On Revisiting Macondo – Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude [Cien años de soledad]
Gabriel García Márquez
Colombia, 1967
Gregory Rabassa, translator

Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.

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.

(Opening line)

It’s unlikely that I would have revisited Macondo, that is reread One Hundred Years of Solitude this year, or any time soon, had it not been a selection for my in-person classic literature book club (for May). There’s so many other books on my list, do I take the time to reread such a long, and sometimes, slow, classic? Perhaps more importantly, do I dare reread something that I loved so much the first time I read it, and risk finding out I’m no longer so enamored?

I still loved it.

But this raised an interesting question in my mind: why? I knew that for the book club meeting, I would likely be one of the few to so thoroughly love it (it turned out I was one of only TWO to have finished it!), and so I would likely be tasked with conveying my enthusiasms. And this is where I got stuck.

Sometimes it’s easy enough to know why we love a book: a character, the plot, the setting. For some people, it’s the language that’s used, the flow of the words over the page.

Ordinarily, I would characterize myself as a plot reader, there for the story. But that’s not the case here. I’m not sure I can identify a “plot” as such, at least not in the traditional idea of inciting action + conflict + resolution. This is an epic–a story of multiple generations of a single family over the span of a hundred years and of the town, Macondo, that lives and dies with their fortunes. There are many stories, many plots, many characters.

No, it is something about the telling of the story itself. The style of the narrative.

Pero la india les explicó que lo más temible de la enfermedad del insomnio no era la imposibilidad de dormir, pues el cuerpo no sentía cansancio alguno, sino su inexorable evolución hacia una manifestación más crítica: el olvido. Quería decir que cuando el enfermo se acostumbraba a su estado de vigilia, empezaban a borrarse de su memoria los recuerdos de la infancia, luego el nombre y la noción de las cosas, y por ultimo la identidad de las personas y aun la conciencia del propio ser, hasta hundirse en una especie de idiotez sin pasado.

But the Indian woman explained that the most fearsome part of the sickness of insomnia was not the impossibility of sleeping, for the body did not feel any fatigue at all, but its inexorable evolution toward a more critical manifestation: a loss of memory. She meant that when the sick person became used to his state of vigil, the recollection of his childhood began to be erased from his memory, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of his own being, until he sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.

Third chapter

One Hundred Years of Solitude is well-known as a novel employing magic realism, the mix of a realistic setting, and elements that are fantastic or “magical.” But that’s not quite what I mean by “style.” For me, it’s the voice in which it is told. García Márquez presents everything straightforwardly, be it realistic or fantastic. And sometimes it’s the realistic thing, typically new technology, that is presented as fantastic, at least as perceived by the residents of Macondo. To this, García Márquez adds a touch of humor, a wryness at times, which I found delightful.

Al principio, la curiosidad multiplicó la clientela de la calle prohibida, y hasta se supo de señoras respetables que se disfrazaron de villanos para observar de cerca la novedad del gramófono, pero tanto y de tan cerca lo observaron, que muy pronto llegaron a la conclusión de que no era un molino de sortilegio, como todos pensaban y como las matronas decían, sino un truco mecánico que no podía compararse con algo tan conmovedor, tan humano y tan lleno de verdad cotidiana como una banda de músicos.

At first curiosity increased the clientele on the forbidden street and there was even word of respectable ladies who disguised themselves as workers in order to observe the novelty of the phonograph from first hand, but from so much and such close observation they soon reached the conclusion that it was not an enchanted mill as everyone had thought and as the matrons had said, but a mechanical trick that could not be compared with something so moving, so human, and so full of everyday truth as a band of musicians.

Twelfth chapter

Another aspect of One Hundred Years of Solitude which I really appreciated this read, was García Márquez’s worldbuilding. Colombia is relatively unknown to me, nineteenth century Colombia even more so. Yet the world of Macondo was vivid. I could readily imagine the scenery, the settings, from its earliest days as a small village of adobe houses to the dry wind-swept streets of the closing scenes. Such transportation to another world is always a delight in reading, but especially so when the reader gets to spend so much time there. At the end, you’re not sure if you’re mourning the fate of the Buendía family, or that the novel is over.

