100 Years of Solitude
Read It: You're a romantic soul • You like "breathtaking" fiction • You're taking a Latin American Fiction class • You need convincing that certain books cannot, and should not, be made into movies • You like the messed up family drama of the Old Testament, you just wish it was more sensual
Don't Read It: You want your stories to have a clear objective • You don't like reading stories with multiple overlapping protagonists • You hate the messed up family drama of the Old Testament, especially the gross stuff about Lot and his family • You're just looking for something to casually peruse while you're sitting on the toilet
reviews are split in two. Beforehand, I link to the articles and reviews you may want to consider before you jump in. Once you've read it or seen it (or decided you aren't interested), join us in the afterword for an open discussion of the work.
(spoilers may abound!)
Time is a flat circle
"100 Years of Solitude" (Henceforth shortened to "100 Years") reveals itself in a slow, steadfast way. This magical land of Macondo is so compelling, I began to believe it must somehow exist–even as the narrative ascends into fantasy. Every time I drive West and reach the Rockies I am amazed by the sheer majesty of the mountains, but the staggering cliffs and crags before me do not sneak up on me. I just become overwhelmed all at once, as I am overshadowed by them. I felt this same feeling upon finishing "100 Years".
The land Marquez describes has more substance and grit, in the midst of its' circular mysticism, than many of the real and imaginary lands I have visited. Many have compared "100 Years" to the book of Genesis, and for good reason. The Buendía family have deeply interconnected lives, rooted in both the most common human sentiments and understated supernatural occurrences.
Like Genesis, the narrative unfolds without complication because the narrator has no agenda. We are seeing the record of several lives unfolding and fading the way life does in all other settings. In the same way we watch a garden bloom, grow, and then fade before winter–only to begin again–so too do our lives repeat the beauty and pain we've inherited from our ancestors. The human life is not always best understood inside the frame of one lifetime.
"100 Years" is also like Genesis in another sharp way: it does not turn away from beauty, nor does the story hide from shame. Good and evil are not simple labels applied to heroes and villains here, and Marquez brilliantly displays the complexity of human desire. In a 1981 interview, Marquez explained how he idealized the way his Grandmother told stories. "I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself, and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face." This gentle austerity leads the narrative into some uncomfortable places. Like Ursula–the matriarch of the Buendía family-unable to rid the property of the red fire ants or the dirt in the corners, we are unable to rid the story of its' broken depravity. If we are telling the story honestly, then we must follow the consequences of each character's desires to some of the ugly, evil consequences we might rather avoid.
I've often questioned the author of Genesis about this same thing. Murder, rape, genocide, and incest are all present in "100 Years", as they are in the scriptures. However, when you question a religious person about the ugliness of these stories, many will duck and dodge and get very uncomfortable around the collar. (Some apologists will respond, "Well, the scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit". Which is to say, "I don't know why God let these ugly parts stay in there–but we've made some editorial decisions. Going forward we'll make sure our future stories delete the evil bits!")
We want to edit our histories so only the good, beautiful things remain. But in our memories, and in the records of Genesis, and in the annuls of the Buendía family, we see how our desires can become warped and lead us into beautiful ruin.
I do mean beautiful ruin. Our humanity is flawed, compulsive, yearning, and sometimes transcendent. It is still worthy of love. Sometimes great evil starts with the best intentions, and sometimes corruption slips by without consequence. Regardless: lovers withhold judgment because they don't affix worth to merit.
I used to treat "right" and "wrong" as moral abstracts, but stories like "100 Years" challenged my assumption. In fiction, "right and wrong" are guideposts to the plot: the right choices further the goals of the protagonist, and the wrong choices move the characters away from their destiny. (For example: when we watch a heist movie, we unapologetically root for the bank robbers. Don't get me started on movies like this.)
In "100 Years", good things happen, and bad things happen, and each member of the family makes a series of good and bad decisions on their way to death–only for their descendants to repeat the process. In the end, the prophecy spoken over the family is fulfilled: the one final offspring dies shortly after his birth exactly 100 years after the Buendías established Macondo. The foundations crumble, the family home lies in ruins, and the entire community becomes a mythic memory in some ancient past.
What if good and evil are not just moral abstracts–what if they are hardwired into life itself?
"100 Years" does not pass judgement on the choices of its characters–it merely lets you see the outcomes of these choices as they play out over the oncoming decades. Like, uh... Genesis.
Desire and Remembrance
We choose our fate by our desires, and we craft meaning out of our history by giving our memories significance. Life is like fiction, told "with a brick face"– good and bad things happen, and we interpret what they mean. Underneath it all, the current of humanity continues onwards. Violent revolutions keep swimming by, only to be immortalized like the useless golden fishes of Colonel Aureliano. Pure, undisturbed beauty is enchanting to the corrupt, and the most precious moments of our lives seem to be raptured away like Remedios the Beauty. Bitterness ends in barrenness, as it did for Amaranta. The brave choose to remember the tragedies the rest of us would rather forget, the way José Arcadio Segundo refused to forget the massacre he survived. Greed and pride can disguise themselves in piety, but they lead us to die naked and alone, like José Arcadio.
And when we see ourselves as part of a grander narrative, like Ursula Iguarán seemed to, we hold our family to inherent virtue because we want abundant life to continue. And we do not neglect to love, even when our brokenness brings ruin. Certain things will continue on into eternity, and others will melt away like the Gypsies's ice. Every family, in a certain way, is still in the garden of Eden or in the jungles of Columbia–choosing which tree to feast from, and which tree to be chained to for eternity.