“One Hundred Years of Solitude” – Happy 50th Birthday

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Gabriel García Márquez’s novel was published 50 years ago. It’s widely recognized as the masterpiece of 20th century Latin American literature – some would say all of 20th century literature. It’s the book that ushered in the Latino Boom, the ascension of Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar to the world stage. It’s also the book that kicked open the door and allowed many writers to re-imagine what a novel can do and be.

What made this long, winding, sometimes confusing inter-generational saga an instant hit? Why has it sold over 30 million copies? Why did it propel Márquez to the pantheon and ultimately to the Nobel?

Firstly, there’s its scale. The hundred years of the title brings together old and modern worlds. Take that mythic first sentence:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” 

It tells us this is a universe in which so much is yet to be discovered – most memorably, ice. Within the first few pages, the community of traveling gypsies brings exotic trinkets and gadgets to Macondo – magnets and the accoutrements of an alchemist’s lab.

Then there’s the magic. Melquíades miraculously rejuvenates again and again. Rebeca carries a bag with her parents’ still-clacking bones. Remedios the Beauty is last seen floating into the sky. The lover Mauricio’s appearances are preceded by a haze of yellow butterflies. The seventeen murdered sons of Aureliano are recognized by the indelible Ash Wednesday crosses on their foreheads. Such conceits represent the magic in magical realism but are told in such a matter-of-fact way that you cannot help believe in them, and therefore believe in this extraordinary world that the author has created.

Then there’s the writing. It’s as rich as the Amazon – a giant, gorgeous, raucous stream of metaphor, description and color.

If the book isn’t known for its political elements, the massacre of the striking factory workers and the way they disappear from official records is one of the most haunting episodes I’ve read in any novel. It’s a direct reference to historical occurrences in so many Latin American countries – massacres, revolutions, caudillos, despots, cover-ups.

Above all, there’s the very aliveness of Macondo. The Buendía house waxes and wanes, grows and shrinks. It contains people so old they become invisible, only reappearing when we have forgotten about them. In the yard, tied to a tree, the great ghost of Macondo’s founder bellows in his madness. Dead, and yet alive.

To my mind, the sheer richness of these episodes and this place is unparalleled in modern literature. All of Latin America seems to be here. The book’s energy, imagery and ideas are an unceasing marvel. It’s my favorite novel, by a mile. Others are funnier; others contain more suspense; others are easier reads, but One Hundred Years of Solitude has images and characters that will accompany me all of my days. What more could you want from a book?

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