Art and Literature

May 16th, 2016- 100 years of solitude: the futures-past of the novel

Well, Friends, I did it.

I just finished 100 Years of Solitude.

Um.

*shrugs shoulders, looks into the evening sky*

It’s a beautifully written novel, certainly, and I’m grateful to Kathleen Alcala for her observation that she was struck by how much the narrator sounded like members of her family telling fantastical tales from a completely serene, nonchalant point of view. Apparently Marquez based that narrative on his grandmother’s way of telling stories — or at least that’s what the reader’s guide at the end of my edition tells me.

I occurs to me — and I’m sure this is not an original remark — that the novel’s form resembles the Buendia homestead and enacts its fortune. Like the house, the novel presents itself to us as an architectural project that seems to add on rooms, floors, gardens, possessions, and inhabitants. Like the resulting habitation, the narration becomes increasingly crammed with people, objects, and incidents, only to eventually implode. Like the family, and the town of Macondo itself, the novel self-consciously collapses, becoming a ruin that contemplates itself in an act of ironic meta-narrative.  This final flourish of self-aware (self) destruction occurs in the final pages of the book, as the second to last Aureliano presides over the end of his family (in the grotesque view of a dead, ant-covered baby — his progeny, the last one to be named “Aureliano”) and he realizes that ancient documents he has been attempting to make sense of  actually have already predicted long ago the history and ruination of his family in a language that no one can decipher until the very end of the novel, when suddenly he can. At that moment — which is also the very end of the novel — he can forsee his own death and the death of the place he knows.

In this way the novel reveals itself to be a story about decomposition — an image that Marquez seems to find particularly interesting, as his wonderful short fiction “the handsomest drowned man in the world” testifies.

So, from the point of view of the history of the novel, what 100 Years is doing is significant. This is Proust in reverse. In A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust more or less conveys the idea that “I, the author remember what is lost and through the act of remembering bring it all back so that we can share it.” But Proust is French, (albeit Jewish) and writing in the early 20th Century. Marquez, writing about Colombia in 1967, is for sure in a different space, politically, historically, linguistically. Marquez’ relationship with the novel as a form is troubled, sardonic, angry, and there are overtones of Don Quixote at moments in the impossible projects and oddly empty idealism of some of the characters. No wonder that this is a bildungsroman — the novel of education and personal development — read backwards. It regresses rather than progresses. In this sense, at times the novel — particularly at its end — feels a bit like La Jetee and the 12 Monkeys (on which La Jetee was based), without the machinery. Or Zardoz.  Or even, The Terminator, although that might be stretching things. Still, all those John Connor’s begin to feel a bit like all those Aurelianos….. stretching back and forward in time.

Another way to think about 100 years is to compare it to Thomas Mann’s first novel Buddenbrooks, which is also about the decline of a family. I think that the two novels actually have alot in common in terms of their simultaneous fascination and frustration with the aspirations of middle class society.

If I were still writing scholarship, I could go into detail about what some of this mirroring and self-commentating decomposition might be about in terms of the novel as a bourgeois, realist, form of storytelling. I might well pull in Frederick Jamison’s thoughts about the waning of affect in late capitalism to account for the oddly cold manner in which this fevered, nihilistic account unfolds. I’m sure others have talked about this already. It’s also important to think about Marquez’s novel in terms of testimonial literature — the way in which Magical Realism can comment on politics, on colonialism, on power, and on patriarchy.

Sure, this is all happening. And it’s intellectually stimulating, I guess.

But I don’t think that those are the most interesting ways to think about the book. For me, the most powerful moments of Marquez’s book all involve the first and, in my opinion, most fascinating of the several Aureliano’s in the novel. The first one. Aureliano Buendia is a revolutionary commander who conducts 30 plus wars, fathers 17 sons (all named after him), and eventually retreats to a workshop where he makes small metal fish which he melts down and then recreates the next day. This Aureliano seems to be a stand-in for the author himself — a man who would change the world, tries repeatedly, fails, and retreats to an odd self-deconstructing art form…. again we come back to the novel project itself.

The heart of the book appears early on in a conversation between Aureliano Buendia and Colonel Gerineldo Marqez:

“Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”

“What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez answered. “For the great Liberal party.”

“You’re lucky because you know why,” he answered. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride.”

The idiocy of war and the absurdly lethal nature of factional disagreement are running themes particularly in the first half of the novel. I wish they could have remained more visible to me as a reader as I continued. But perhaps they couldn’t. This is not somehow what Marquez was talking about. These concerns were not uttermost in his mind. He kept on wanting to build this enormous house. A house of repetitions. A house filled with mirrors.

I’ve often had trouble with books designated as masterpieces. I am not a fan of Anna Karenina or of Moby Dick or of The Scarlet Letter. I guess I keep on hoping that the novel can do something different in the sense of opening things up rather than shutting them down. And it can. And it does.  Which is why I love Ceremony, which I’ve talked about here already, and which was also written in the ’60’s. And I love Catch 22, which is doing similar political things and was written during the same historical period more or less. Perhaps I can’t appreciate it because I don’t speak Spanish. But my language abilities don’t stop me from appreciating The Windup Bird Chronicle — Murakami’s enormous strange novel written during the 90’s.

Is 100 Years of Solitude Magical Realism? I suppose. The mundane is interspersed with the real on a regular basis, and real atrocity becomes a myth that only 2 people claim to remember (several thousand workers are massacred and then transported by train in a nightmarish and effective sequence).

But it may also be unfair to judge a novel written in 1967 by standards of appreciation that are connected to the present moment — 2016. So I’ll leave Aureliano Buendia to his self-destructing craft in his workshop and I will close the door on this metanarrative. Perhaps a masterpiece. Thought-provoking. At moments, gorgeous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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