Why is One Hundred Years of Solitude Eternally Beloved?
At 50 Years Old, García Márquez's Masterpiece is as Important As Ever
Earlier this year I made my first visit to Colombia. During my stay, I became familiar with many of the emblems around which this wonderful nation’s image revolves. There is of course the coffee, some of the best in the world and perhaps primarily known to Americans by the mustachioed Juan Valdez. There are also the ancient indigenous civilizations, whose exquisite artifacts you will see in museums everywhere. Then there is the world-famous painter Fernando Botero, who has adapted his unique style to depict countless national icons, as well as the torture practiced by US soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. And most of all, towering over the rest, is Colombia’s most beloved author, Gabriel García Márquez.
There is an oft-told anecdote that cuts to the heart of this writer’s greatness. As he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude, he would regularly meet with his fellow great Colombian author Álvaro Mutis, updating Mutis on his progress by narrating the latest events from his novel. There was just one problem: none of what García Márquez told Mutis actually occurs in the book. He had effectively made up an entire shadow-novel while in the middle of writing one of the most imaginative and jam-packed books in the history of modern literature. This is a measure of how many competing realities existed in García Márquez’s voracious mind.
I am writing about this author today because his greatest work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, turns 50 years old this year, and I would like to understand why it has had such flabbergasting success. This immense novel is claimed to be an effort to express everything that had influenced García Márquez throughout his childhood. It has been called a latter-day Genesis, the greatest thing in Spanish since Don Quixote (by Pablo Neruda, no less), and unique even by the standards of the colossi of the Boom era. García Márquez wrote it in one rapturous year in Mexico City, supposedly chain-smoking 60 cigarettes a day, secluded and reliant on his wife for the necessities of living. To paraphrase critic Harold Bloom, there is not a single line that does not flood with detail: “It is all story, where everything conceivable and inconceivable is happening at once.”
There are hits, and then there are smash hits, and then there are rocket ships to Mars—One Hundred Years of Solitude would qualify as the last. Estimates of its sales are around 50 million worldwide, which would put it in the range of books like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Lolita, To Kill a Mockingbird, and 1984. College syllabi can certainly account for some of this figure, but when one considers by just how much García Márquez’s sales dwarf his fellow Boom greats—Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar—something more than higher education must be called to account. Nor is it easy to explain One Hundred Years of Solitude’s global diffusion: published in at least 44 languages, it is the most translated Spanish-language literary work after Don Quixote.
I think what can be said of this book is that it captured something vital about the historical experience of hundreds of millions of people, not only in Latin America but in other colonized lands as well. Nii Ayikwei Parkes, the award-winning British novelist born to Ghanaian immigrants, has said of the book: “[It] taught the West how to read a reality alternative to their own, which in turn opened the gates for other non-Western writers like myself and other writers from Africa and Asia.” He added that, “Apart from the fact that it’s an amazing book, it taught Western readers tolerance for other perspectives.”
It is indeed true that this book transported something essential about Latin America to far-away places, but I would go farther than that—I would call One Hundred Years of Solitude the most widely read book of Latin American history. I see it as a work in the tradition of ancient foundation stories, such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad—or even, while we’re at it, the Bible—a modern version of these works that filtered history through mythic and heroic registers. Reviewing it in 1970 in The New York Times—the year in which North Americans at last received Gregory Rabassa’s “better than the original” translation (to paraphrase García Márquez)—the scholar Robert Kiely said, “the book is a history, not of governments or of formal institutions of the sort which keeps public records, but of a people who, like the earliest descendants of Abraham, are best understood in terms of their relationship to a single family. . . It is a South American Genesis.” Forty-four years later, when García Márquez died, the Times re-upped that opinion in their obituary of the great author, calling One Hundred Years “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history.”
The foundation story García Márquez tells is not nearly so heroic as those of Virgil and Homer: rather, his is one of disenchantment and circularity, the slow process of a continent finding its own voice, overcoming efforts to impose a history and trajectory upon it. But though García Márquez would tell history, even incorporate actual historical events into the book, he would not write something that slavishly followed facts. Inspired by Kafka and Joyce, García Márquez believed that in order to speak his truth “it was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice.”
