(In the penultimate part of our 2018: The Year in Books series, we look at a book about some people living in the jungle.)
The Award for Most People Called Aureliano In a Single Book
Gabriel García Márquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude
One Hundred Years of Solitude is the story of the Buendía family and the (fictional) Colombian town of Macondo, starting with the town’s founding by José Arcadio Buendía and ending with – well, I probably shouldn’t spoil that.
Like fellow 2018 awardee Pachinko, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a multi-generational story of a single family. Its central characters age, have children (or don’t), grow old (or get killed), die (or die), and are replaced by others.
Also like Pachinko, it’s at times absolutely heartbreaking: you watch these people as they grow up, you come to care about deeply, and then suddenly they’re shunted off-screen and you barely have a chance to say goodbye.
This is a novel (at least in part) about how the grand stories of a life eventually fade into tiresome anecdotes endured by bored children, then fade into obscurity, then disappear entirely. How much do you know about your parents’ lives? Probably quite a bit. What about your grandparents? Less so. What about great-grandparents, or further back? All that time, all those stories – lost.
But One Hundred Years of Solitude isn’t a dour story about how sad it is that we all grow old and die. It’s a vibrant, weird, incredibly funny book. The Buendías are fascinating characters, and their idiosyncrasies drive the novel to wonderful places. From José Arcadio Buendía’s obsession with alchemy, to Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s senseless years of guerrilla warfare in the jungle, to an argument years later, where Aureliano Segundo waits patiently as his wife spends three whole pages (without paragraph breaks) complaining about every way she is disrespected and made to suffer, before stepping in and contradicting her after she finally says something ever-so-slightly factually inaccurate.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ writing style is also a fascinating thing. It’s dense and wordy and poetic, (García Márquez apparently claimed Gregory Rabassa’s English translation was even better than the original Spanish) and as accomplished a work of magical realism as I’ve ever read. The way he blends the ordinary lives of his characters with astonishing moments of the unreal and the supernatural – while treating both as quite normal, quite mundane – elevates both in a way that I can’t put my finger on, so that the whole thing feels dreamlike and gauzy.
The writing is also very easy to get lost in. And since about half of the characters are called Aureliano (nearly all the rest are called José Arcadio, btw) you’re going to want to keep the family tree at the start of the book close to hand, or you’re definitely going to get lost and mix up your Aurelianos and your José Arcadios.
It’s hard to know what to write about One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s such a strange, sprawling book that it’s basically impossible to sum up, or to recommend without just gushing about individual parts. So I’ll let myself gush. Just one paragraph, I promise:
José Arcadio Segundo remembering a massacre of protesters (based on a very real event in modern Colombian history) to the end of his days, while everyone around him forgets. Colonel Aureliano Buendía watching a parade go by. Perhaps the world’s greatest callback, when a police search for fugitives uncovers dozens upon dozens of chamber pots stacked up and forgotten about – and maybe only the reader recalls how they got there. The novel’s opening lines, which I found so beautiful they seared themselves in my brain forever: ‘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.’
Oh man, it’s genuinely one of my favourite novels ever. (only barely edged out this year by our final entry in the ‘2018: The Year in Books’ series) I will say that it’s a very specific thing, and that I’m aware of many people who – quite fairly – bounced right off it due to its vagueness and sprawling, confusing storylines and family tree. But please do give it a go. It’s a really, really special book.