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García Márquez’s bewitching story of seven besieged generations of the impassioned Buendía family is set in Macondo, initially a Caribbean village so isolated its denizens depend on the yearly arrival of Gypsies for news of the larger world. The globe-circling, gypsy scholar Melquíades introduces Macondo to such wonders as ice, magnets, a magnifying glass, a telescope, dentures, daguerreotypes, and alchemy. No one is more captivated by these innovations than one of the village’s founders, the young patriarch José Arcadio Buendía, who plunges into successive fascinations to the detriment of his family. His wife, Úrsula, “that woman of unbreakable nerves,” counters her husband’s serial extravagances with ceaseless effort and pragmatism. She raises their two sons, Aureliano and José Arcadio, and daughter, Amaranta, and over the course of 100 wildly eventful years also looks after generations of their descendants. As for her ever-enthused husband, he finally goes entirely mad and ends up tied to a chestnut tree in the backyard. When he dies, a steady “rain of tiny yellow flowers” falls all night long.
Among the novel’s many strange and provocative tales of transformation, Aureliano’s is particularly poignant. Lovesick, he sequesters himself in his workshop, where he patiently fashions small, elegant gold fish with ruby eyes, until civil war breaks out, and he rapidly morphs into a warrior, a leader, and, poisoned by “the intoxication of power,” a murderous tyrant. Macondo is also subjected to corporate oppression after foreigners establish a banana plantation and basically enslave the workers, instigating a strike that ends in a horrific massacre, after which it “rained for four years, eleven months, and two days.” But it is ambushing, tornadic sexual desire that wreaks the most havoc. An adulterous relationship stokes “supernatural proliferation” among livestock. Erotic infatuation with an innocent beauty engenders insanity and death until one day she rises to the heavens, winged with the day’s freshly laundered sheets, never to return. Most dramatic is the burning lust that drives the afflicted to defy the ancient taboos against incest.
Macondo is assailed by plagues, including insomnia and “angelic stupor,” but the Buendía clan, prone to premonitions and visited by ghosts, is tormented most by 100 forms of solitude: the solitude of fear, of obsession, of longing, heartbreak, pride, “mad tenacity,” wealth, power, illness, age. After he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, García Márquez half-joked that he struggled with the “solitude of fame.”
The epic struggles of the Buendías are those of all humanity writ large and mysteriously, as García Márquez describes fantastical occurrences with matter-of-fact authority, exemplifying the literary style known as magic realism by blending the everyday with the supernatural and embodying emotions in physical manifestations. García Márquez’s magic realism sprang from his immersions in Kafka and Borges and what he witnessed as a journalist. He came to the realization that life is surreal, a perception with fresh resonance and significance.
The American magic realist William Kennedy spoke with García Márquez in 1973 in Barcelona, and as he reported in the Atlantic, the expat Colombian writer told him that he was flat broke and deeply discouraged when the first chapter in what would be his breakout novel came to him while he was driving from Mexico City to Acapulco in January 1965. Back in Mexico City, he left all practical concerns to his wife, Mercedes, and wrote for 8 to 10 hours a day while smoking 60 daily cigarettes and completed the novel in 18 months.
García Márquez’s lush and spellbinding pageant of human folly and transcendence seeded a flowering of magic realism. These are some of the novelists inspired by One Hundred Years of Solitude, named here with just one of their works: García Márquez’s interlocutor, William Kennedy (Ironweed); Isabelle Allende (The House of the Spirits); Ana Castillo (So Far from God); Sandra Cisneros (Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories); Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao); Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate); Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic); Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon); Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle); Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children); and Karen Russell (Swamplandia!).
An excerpt from William Kennedy’s review for the New York Times still appears on the back of the paperback edition: “One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” Amen.
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