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.

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.

Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

Book Cover: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Moll Flanders
Daniel Defoe
1722, England

One of the earliest English language novels, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders relates the story of the eponymous (but anonymous) title character, who as a young woman without known family is taken in during adolescence by a wealthy family whose matriarch has taken a shine to Moll. From there many adventures and misadventures follow her attempts to make a better–wealthier–life for herself. It is a first-person narrative, and remarkable for both the voice and agency it gives to a woman and a relatively poor one at that. It purports to be an autobiographical narrative, in the style of Defoe’s earlier Robinson Crusoe, as well as a story of spiritual redemption: after a life of deceit and crime, mostly thievery (and bigamy, though Moll seems not to count that among her sins, which I assume means that marriage was much more informally contracted and enforced in the 18th century than in subsequent eras), Moll finally lands in prison with the likelihood of execution looming before her. It is her repentance–which she claims as sincere and the minister meeting with her believes and convinces the judiciary of–that saves her from the gallows and sends her to the Colonies (Virginia, in this case).

I’m not convinced.

Moll is a classic unreliable narrator. Granted, anyone telling their life story is bound to get some things not quite right–memories can play tricks–but Moll is open about her lies and deceit as she makes her way through life. From her first relationship with the eldest son of her foster family to her post-jail life with her final husband, she doesn’t just keep secrets, she constantly lies to do so. Although there is not particular reason for her to lie to her reader, especially in a spiritual redemption story, her history of deception leaves a nagging suspicion in the back of the mind–how do we know she is not lying now? That she didn’t fake redemption to save her skin? After all, even after gaining her freedom, she still lies and seems to have no compunction with doing so. If this is the case, Moll has performed quite the coup: the end of the story, after years of tragedy and suffering–for no matter her own character flaws and crimes, we cannot deny that she has incredibly bad luck–is almost fairy-tale like in the arrival of happiness and wealth. Which gives me pause in my doubts. Would a writer such as Defoe, in that era, really reward an unrighteous character? From what I know of the times, probably not. It is more likely I apply my morality (truthfulness and honesty) to a time and place unlike my own.

Yet at the same time, Moll profits from her crimes–money that enables her New World life (buying out her servitude contract) comes from her life of thievery. This also seems in conflict with expected “Puritan” morality. So what is Defoe really saying–it’s OK to reward a life of sin financially as long as you’ve confessed it? This may not be an unreasonable thought; rewarding confession and repentance are surely more encouraging to the errant than punishing the repentant. Or does Defoe rather primarily intend it as a critique of the society that in a sense forces Moll–and so many others, men as well as women–into the crimes she initially commits for mere survival? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of approaching the novel from a 21st century perspective, especially when I don’t have a full context for the social/cultural/religious setting. There is definitely a critique going on, though, and that may outweigh concerns of morality in rewarding Moll–not for repentance but survival.

There really is so much to dig into in Moll Flanders, so many ways to approach or think about. I didn’t find it the easiest novel to get through–there is a complete lack of chapter or section divisions, combined with a steady first-person narrative in a more archaic style, without even conversation to break it up–but there is plenty to it, both in events and elements to consider. It is unlike most other novels (all?) I’ve yet read, but perhaps a wider contextual understanding (of the society/culture/history, as well as literature) would even further reward my understanding. Reading paths for future consideration…

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Cyrano de Bergerac
Edmond Rostand
1897, France
Carol Clark, translator

“[…] You’re lacking in invention,
Young man. You could have said so many things.
You could have been aggressive, for example:
‘Good heavens, man, if I’d a nose like that
I’d have it amputated right away!’
Solicitous: ‘But sir, how do you drink?
Doesn’t it trail in your glass?’ Or else descriptive:
‘It’s a rock, it’s a peak, it’s a cape… No, not a cape,
It’s a peninsula!’ Inquisitive:
‘Do tell me, what is that long container?
Do you keep pens in it, or scissors?’ Twee:
‘How darling of you to have built a perch
For little birds to rest their tiny claws.’
Facetious: ‘When you smoke, do they call “Fire”?
Do people think some chimney is alight?’
Worried: ‘No do be careful, when you walk,
That you don’t overbalance on your face,’
Motherly: “We must make a little parasol
To shade it from the sun.’ Perhaps pedantic:
‘Only the creature, sir, which Aristophanes
Calls Hippocampelephantocamelos
Could carry such a weight of flesh and bond
Below its forehead.’ […]”

The image of Cyrano de Bergerac, he of oversized nose and outsized wit, is so familiar as to seem to have seeped into popular culture, yet I found that I really knew very little of the actual play or man. I was surprised, first, to find that the play was not a comedy as it first appeared, or at least not purely comedy. For there is tragedy here. But second, I was surprised to learn that most of the characters, Cyrano included, were based on real people (though the plot is not).