There are many other things that could be said of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The motif of “solitude.” The circularity of time and history. The representation of Colombian history (is the novel an allegory? metaphor?). But on this read, I simply enjoyed the time I was able to spend with it, in it. Sometimes that’s all a reader really asks for.

15 Books of Summer (2023)

Summer has always been, for me, associated with reading. Long hot days, a cold drink, and a really good book. Or three. Growing up, of course, it was nearly three months off school, and finding time to get through a pile of library books was anything but challenging. Then came adulthood, the real world, and summer as the busy time at work, with extra hours, extra expectations. Not to mention the additional hobbies I’ve picked up since. But still, I cannot help, at the start of the summer season thinking, this is the time for reading. Of course, so is the Christmas holiday break, the crisp evenings of autumn, the chilly dark nights of winter—all seasons are reading season. But there’s something about summer that beckons and makes me dare to believe, no, really, I can get through more than my 3 books per month average over the coming months; I can get them all read. I can’t, of course, but hope springs eternal.

This is why Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge is always so tempting to me. This is the year without challenges, but I’ve decided to join in again, anyways. Maybe this year will be the year I actually finish it.

Purely logically (ugh, but who wants to stick with pure logic?), I’ll probably only get through 8-10 books, but after an “oops” at the library, and a bout of indecisiveness, I’ve decided to aim for the middle-of-the-pack 15 books goal. Unrealistic, sure, but the fun is in the attempt. And in the list making.

Image of 13 books to be read this summer, described in text below image.

The Secret Agent (Joseph Conrad) – partially because I’m looking forward to reading it, partially so I can return the book to my brother.

King Solomon’s Mines (Henry Rider Haggard) – on my shelf for ages, it’s supposed to be a bit problematic by today’s standards, but it’s also apparently the source of many of the tropes / cliches in later adventure novels/films. Always worth checking out the original.

Loving Frank (Nancy Horan) and Britt-Marie Was Here (Fredrik Backman) – these have both been on so many past lists of mine; I REALLY need to get them read and returned to their owner!

Love’s Labour’s Lost (William Shakespeare) – I’m NOT planning to read all of the comedies in this volume this summer (unless I really find myself on a Shakespeare kick), but I’m hoping to see this in person at an outdoor venue, so I’d like to read it first. Especially since I know nothing about the story.

The Mysterious Mr. Quinn (Agatha Christie) – next up as I work through Christie’s titles.

Maus I & Maus II (Spiegelman) – On my list for a long time, but with added emphasis due to book bans and increasing anti-Semitism; I’ve been even more interested since visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem this past February.

Artemis (Andy Weir) – One of the library “oops” books. Not supposed to be as good as The Martian, which I loved, but the plot sounds interesting.

The Phantom of the Opera (Gaston Leroux) – Another library “oops.” This will be a reread.

Jane Austen (Claire Tomlin) – let’s not discuss how long this has been on the to read list, shall we?

Lorna Doone (R. D. Blackmore) – my in-person book club’s June-July selection. One of my book club friends started it early and is finding it unputdownable.

Ninth House (Leigh Bardugo) – I’ve heard good things about this one.

Not pictured:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark) – Book club’s August selection.

Murder at the Vicarage (Agatha Christie) – I can’t wait to get to Miss Marple! (I think this will be a reread, but it’s been so long I can’t remember)

Button: 15 Books of Summer

Actual books read are subject to change, of course, but I think I have a good mix of heavy and light, old and new. Just a few days before the fun begins (aka a few days to finish up the in-progress books first). Happy reading!

The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann

The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg)
Thomas Mann
Germany, 1924
John E. Woods, translator, 1995

First and foremost: there’s the air up here. It’s good for fighting off illness, wouldn’t you say? And you’d be right. But it is also good for illness, you see, because it first enhances it, creates a revolution in the body, causes latent illness to erupt […]

216, “The Thermometer”

There is so, so, so, so much in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg).

