortal existence.

While One Hundred Years of Solitude is still basically chronological, it also features many odd hiccups in time. They occur both as flashbacks and sudden surges forward to future events. Some example of this is the youthful love between Meme and Mauricio Babilonia, which is already in full swing before the author gives any details concerning the origins of the affair. The novel itself begins with a recounting of Col. Aureliano Buendia remembering his youth giving the reader a false sort of in medias res beginning.

Even the rate at which time moves for the characters in the novel alternates, moving quickly for some and stagnating for years for others. Children grow up quickly, but when they reach adulthood---particularly the male adults---time seems to abandon them. Often they are left to ruminate on nostalgic events and wallow in bitterness for years.

Time abandoned Col. Aureliano Buendia after the civil wars. Ursula is all but immortal in the novel and in her later years when she observes her family she herself realizes that time appears to be moving in a circle. The younger generations become like their ancestors, but with some flaw or strength embellished. Time indeed moves in a circle, but instead of expanding it implodes on the Buendias as their doom draws nearer. Senor Marquez writes this to point out that although time moves in circles and cycles; people may not actually improve as a result of all the movement, chronicle of a cycle of stagnation if you will.

POLITICS/POLITICAL CRITIQUE: The twisted and oblique world of politics is under a great deal of scrutiny in One Hundred Years of Solitude especially in the chapters that feature Col. Aureliano Buendia. In the ominous world of politics there is no discernable difference between Liberals and Conservatives. Both employ murder and exploit people to further their ends. Although Senor Marquez has a definite anti-capitalist bent, his portrayal of politics in the region is not to be taken as purely anti-establishment. Instead it is a comment on how he sees the nature of politics unfolding in Latin American countries. It is a comment that he sees the political scene as inexplicably and unfailingly moving towards irrationality, its campaigns all but a farce. Much like Macondo and the Buendia family, the author sees Latin American/Columbian politics as eternally recurring cycles of tragedy.

All in all, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a very, very rich, very complex novel in terms of its scope and the themes it discusses. However it is also very beautifully, almost lyrically written so it is not a tiresome read in and of itself. It is written with a great deal of deliberate care with regard to the selection of words and the economy of prose in which it is delivered. It is poetic without any excessive moonstruck sentimentality, surprising especially considering that this is a Latin American novel.


This was required reading for me back in college and I am so glad that it was.

Marquez's writing method of combining his personal experiences with imagination and artistic sense applied with a keen regard for the unfortunate history of his country has had an untold influence on writers of various ethnicities worldwide. His writings came in with a surge in Latin American writing, and it was immediately recognized as one of the finest, if not the finest, products from that period.

More importantly, it crossed every boundary and become a true international bestseller and worldwide phenomenon. Like Bruce Lee, who directed the eyes of the Western audience to Asian films, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez drew the attention of the Western readership towards Latin America.

Critics often pigeonhole Marquez's writing as magic realism because of his combination of the real and the fantastic. The novel carefully balances realistic elements of life, like poverty and violence, with outrageous instances, like hand-held magnets strong enough to yank a rusty suit of armor from out of a swamp. There are many purposes for doing this. One is to introduce the reader to Marquez's personal Colombia where myths, legends and superstitions still exist side by side with technology and modernity. Another reason for this is to lead the reader to question what is real and what is fantastic; especially in the world of politics. It is written in such a manner as to force the reader question the absurdity of our everyday lives and believe me there are indeed many instances of absurdity (just watch the news...).

Personally, I've never been a huge fan of the magical realism movement in writing. This is perhaps because I've come across some very poor examples. Often they came off like tall tales recounted by a relative your folks warned you to be careful of: shady, heady with the smell of B.S. and it made your eyes roll up every time they started a new chapter. This is completely absent in One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is a certain beauty about Senor Marquez' writing though that cannot be denied and even more difficult to not appreciate.

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