Would I chew or choke I wondered back at the beginning of May. After reading Brenda’s tribute to Gabriel Garcia Marquez over on burnsthefire I thought what better way to mark his passing than to read One Hundred Years of Solitude; the masterpiece beloved by so many readers I admire and so steadfastly avoided by me, until now. (The Independent refers to the novel as a book of a lifetime. The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post have all recently re-run their original reviews, any one of which provides a helpful synopsis if that’s what you’re looking for.)
I haven’t choked. But it has been a case of a long, slow chew and, although I’ve finished reading the book, digestion is incomplete.
I think it will take a while. It may involve a reread or two in the years to come. In fact, I think this metaphor is insufficient for the impact this book continues to make on me.
For me taking a long time over a book is a bad sign, a very bad sign. It can indicate terrible writing or simply that the book hasn’t resonated with me, perhaps because of genre or subject matter. Whatever the reason, it usually results in me tossing the thing aside or, these days, scrolling through my Amazon wish list and opting, with a click, for something more suitable.
This time it was neither of those things. This time it was about the circumstances. When I started One Hundred Years of Solitude I hadn’t worked out how to manage my blogging activities with everything else in my life. The ping of emails, self-imposed deadlines, and WordPress Blogging Uni, Zero to Hero, all contributed to me picking up my Kindle and putting it aside after minimal reading progress.
Yep, I’ve been suffering from digital distractibility. I’ve read about it many times. I tell others how to avoid it. And I know that in flitting from one thing to another I run the risk of hard wiring flightiness into my brain structure. When it came to persevering with OHYOS or indulging in a laugh out loud post from some of the wittiest writers I’ve ever come across – well it wasn’t always easy to persist with Marquez. Sure he’s funny, actually very funny – the sort of funny that comes from a compassionate understanding of how people tick. Often while I was reading I imagined I could hear Marquez chortling – that might be the influence of one of the photos Brenda included in her post. But “getting” Marquez’s humour, and anything else in the book for that matter, demanded attention to metaphors and to literary and biblical allusions. In short it’s a book that required me to think. (BTW I’m not pretending for a minute that I “got” many of the allusions – I’ve only ever come across two short stories by Borges and as for the other great literary influences on Garcia – I’d never even heard of them!)
While I struggled with working out some kind of control over the vastness of the blogging world Marquez worked his magic on me. I followed the Buendía family over seven generations with increasing fascination. I accepted without question the decision to tie Jose Arcadio, the family patriarch, to a tree; the appearance of ghosts who interacted with the living; Remedios The Beauty ascending into heaven; a love between Aureliano Segundo and Petra so fecund it caused farm animals to reproduce with prolific vigour; and rain that fell continuously for four years. And why wouldn’t butterflies descend each time Mauricio Bailonia approached Meme? Everyone should have yellow butterflies fluttering about them when they are in love.
Marquez writes with a wisdom and a realism that had me nodding with recognition at the way knowledge of the massacre of the plantation workers was erased from collective memory; at how those who hold unpopular and unwelcome knowledge are dismissed as irrelevant (Ursula’s prediction that a baby with a pig’s tail would be born into the family) or as suffering from hallucinations (Aureliano holding to what Jose Arcadio told him about the massacre despite the authorities insisting it did not happen). And yet Marquez also shows how futile it is to pursue knowledge for it’s own sake. Aureliano spent years deciphering the secret code of the text of Melquíades. And although, in the end, he cracked it, it changed nothing.
As I read this book and grappled with its many layers of meaning the way I understand literature has changed. Imperceptibly at first. Like a slow slip event – a silent earthquake. You don’t know it’s happening. But it’s real, it’s measurable, and the force is immense. (Slow earthquakes are an actual phenomenon. We had one in 2013 in the region where I live, the energy released equal to a size seven earthquake – that’s massive – and we didn’t feel a thing.)
Sometimes a slow slip event triggers a big jolt. That one in 2013 did and I sure as hec felt that! Reading the last one hundred pages was like that jolt. Over at burnsthefire Brenda describes a similar visceral experience. For me there was a coming together of everything that had gone before and suddenly I could not put the book down no matter how many times my iPad pinged at me.
I was so caught up in this incredible world that when Aureliano and Amaranta Ursula, the sixth generation, got together I thought they might, at the last, save the day for the family; that their love might be a new beginning for the family. I held this hope knowing at the same time the laws of story telling, indeed the laws of life, meant whether the two of them knew it or not, nothing good could come from a relationship as incestuous as theirs. It would, and did, all end in tears. When the end came it was so bizarre and so perfectly right – what other ending could there possibly have been?
And that is the shift. Somewhere along the line I moved from expecting I might find the fantasy too fantastical to the realisation there is no better way to tell this story.
I read the last few pages on Pentecost Sunday. A coincidence that made me think about the nature of the wind that swept away all traces of the Buendía family and the town of Macondes. Perhaps the family was cursed from the beginning, perhaps we all are. Whichever, I’m convinced this is a story that can only begin again. And Marquez wants us to know that.
Have you read One Hundred Years of Solitude? What did you think of it?
Categories: On Books