First performed in 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac is set in the mid-1600s, the era of the Musketeers, d’Artagnan and Cardinal Richelieu, and it is every bit as swashbuckling as one of Alexandre Dumas’s adventures. The main crux of the action revolves around Roxane, the beautiful and intelligent cousin of Cyrano. She is loved of three men: Cyrano, his fellow cadet Christian de Neuvillette, and the nefarious Comte de Guiche. Roxane, oblivious of Cyrano’s feelings, but drawn to Christian’s good looks requests that her cousin look out for the young cadet. Out of love for Roxane, Cyrano complies, even to the point of becoming Christian’s voice in wooing Roxane, both figuratively, in letters, and literally, in the balcony scene.

Fast paced and witty, Cyrano seems an incredibly big play, and not just in its outsized personalities. The cast is large and the scene descriptions provided by Rostand—a theater, a bakery, a square, a battlefield, and a convent—are so minutely detailed as to seem impossible on a mere stage, and surely meant for a reader rather than a stage director.

What makes Cyrano so relatable, though, is the self-doubt, the feelings of inadequacy that the main rivals, Cyrano and Christian share. Though in theory, they should be rivals, the two become masks for each other, presenting to Roxane the “face” each thinks she most wishes to see (or hear). In so many arenas–duels of sword or wit, especially–Cyrano is more than confident, but he lacks self-confidence in one key area: that anyone should care for someone with his looks. Christian, on the other hand, though with the looks Cyrano lacks, knows himself to be lacking in the intelligent speech that Roxane desires. Thus, each uses the other to cover what they see as their own inadequacies. While such deceptions are more likely the realm of the stage than reality, the underlying view of self, the low self-esteem, even if in only one field, is universally felt, and only adds to the poignancy of the play’s final scenes.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith
US, 1943

“But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”

“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.

“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”

“What is beauty?” asked the child.

“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'”

Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”

“Nonsense!” exploded Miss Garnder. Then, softening her tone, she continued: “By truth, we mean things like the stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anti-climatically.

Chapter 39

I didn’t need to know that Betty Smith started her 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a memoir before fictionalizing it to feel that this scene late in the novel between protagonist Francie Nolan and her 8th grade English teacher was drawn from Smith’s own life. It has the ring of a bitter personal experience, and the novel itself becomes the refutation, bringing vividly to life characters and neighborhood that Miss Garnder considers “sordid” but told in a manner and style that while not shirking from the difficulties of poverty and alcoholism in early 20th century Brooklyn, still manages a certain gentleness in the telling.

I suspect this is because the novel is from Francie’s point of view. It opens when she is 11 and moves back in forth in time, from when her parents are dating to when she is grown and leaving home. And while an adult Francie may recognize just how tough life was for the child, and for her mother, to the child of 11, rounding up scrap for the junk man to earn a few pennies for candy, everything in life is still an adventure to be discovered. She will grow to recognize that the world does not always see her life as she does–where she sees how loving and talented her father is, the world sees him as a good-for-nothing drunk; where her aunt is condemned for her “fast” ways, she sees a woman capable of great kindness and motherly love. This contrasting of views and Francie’s growing awareness of how others see her and her family contribute to what feels a very realistic portrait of a second-generation Irish-American family.

In her Hudson Review essay, “The Hungry Artist: Rereading Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (helpfully pointed out by Amateur Reader(Tom)), Joyce Zonana posits that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn hasn’t received more scholarly notice in part because it deals with female hungers (literal and metaphorical), but I can’t help but wonder if the gentleness I feel reading it is a contributing factor. Although we know–depending on the quality of our imaginations and emphathies, can perhaps even feel–that the Nolans are poor, that they are starving, the visceralness of this reality is tempered by its coating, sandwiched between genuine loving moments between family members, games Katie Nolan makes up to distract her children from their hunger, and nostalgia-tinged descriptions of neighborhood customs and events. This all contributes to the realism and honesty of the novel, but without turning it into an “issue” novel that might get more press.

By turns moving or amusing, lighthearted or heartbreaking, innocent or dark, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not a heavily plotted novel, though many things occur. It is a bildungsroman and a series of vignettes that make up a life. That Francie’s life will turn out better than her parents we can but hope, with her mother and grandmother, though we can never be assured. The events in her life and those of her neighbors and relatives make it only too plain that only one wrong turn–a poor decision or an unlucky stroke–can make everything wrong. On the other hand, the opportunities made available to Francie and her brother Neeley thanks to their mother’s insistence on their education–which in the 1910s means even just graduating from grammar school (8th grade), make clear that the possibilities are so much more open to the young generation than their parents or grandparents ever had. It is a vision of the American Dream, not that the child will be the leader of the land, but that the will–and can–do better than the parent.

It did feel as if the ending was a bit rushed. Perhaps this is reflective of life–Francie notes when she turns twelve, that all of a sudden things like Christmas, that once seemed so far away now really do seem to be just around the corner. But it felt more as if as Francie grew older Smith could no longer find much of interest–the adventures of imagining and childhood are behind–and felt the need to quickly wrap up a somewhat lengthy book. This is a minor quibble, though, in what was otherwise an excellent start to my reading year.

This title qualifies as a book by a woman for Back to the Classics 2022.