It is a novel of many parts, many pieces. Reading it over these last six-and-one-half weeks (about twice as fast as I should have liked to read it, but book club deadlines dictated), I came to think of it like an onion made of many layers to be peeled back one by one. (And perhaps make you cry with the effort of chopping through it, but that may be taking the simile too far!) There is the surface story, of young, and not-so-young, people, living out their days in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the heights of the Swiss Alps. The bildungsroman or hero’s (non-)journey followed by Hans Castorp, the central character. There are the layers of ideas, of philosophical debate. The constant meandering into meditations on time, by Hans as well as by the unnamed narrator. The countless references: mythology, art, music, history (current events?). And this perhaps undersells it. In his series on the book, Tom(Amateur Reader) treats it as three novels in one, a helpful framework that illustrates just how complex it can be.

This is not to say it is inaccessible – one of those “novels” is a comic sanatorium novel after all. The basic premise is thus: Hans Castorp makes a trip to visit his cousin, Joachim* Ziemssen, for three weeks at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Switzerland. And then doesn’t leave for seven years, not until the outside world intrudes, dramatically, with the outbreak of WWI. It is episodic, with chapters that could stand alone, but there is also the underlying throughline of Hans’s experiences, most notably his interactions with the philosophizing Ludovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta, and his love for the elusive Clavdia Chauchat. Mann plays with time throughout, spreading out the opening days and weeks of Hans’s stay over many pages then compressing the final years into fewer pages, and in such a manner that neither the reader nor Hans really know just how long he’s been there. It’s only in the closing chapter that we learn that’s it’s been seven years—three weeks turned to seven years! As Hans comes out of his “slumber” on the mountain the comic novel turns chillingly sober, ending with a stark depiction of a WWI battle. Just as Hans awoke, so did Europe—but to the nightmare, not from it.

There were many times I made note of a sort of foreshadowing—not of the course of the novel, per se (though Mann did that as well), but of the course of history. In a sense this is historical fiction, in that it’s set in the years before WWI, though published years after (Mann started writing before the war, but was interrupted by it, prompting a change in direction from his original intentions of a comic response to his Death in Venice), and Mann hints throughout of what is to come—hints that would have been only too clear to his first readers. Curiously, there were a couple statements made that I thought could almost foreshadow the darker times yet to come in Europe—future events that no-one would have yet been aware of, though perhaps I am over-reading into things.

Love stands opposed to death—it alone, and not reason, is stronger than death. Only love, and not reason, yields kind thoughts. […] Oh, what a clear dream I’ve dreamed, how well I’ve ‘played king’! I will remember it. I will keep faith with death in my heart, but I will clearly remember that if faithfulness to death and to what is past rules our thoughts and deeds, that leads only to wickedness, dark lust, and hatred of humankind. For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts. And with that I shall awaken.

588, “Snow”

Although I say there is a throughline—a plot—it is true that not much actually happens in many of the chapters, with some dramatic exceptions. For instance, although “Snow” (my favorite chapter) narrates Hans getting lost in a snowstorm, he is literally going in a circle, and the narration becomes mostly his thoughts, his observations, his dreams. It is here he realizes the truth he has been looking for—only to “fall asleep” again once the storm departs. It seems the key of the novel, but I am not sure if Mann means this as part of his satire—satire of the bildungsroman, satire of the hero’s journey?—or if it is part of his critique of a pre-war Europe: so many ideas, yet asleep to the nightmare that will soon awaken.

Despite its length and difficulty—there are whole sections I’m not sure of what I read (though Tom’s third post suggests that some of these are intended to be gibberish, phew)—I feel this is a book to be read again—demands it, really. It’s all that stuff, all the layers—rich enough to reward a reread.

*Anyone know how “Joachim” would be pronounced in German? I default to the Spanish pronunciation, but that doesn’t seem like it would be correct.

