This novel follows the founding family of the fictional city of Macondo (i.e. the Buendía family) from the municipality’s quiet establishment through war and colonial conflict to what comes beyond life at the bleeding edge of a banana republic. Macondo begins its existence as a utopia built amid a swamp. At first – it’s a village that knows no death. Over time, Macondo changes greatly as members of the Buendía family become entwined with broader events and as neocolonial activity comes to Macondo in the form of a large US fruit company that establishes a plantation using Macondo’s labor force. [If the title leads you to expect a great deal of solitude, you may be disappointed. The book begins in medias res with Col. Aureliano Buendía standing before a firing squad, and seldom is there a dull moment, thereafter. Even when the book isn’t in the midst of civil war or disputes between the fruit company and the workers, there are all kinds of strange happenings and fascinating psychology to consider. For example, retired Col. Aureliano Buendía spends his days making and then melting down little gold fish. The futility of this action should make it uninteresting, but the question of why he does it keeps one intrigued. If he sold the fish and made new one’s it would become just another boring job.]
This book is known as one of those must-read masterpieces that don’t make it easy for the reader. That’s not to say it’s dull or written in a difficult style, which could be said to be the case for other books that fall into said category. The readability issues of One Hundred Years of Solitude can largely be grouped under the intertwined categories of “time” and “characters.” (A third could be said to be the magical realist genre which places strange supernatural occurrences within an otherwise realistic setting and chain of events – events not unlike those that took place in real world Latin America. The genre doesn’t present a huge challenge, but it does insist on a more careful reading than would a book that is either pure realism or pure fantasy.)
Because — as the title suggests — there’s a century covered, there are a lot of characters in this book. If having a lot of characters didn’t make it hard enough to follow, names are repeated from generation to generation. This isn’t the result of author laziness. One of the book’s main themes is how – no matter how the world changes – people get caught up in cycles of repeated mistakes and patterns of behavior. Repeating names establishes descendants as at once individuals and archetypes. Another challenge regarding time is that it’s not strictly chronological, but rather jumps around. At a broad level, there is a chronological flow reflecting Macondo’s life-cycle, but within this flow the story jumps around in time a lot. As with the name repetition, this too is likely done on purpose – in this case, in order to convey thoughts on time and memory. Memory is a fascinating issue as the reader sees the events that happen ultimately become mythologized, people no longer believe they happened as described but are rather tall-tales.
One of the most engaging supernatural elements of the book revolves around writings of a traveling gypsy that are written out in Sanskrit and which sit around through the decades gathering dust. These writings aren’t meant to be translated until after one hundred years, and when one of the Aurelianos gets around to translating them, he discovers that they are prophesies that have told the whole story of Macondo, including what is to come, but by the time it is translated the future is already upon them.
I found this book to be a pleasure. It’s not easy reading. One has to read with a level of conscientiousness that can be a labor to maintain. However, it’s worth it in the sense that it offers more food-for-thought than the average novel. There is a line of wisdom conveyed by this novel that has led to it being considered one of the most important novels in the history of literature. I’d highly recommend it for readers of literary fiction.