There is a point, within the first fifteen pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’snovel “One Hundred Years Of Solitude,” when Jose Arcadio Buendia, the leader of a motley, demoralized group of explorers intent on plowing through the jungle to discover the ocean, addresses his men with a fateful message. “ ‘It’s all right,’ “ he says. “ ‘The main thing is not to lose our bearings.’ ”
A more accurate caution about reading “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” has yet to be written.
Marquez’s novel, an epic of character and language, stands as one of the most grand and duplicitous books I have ever read, much owing to the fabulous narrative that the author unravels, in language both simple and infinitely complex, like a sea yarn. Find yourself getting caught up in its almost-hypnotic powers, and there’s a fine chance that you’ll find the novel soon finished, and not be able to recount a single solid detail, but only a vague yet powerful awareness of your own mortality.
On the other hand, if you try and savor each detail and sentence to its maximum, as though the novel were something to be sealed forever in one’s memory instead of simply enjoyed, you’ll end up much the same way, and all the enjoyment you would have gotten out of your reading would have been preemptive, as if you were expecting and preparing for a catharsis that never quite came (a symptom of this type of reading can be found in the reader who begins by expecting a certain feeling or emotion, instead of letting these sensations arise a biological product of the piece).
What is the correct way to read “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” then? Someone like yours truly, who fell into the latter category of readers, would recommend a trail and error process: reading huge portions of the novel in single sittings for the hypnotic effect, and contrasting these readings with much smaller, more concentrative attempts at delving beyond the words and all their meanings.
To put things more bluntly, “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” is a book that must be read, almost forgotten, and then reread continuously to give the most satisfaction. Harold Bloom’s criticism is apt for this phenomenon when he says (and I paraphrase) that the novel’s aestheticism induces a sort of “battle fatigue” which demands the reader’s full comprehension of every sentence of every page.
But what do all these criticisms and comments, aesthetic disparagements and lofty praises, truly mean? Precisely this: no one yet understands enough about the novel, even more than thirty years after its publication, or why it affects us the way it does, to do anything other than praise or criticize its general grandeur.
For my part, I am uncomfortable saying anything at all about the novel, seeing as how my immediate response upon completing it was to turn back to the first page and read the whole thing again at half the speed. What I did manage to catch through that first reading were thematic revelations, often in the form of single sentences that began as prosaic, even ugly, larvae, which would then gestate and beautify into a creature more magnificent and more encompassing than could have been anticipated. An abstract commentary, granted, but one which I think demonstrates one of Marquez’s most peculiar talents, as this passage involving two lovers shows:
“Many times they were awakened by the traffic of the dead,” (or so goes the larvae, preparing itself for its growth, here): “They could hear Ursula fighting against the laws of creation to maintain the line, and Jose Arcadio Buendia searching for the mythical truth of the great inventions, and Fernanda praying, and Colonel Aureliano Buendia stupefying himself with the deception of war and the little gold fishes, and Aureliano Segundo dying of solitude in the turmoil of his debauches, and then they learned that dominant obsessions can prevail against death and they were happy again with the certainty that they would go on loving each other in their shape and apparitions long after other species of future animals would steal from the insects the paradise of misery that the insects were finally stealing from man.”
Even the reader unfamiliar with the references of characters earlier in the novel can appreciate the tremendous grounds that this sentence covers: from the ‘laws of creation’ that are fought by Ursula to ‘maintain the line’ of descendants (hers), each of whom is deluding him/herself in frivolous obsessions (‘mythical pursuit’, ‘deception of war’, ‘debauches’, and even ‘praying’ to an extent), the pursuits of which, however misguided, nevertheless lead the lovers to the discovery that their legacy (obsession) can be their mutual love, which will outlast all civilization as the law of decomposition: ashes to ashes and dust to dust; the law Ursula once fought, returns life to the lowly creatures that have preexisted before even humanity. Remark the themes of life continuity, fruitless struggle, and the everlasting power of love, all of which go seamlessly tied together in this one sentence of prose. And it is only one sentence!
Perhaps a bit of plot would be best to put all this into context? We have some of it, but not enough to reveal much of the novel’s true worth. What Marquez gives us is a place, Macondo (Columbia, depending on how you want to look at it), and a history that is less a series of dates and events than it is the people who live it.
History subject to the lives of its ancestry. This is what we have, and it accounts for the marvels one will read; of giants and timid girls who eat the paint of the house and dirt of the fields; of wars and firing squads, mysterious deaths and incestuous relationships, and at the very end, a fantastic conclusion straight out of Revelations with one of the most beautiful ending lines every written:
“Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the tablets, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”
Perhaps it’s all a fabulous waste of time attempting to focus a single interpretation where there is so much to be found. Don’t lose your bearings, Jose Arcadio Buendia cautions, and yet you will inevitably as language and yarn, history and character threaten to overwhelm. This, unfortunately, is one of the few drawbacks to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s astounding novel: the feeling that whatever we’re reading, whatever we’ve read and indeed, whatever we will read, will only ever be but a shadow of the whole picture: one that we may never fully comprehend, even if given one hundred years of solitude to parse it all out.