Friday, November 13, 2020

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This magnificent epic novel, a classic upon publication in 1967, in English in 1970 in a masterful translation by Gregory Rabassa, still sweeps readers away to Macondo, a village in the South American jungle, founded by the larger-than-life Buendia family, and ending with them a century later. Seven generations of Buendias struggle with plagues, pestilence, and natural disasters, but their bigger problems stem from their incestuous yearnings, wars, and the encroachments of the world. 

Among the book’s themes is memory, and its antithesis, forgetting. A plague of insomnia descends on Macondo, one of its effects being erosion of memory. To combat this, one Buendia decides to label each item. However, “Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use.” 

Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who fought 32 wars and lost them all, eventually retreats from the world to the household workshop. The horrors of war fill his memory; the concentration required to craft tiny gold fishes is his only refuge. He is honored with a Jubilee, with a street named after him, but over generations he fades to legend, then is forgotten entirely. 

Even history experiences forgetting, a devastating form of solitude. For example, a bastard of a younger generation visits the town’s ancient priest to ask about his parentage: “Seeing him lost in the labyrinths of kinship, trembling with uncertainty, the arthritic priest, who was watching him from his hammock, asked him compassionately what his name was. 
“Aureliano Buendia,” he said. 
“Then don’t wear yourself out searching,” the priest exclaimed with final conviction. “Many years ago there used to be a street here with that name and in those days people had the custom of naming their children after streets.” 

This is upside-down, of course: streets are named after people. But it’s also one image in the tapestry of forgetfulness that ultimately seals the town’s fate. Terrible events are erased as though they never occurred, leaving the one who does remember in a state of solitary torment. 

Conversely, memory confers power. The matriarch, Ursula, eventually goes blind, but tells no one, and none suspect because she is so observant and her memory so spotless that she can not only navigate the house as well as anyone with sight, but even locate lost items: “So when she heard Fernanda all upset because she had lost her ring, Ursula remembered that the only thing different that she had done that day was to put the mattresses out in the sun because Meme had found a bedbug the night before. Since the children had been present at the fumigation, Ursula figured that Fernanda had put the ring in the only place where they could not reach it: the shelf. Fernanda, on the other hand, looked for it in vain along the paths of her everyday itinerary without knowing that the search for lost things is hindered by routine habits and that is why it is so difficult to find them.” 

This book is its own paean to memory – you can read it, then read it again, and again, and each time some new detail lodges in your mind. Populated with remarkable characters and told in both exquisite detail and narrative grandeur, One Hundred Years of Solitude will haunt you.