The Suppliants – Aeschylus

The Suppliants
Philip Vellacott, translator
Ancient Greece, 463 BCE

My thought on first finishing Aeschylus’s The Suppliants was, “Well, that leaves you hanging…” The first and only surviving play in a trilogy, The Suppliants brings us the story of the Danaids, the 50 daughters of Danaus, who have fled their native Egypt for their ancestral homeland of Greece (they are descendants of Io, one of Zeus’ many conquests) in a desperate attempt to escape their cousins, the 50 sons of Aegyptus, who wish to marry the Danaids against the their will. The women are supported in this by their father, so it is not clear to me why his will isn’t enough to settle the matter, though perhaps it’s a matter of numbers. (This is one of those things–are we dealing with a cultural/social difference that I don’t know or is this just akin to a “plot hole” in a contemporary movie that isn’t really explained, it just is to make the story happen?)

Having arrived safely in Argos, the young women are now Suppliants before the gods–clinging to their alters while also pleading with King Pelasgus to not only let them stay, but protect them. Ever hanging in the background is the knowledge of their cousins’ pursuit and eminent arrival.

This single play is not interested in telling the entire story of the Danaids, which from the translator’s notes I know will eventually lead to the Danaids’ marriage to their cousins, after which 49 of the women murder their new husbands rather than remain their wives, with only one, Hypermnestra, sparing her husband. However, The Suppliants instead focuses on a single issue: will Pelasgus permit the Danaids to stay and grant them protection?

Although the Danaids can plead a shared heritage, the outcome of their request is not assured. Pelasgus insists the citizens of Argos must decide this weighty matter: to project the Danaids means likely war with the sons of Aegyptus. The tension then in this play all hinges around this will-they/won’t-they, the conflict between duties of hospitality and expectations of war. Consequently, the climax of the play is the announcement of the Argive’s decision. They subsequent arrival of Aegyptians thus becomes a hanging thread left unresolved in what seems that first act rather than a full play (at least by 21st century standards).

It becomes curious to me, then, the idea of survival–why the first play but not the others? Was it better regarded? Was the philosophical debate more important than the action to follow? Or is it all mere chance that some plays survived over others? I do wish the other plays of the trilogy had survived, because it seems the trajectory of the story over the three might have been fascinating. At the same time I am grateful for the plays we do have.

The Mystery of the Blue Train – Agatha Christie

Book Cover: The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Chrisite

The Mystery of the Blue Train
Agatha Christie
England, 1928

Continuing my way through the Agatha Christie’s, The Mystery of the Blue Train is up next. It is another in the series of Poirot stories, although this time without one of his personal narrators. Instead, each chapter hops between characters as we watch the mystery slowly unfold. A priceless and much coveted ruby necklace is sold to American millionaire, Rufus Van Aldin, who intends it as a gift for his headstrong daughter, Ruth Kettering. She is presently estranged from her husband, the philandering Derek. While she married him for his future title, he married her for money, and will be ruined–and lose his mistress, dancer Mirelle, as well–if Ruth follows through with her intended divorce. Of course Ruth is not blameless; she is intending to rendezvous in the Riviera with her French lover, the Comte de la Roche, a man Van Aldin knows to be a con artist. Somehow into this mix is added the newly wealthy Katherine Grey, also journeying to the Riviera for her first taste of wealthy society. But before anyone arrives at their destination, there is a murder on the Blue Train–and with such a mix of motives, it is a perfect little exercise for detective Hercule Poirot, conveniently on the train as well.

Although an enjoyable trip–reading in late February of what proved to be a cold, snowy winter, I quite enjoyed the virtual visit to the Riviera–it doesn’t strike me as one of the stronger Christie’s. Perhaps this is just personal preference, but I feel Christie is not at her best when swapping points-of-view constantly. Better the tighter confines of a single narrow viewpoint. Despite plenty of clues and misdirection, Blue Train also contains one of my personal pet peeves–the detective has knowledge related to the crime that the reader cannot possibly have. Although an improvement on The Big Four, I look forward to the better Christie’s I know are coming.

The Mystery of the Blue Train is my Mystery/Detective/Crime classic for Back to the Classics 2022.