Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book Review: "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Alan Moore once made a very insightful comment about nostalgia in fiction: as a dramatic device, it only works if the past that's being yearned for is truly lost. He was talking about comics specifically, about how nostalgia frequently fails in the mainstream because the past is always being regurgitated and nothing is ever really gone for good. Unsurprisingly, Moore's point is valid - if Jean Grey had never come back, every remembrance of her would be much more poignant, both for the characters and the readers.

It's that type of nostalgia which lies at the core of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude". Marquez's novel treats time as a spiral, where you're slowly spinning further and further away from the center, yet it's the same line throughout.

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" is a truly phenomenal text, invoking a kind of soft magical realism that never intrudes on the human drama unfolding in each generation - weird things happen in Macondo, these things are acknowledged to be unusual, but the business of everyday life keeps people from losing their grip on reality (until, of course, everyday life ends in the last part of the novel, at which point reality just packs its bags and leaves Macondo behind). Conversely, some of the best scenes in the novel are dramatically effective not because they aren't realistic, but because they are - the train station massacre is chilling precisely because it's so easy to imagine that it could actually happen.

I should note that while I only read the English translation, said translation was fluid, almost lyrical in its sadness and beauty. Language is a part of how the story works as well, because there are points where sentences just go on and on, inexhaustible, very much like the characters themselves.

On the most basic level, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is about the House of Buendia, both literally and figuratively. We follow six generations of the Buendia family, each a faded echo of the previous one, with the house itself as an additional character of sorts: it too changes and evolves and degrades over time. It's a massive, sprawling narrative that goes backwards and forwards in diegetic time, representing entropy on the smallest, most personal scale, every system breaking down in its turn.

It actually reminded me of Matt Wagner's "Grendel": both stories present a multi-generational tale that depicts the nature of identity as being partly hereditary - just as Hunter begets Christine who begets Brian, all of whom are Grendel, the recurring names in the Buendia family (Jose Arcadio and Aureliano, and various permutations of these two) seem to carry with them a fraction of the namesake's identity. Both stories are fundamentally about erosion, about how time wears down even the invincible, and Orion may rule the world but Jupiter III will lose it, just as Ursula's death leaves the Buendias to a much less worthy matriarch, and it all goes downhill from there.

The difference has to do with time, and the way each author depicts time. For Wagner, time is decidedly linear: Grendel changes as the centuries pass, but it's not a cyclical process, nothing of the past Grendels carries over to the next "host". In Marquez's novel, time is both linear and circular: the years have a clear degrading effect on the house and the people living there, but so many characters are stuck repeating the lives of their ancestors: Aureliano Babilonia and Amaranta Ursula may not know that they're following the exact same path as Aureliano Jose and Amaranta, but we know it, and more importantly, other characters in the novel know it too. This becomes clearest when Aureliano goes to visit Pilar Ternera, the only character who survives from the start of the novel almost to the end of it: "There was no mystery in the heart of a Buendia 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." Things keep coming full circle over and over again, and it's tragic because the story never ends well, not for a single member of the Buendia bloodline, and those characters who escape the loop just disappear (Sofia, Remedios the Beauty, Petra).

It's a beautiful, heartbreaking novel, one that blew my mind repeatedly. A must-read!