Thoughts on Re-Reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

Even before the news of Gabriel García Márquez’ passing on April 17th arrived, I had been thinking that it was about time I take One Hundred Years of Solitude back off the shelf. Admittedly I did so with something of a guilty conscience, as his obituary in the New York Times mentioned that Márquez had feared that that book would overshadow his other literary accomplishments.

I first encountered One Hundred Years of Solitude in twelfth grade English. Suffice it to say, I was dazzled from the very first line. I was partial to the fantastic element, but also to the detailed plasticity of the narrative world – i.e. Pilar Tenera’s “explosive laugh [that] frightened off the doves” or José Arcadio’s “flatulence [that] withered the flowers.” I read the novel first out of the 1998 Harper Perennial Classic’s paperback, which had on the back a quote from William Kennedy’s review of the novel saying that “it takes up not long after Genesis left off and carries through to the air age.” It was a claim that stuck with me, and one of the questions that I had of the novel when I first read it was about the relation of the narrative to actual historical time. In other words, when and where is Macondo?

While at the time that question might have come from a privileging of the “realism” in “magical realism,” the novel itself raises this question. The major turning point in the plot is loosely based on the 1928 Banana massacre, in which the Colombian army slaughtered an unknown number of workers on the behalf of United Fruit Company, today’s Chiquita Brands, lest anyone forget. And the novel also depicts the process of Macondo’s integration into a thoroughly disenchanted world history: at the beginning Macondo is an island whose contact with the outside world comes through fantastic products brought in by Arab and Gypsy traders, but as our solitary one hundred years proceed, we see the introduction of centralized bureaucracy, film, and most disastrously, the train.

In the April 18th episode of Democracy Now! in honor of Márquez, Isabel Allende remarked that Márquez “gave us back our history.” And it is the creation of an officially sanctioned historical narrative and the concomitant act of amnesia that shook me most re-reading the novel now. After the massacre José Arcadio Segundo wakes up on the train with the bodies of the striking workers on the way to being dumped in the ocean. He jumps off and walks back to Macondo, only to find that in the minds of the people, the massacre never happens. Solitude catches up to him as the only human in the town who remembers the event. The climate itself instead becomes a site of collective grief, as the town’s atmosphere of decadence is washed away in a four year rainstorm that gathers as the bodies of the workers are transported to the ocean and into oblivion.

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