Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Solo Marquez

Phew!  "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is a mammoth book.  It's far from a slog, though... after the first dozen or so pages, you're fully swept up in its wake, and are carried down through the years by a desire to learn more about this amazing fictional land and family.

I should back up.... this book, written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was one of many entries in my list of "Famous books that I've known about for a long time, but actually have no idea what they're about."  When I'm looking for things to read, I rely in large part on recommendations from friends, family members, and artificial intelligence algorithms.  This title had popped up near the top of my recommendations list; that list has served me startlingly well in the past, so I decided to follow it again.  I'm really glad that I did.

I haven't heard anyone compare Marquez to Murakami, but I think they're cut from similar cloth.  Both explore a realm that I find endlessly fascinating, the fictional place where the otherworldly enters the modern world.  I don't want to oversell the similarities - 100YoS is far more epic and concerned with human relationships - but the overall tone of both authors are very much alike.  They take on a certain dreamlike quality, where fantastic events are accepted matter-of-factly by credulous people.  It's a style of writing that enjoys play and doesn't demand final answers.


What separates the two, though, is that Murakami's otherworldliness is free-floating, touched upon by his alienated and adrift protagonists.  For Marquez, that supernatural tinge comes up against a fully intact family and social structure.  They aren't exactly in conflict... rather, the former infects the latter.  Down through the ages we see this legacy extending and playing out, drawing generation after generation into its maw.

The book chronicles the story of the Buendia clan.  Each member feels fully fleshed out, each is unique, and any similarities feel like the natural progression from father to son.  With such vivid and rich characters, I expect that every reader will develop their own favorites and villains.  I found the story of Colonel Aureliano the most compelling, especially when you connect the lines before and after his time at war.  On the other hand, I was appalled at the elder Amaranta's actions... it's touching that Marquez gives her a moment of forgiveness near the end, but still, her seemingly bottomless malice is much more shocking than, say, that of a conventional villain who seeks to conquer the world.

The publishers are thoughtful enough to include a family tree at the front of the book, and I certainly consulted it from time to time.  What's especially confusing (although quite believable) are that names keep on getting re-used through the generations.  I think there are at least four Arcadios, and and either three or twenty Aurelianos, and multiple Remedios and Amarantas, even two Ursulas.  It helped a lot that I was reading this book more or less straight through; I think it would get way more difficult to track if you interrupted reading for a while.

I found myself often thinking about that great topic of postmodern fiction, entropy, and I still can't decide whether it applies here.  It feels like it does - you certainly get a strong sense of decline and hopelessness, especially towards the end of the book - but it has a far different tone from what I'm used to from writers like Pynchon.  Part of that may be due to the greater scope here.  We don't just see the decline, we see the growth.  Yes, Macondo falls apart, but we also see Jose Arcadio building it with the force of his will and creativity.  Yes, the banana company impoverishes the city, but we also see Aureliano Segundo's fabulous creation of wealth.  I guess that Marquez accepts entropy, but views it as the natural conclusion to a cycle, not the dominant force in our world.  In other words, entropy will destroy what we make, but we are always free to make more.

A couple of words get repeated throughout the book and seem to have special significance.  One of them, obviously, is "Solitude," although it doesn't seem to appear until decently far into the book.  What's amazing is that you have this incredibly, incestuously close-knit family: multiple generations living under one roof, all growing up together, telling stories, sharing wisdom, fighting, loving... and yet, nearly everyone appears to be somehow alone.  Some characters craft elaborate lies that keep anyone from realizing who they are.  Others develop obsessions and spend all their time poring over arcane knowledge.  Remedios doesn't seem to be a creature of the Earth at all.  This is all kind of sad, but has the smell of truth to it.  I have to wonder, how many of us really, deeply understand the people we spend time with?  How many of us feel certain that nobody has ever seen all aspects of our character, and cannot truly be known?  The Buendia clan pushes this to an absurd degree, but in doing so they may be revealing a streak in all of us.

Another often repeated word is "nostalgia," almost always offered in a negative sense.  People "succumb" to nostalgia shortly before their death.  I think that 100YoS may be one of the only books ever to actually create an environment where nostalgia can be realistically produced.  Again, thanks to its scope, Marquez has more than a century to play with, and he paints the childhood experiences in one sequence and then can return to them hundreds of pages later.  Seemingly small episodes like the miracle of ice become magnified even more when seen in hindsight.  I'm not certain why nostalgia is so feared, but it may be connected to the idea of the cycle of entropy (which, I should say, is never named in this book, it's more a hobby horse of mine)... nostalgia makes us look back and long for the past, which by definition can never be restored.  Instead we should look forward and seek to create anew.

As intriguing as the Buendias are, I found myself often even more captivated by the story of Macondo, the city they found, lead, inhabit, and destroy.  This isn't a political book, but I found myself getting mad at the descriptions of outrages by the Conservatives, and even more distraught at the invasion of the banana company.  One interesting thing about this book is that it's a little hard to locate in time and space: no year is ever mentioned, no famous events, nor the country where it is set.  For the first hundred pages or so, I actually wasn't sure whether it was in the Americas or on the Iberian peninsula.  You do get a rough sense of progress - a train appears about halfway through the book, and there's talk of airplanes near the end - but part of the point is that the residents of Macondo are so cut off and isolated from the rest of the world that, to some degree, it doesn't matter where or when it is.  One of the last things we learn about the town is that the gypsies have returned and are again amazing the residents with magnifying glasses and magnets.


A quick note on style: I love it, and am very curious how it compares to the original Spanish.  Marquez uses a fascinating technique that plays with time in a unique way.  It doesn't play backwards, like in "Memento."  It's a little closer to the un-stuck-ness of Vonnegut in "Slaughterhouse 5" or "Breakfast of Champions," although that doesn't quite capture it either.  The best analogy I can think of - and I really hope this isn't just because I recently read a book with it in the title - is of a pendulum.  Marquez describes an event (say, a firing squad shooting), then described what preceded that event, then picks up a character's thread and tells the story forward in time, past the original event, into the future, then offers background on another plot thread, which then moves forward... amazingly, I didn't get lost, despite the extremely fluid chronology.  You definitely get that weird Vonnegut tension, where you know how a story is going to end, but are still surprised by what happens during it.  I suppose that, ultimately, Marquez might just not have had a lot of choice.  When you're dealing with dozens of characters with overlapping lives, it just isn't feasible to tell it in a straight chronology, and it wouldn't be very satisfying or feasible to have each character told as a separate story.

I'm sure there's lots more that I could say here, but I'll let that stand for now.  This was a great book, and I'm sure it'll keep rattling around my mind for a long time to come.

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