Review: One Hundred Years of Soliude

Having never read of any of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ writing, I decided to start with One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is thought to be his greatest novel, a classic, and one of the best by a Latin American author.

Gabriel García Márquez was born on 6 March 1927 in Aracataca, Colombia.  García Márquez’s grandmother, Doña Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes, played an influential role in his upbringing. He was inspired by the way she “treated the extraordinary as something perfectly natural.”   The house was filled with stories of ghosts and premonitions, omens and portents, all of which were studiously ignored by her husband.   According to García Márquez she was “the source of the magical, superstitious and supernatural view of reality”.  He enjoyed his grandmother’s unique way of telling stories. No matter how fantastic or improbable her statements, she always delivered them as if they were the irrefutable truth. It was a deadpan style that, some thirty years later, heavily influenced her grandson’s writing.  Marquez began his career as a journalist while studying law.  Throughout his life, he was left-leaning politically, adopting socialist thinking, and he held that socialism and democracy are mutually dependent.   García Márquez said, “my grandfather the Colonel was a Liberal. My political ideas probably came from him to begin with because, instead of telling me fairy tales when I was young, he would regale me with horrifying accounts of the last civil war that free-thinkers and anti-clerics waged against the Conservative government.”   In 1955, Marquez published fourteen articles in the El Spectador newspaper based in his interviews of the lone survivor of a shipwreck.  In the articles he made the case that the ship wreck of a Colombian Navy vessel was the result of improperly stowed contraband, rather than the government’s story that the tragedy was due to a storm.

García Márquez received the Nobel Prize in Literature on 8 December 1982 “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.  Marquez wrote 6 novels (Solitude is his second), 5 novellas, 6 collections of short stories, 8 pieces  of non-fiction, and 26 films.  He once remarked: “Most critics don’t realize that a novel like One Hundred Years of Solitude is a bit of a joke, full of signals to close friends; and so, with some pre-ordained right to pontificate they take on the responsibility of decoding the book and risk making terrible fools of themselves.”  Due to his newfound fame and his outspoken views on US imperialism Garcia Márquez was labeled as a subversive and for many years was denied visas by U.S. immigration authorities.  After Bill Clinton was elected U.S. president, he lifted the travel ban and cited One Hundred Years of Solitude as his favorite novel.  García Márquez died of pneumonia at the age of 87 on 17 April 2014 in Mexico City.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude is the story of seven generations of a prominent Colombian family living in the fictional town of  Macondo which was founded by the family patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía.  Initially, the town is isolated from the rest of the world, but with the arrival of the railroad, it becomes connected.  Among the many family characters, there are themes of inherited traits, incest, selfishness and licentiousness.  In keeping with the style of magical realism, there are some startling events: five years of non-stop rain and one year of contagious insomnia, for example, which are presented as unremarkable in a laconic tone.  There are many references to real events in Colombian history: a long-drawn-out civil war, colonization by an American fruit company and the cover-up of the massacre of workers.  Each of the characters is distinctive and memorable, principally for their actions, which, in some cases, are outrageous, rather than their beliefs.  Life is not presented as a happy, constructive experience, and memory in not to be trusted.

This is clearly a great classic in its innovative style, its extraordinary imagination, fluid writing, and in the complexity of the human issues on which it touches.  Paradoxically, while I found it difficult to read – to follow the thread of the author’s imagination, I could not put the book down: I had to find the conclusion.  (The family and the town die out.)  At over 400 pages, it is not a short book, but it is also intense and dense.  Often, the novel is written in stream-of-consciousness style, with breathless transitions from one event to the next.  There is very little dialogue to relieve the narrative, and the narrative itself can be quite complicated.  There is one sentence in the book which goes on for a page and a half.  To do One Hundred Years of Solitude its due, one needs to be in a position to read it deliberately, without distraction, so that the dots – or at least most of them – are connected.

How Long Should a Novel Be?

There was an article in the 13th August 2017 Sunday Telegaph, written by Ysenda Maxtone Graham entitled “Have People Forgotten How to Write Short Books?”  She makes a number of interesting points which I will quote below.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the author of five books: The Church Hesitant: A Portrait of the Church of England TodayThe Real Mrs Miniver, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography Award, 2002; Mr Tibbits’s Catholic SchoolAn Insomniac’s Guide to the Small Hours; and Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979.  She writes for The Spectator and is a columnist on Country Life.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham

“Stranded in the middle of a great fat brick of a biography recently, I wondered: do books, like films, plays, concerts, sermons, cricket matches and, indeed, life itself have a natural length.  My instinct is that they do and that it’s about 280 pages.  To open a book, particularly a non-fiction one, and see that it’s all going to be over before the 300 page mark makes me set out into it with a spring in my step.  If it goes up to the mid 500’s, as that fat brick did, I check the back section in fervent hope that the last centimeter of its thickness will be taken up by an index, bibliography, extensive footnotes, and at least three pages of acknowledgements.  While reading such a book, I’m forever measuring, comparing ‘amount already read’ to ‘amount still to read’.

“Many fiction addicts insist that, in the case of novels, the longer the better.  Why this hurry to say goodbye to characters you’ve made great friends with?  You’ll feel bereft. When it works it is indeed a delicious feeling to be in the middle of an enthralling fictional world, less like being stranded, more like being enveloped and carried away.

“I ask Richard Beswick, publishing director of Little Brown Book Group. what his thoughts on novel length were.  ‘I like the pleasure of a long absorbing book with lots of attention to psychologically convincing characters played out over time,’ he says.  There is talk of long novels becoming fashionable again, and this ‘may reflect TV tastes for long series’, but he thinks our perception has been skewed by a few, very successful, very long novels, ‘such as those by Donna Tartt and Hilary Mantel’.  From a publisher’s point of view, they are outliers: ‘Eighty thousand words seems to be the kind of length readers like.’  (That equates to my ideal length of about 280 pages.)”

She learned at her favourite bookstore in Chelsea that “some customers had baulked at Paul Auster’s 4321 (880 pages) and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (772 pages), but had snapped up Robert Seehtalter’s A Whole Life (148 pages) and The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (155 pages)”.  She makes the point that there was a craze in the 18th and 19th centuries for the ‘three-volume novel’, and that in the early 20th century, it became fashionable for novels, like skirts, to be short.  (Except Ulysses.)

“I’ve calculated the average length of books reviewed in a literary journal last week, and I’m pleased to announce that it comes in at 296.6 pages.”

As for me, my three thrillers are about 100,000 words, as is Seeking Father Khaliq, which I would classify as inspirational.  The other two inspirational novels: Sable Shadow & The Presence, and the novel I’m just finishing now are in the 120,000 word range.  In my case, what determines the length of a novel is the complexity of the plot.  I would agree with Ms Graham that long novels can be a chore to read.  I’m currently reading On Hundred Years of Solitude (review next week).  It is 417 pages, but not only that, the font is small and the text is tightly packed.  A long read!