Which is to say, even though One Hundred Years of Solitude springs from very real Colombian politics, it far transcends its political context. The author himself has said that the ideal novel should “perturb not only because of its political and social content, but also because of its power of penetrating reality; and better yet, because of its capacity to turn reality upside down so we can see the other side of it.” And this gets right to the heart of his gift: as the leading exponent of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude is filled with beguiling treasures that captivate a reader’s imagination. As tall as these tales are—a plague of forgetting, or a woman so graceful and beautiful that she ascends right to heaven—they also have an indisputable connection to our prosaic daily lives. This is what literary myth can do that factual history cannot—as García Márquez puts it, this literature turns reality upside down and shows us what hides beneath.
What could be a better foundation myth for a continent deeply fractured along political, historical, and ethnic lines, yet also desirous of articulating a commonly understood experience? Not only that, this story also allowed those on the opposite end—that is, those who had created the conditions for oppression and exploitation—to comprehend and appreciate this shared experience as well. It was through this feat of imagination that García Márquez forged bonds of community. As he said in 1982 while accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, “poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels . . . we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.”
In giving the world new narratives García Márquez helped alleviate that solitude. This is how books like One Hundred Years of Solitude inspire us: they offer new images, new myths, new ideas, and new forms of understanding that cut against those keeping us in division and incomprehension.
Although an author need not be politically motivated to create such art, this is inherently a political act, for politics is made up of narratives—more than that, it depends on them like nothing else—and whenever art creates new, invasive narratives, it contests our politicians’ authority. Let me explain what I mean. When one hears talk of politicians, political campaigns, legislative politicking, and such, never far away is the idea of “controlling the narrative.” Elections are all about defining the narrative you want and hoping it resonates with the voters; then, once in office, you must hang on to your command of the narrative in order to successfully advocate for the policies you want to drum up support for. Imposing your preferred narrative onto the nation is very much essential for transforming your will into law.
According to this notion of politics, narratives are extremely potent things. This is why wealthy and powerful men (it is almost always men) have invested billions of dollars into building media empires meant to put a stranglehold on certain national narratives. Thus the likes of Fox News and Breitbart have convinced millions of people that certain minorities abuse social aid programs, or that the deficit always requires cutting government spending (except when it comes to the military), and that radical Islamists are perpetually on the verge of overrunning our nation. Against these narratives the left plays its own, and if I count myself as a progressive it is primarily because I find the left’s account of the world far more compelling, compassionate, authentic, honest, and productive than the right’s.
It is in the realm of narratives that art can make its most potent interventions into our politics. I do not mean to reduce a book like One Hundred Years of Solitude to a “liberal vs. conservative” framework—even though this book deals to a very large extent with Colombia’s “Thousand Days’ War,” which was precisely a war between Liberals and Conservatives, like any true work of art it defeats such ready-made binaries to show us that the world is immensely more mysterious and complex. And indeed, this must be another measure of García Márquez’s success: that he has given us books that touch us deeply, even if we know virtually nothing of this source material. His novels have altered our narratives even while they resist simple interpretation, growing with society as it ages and remaining contemporary and relevant. To once again quote Bloom, “García Márquez has given contemporary culture, in North America and Europe, as much as in Latin America, one of its double handful of necessary narratives, without which we will understand neither one another nor our own selves.”
In modern history, great art has always shown other ways of seeing the world. It should always remind us that nobody has a monopoly on the truth, and that even the political narratives that we hold to most steadfastly still only capture at best a portion of this world that is always far more complex than our thought and language can say. To experience a towering work like One Hundred Years of Solitude is to be reminded of the humility we should all feel when trying to assert what is true and what is false.
Of course, this is not to say that progressives should not advocate for the world we want with passion and conviction—politics requires just that—it is to say that our compassion and our empathy should always also be close at hand, no matter who we are dealing with. And we should always look to enlarge our world view through books. Even in this age of media over-saturation—when we have film, TV, Facebook, binge-watching, streaming, Twitter, and so many others—I do not believe there is a better medium for conveying challenging, nuanced, original, and important new narratives to our minds. It is precisely these stories that have kept One Hundred Years of Solitude fresh, and that keeps the world reading it.
More Great Latin American Narratives to Discover
Love in a Time of Cholera
Gabriel García Márquez (tr. Edith Grossman)
The Passion According to G.H.
Clarice Lispector (tr. Idra Novey)
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo
Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L. C. Simms)
Thus Were Their Faces
Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)
Kiss of the Spiderwoman
Manuel Puig (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine)
Lina Meruane (tr. Megan McDowell)
Samanta Schweblin (tr. Megan McDowell)
Alejandro Zambra (tr. Carolina De Robertis)