Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Reviewed by: Trevor Williams, managing editor, Global Atlanta
Over the past two years, I’ve had the fortune of traveling to Latin America with relative frequency, visiting eight countries on reporting trips for Global Atlanta.
Traveling without expectation, or at least with abridged knowledge, can sometimes be refreshing, as it frees the mind from the shackles of how you think a place “ought” to be. As a journalist, ignorance can help with impartiality. But it can also be maddening to get a simple taste of a country which is revealed to offer a feast of history and cultural richness, if you only had time to partake.
That’s how I felt about Colombia, one of the first stops on this two-year odyssey. When I left, I made a sort of loose resolution to get to know these places more deeply through their literary giants — the authors and works they claim as key to understanding their shared heritage.
In Colombia, there’s no more celebrated author than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, despite the fact that the journalist and fiction great spent much of his life abroad. (Tours of “Gabito’s” haunts are offered in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena, where some of his works are set.)
One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of his multiple defining works, unfortunately has little in the way of direct historical education to be gained. In some ways, the only way to understand some of the novel’s aspects is to already be in possession of the basics of Colombian history.
But on the cultural understanding front, I felt I had uncovered a treasure on the order of the gold mines that fueled the settlement of the Colombian wilderness.
The story, which as the title suggests takes place across a century, follows the Buendia family through its triumphs and (mostly) travails. Jose Arcadio Buendia, the family’s patriarch, is the archetypal pioneer, having led a rugged expedition to found the village of Macondo.
Like many who set off to create new settlements, he and his wife Ursula had fled personal conflict from the established communities nearer the coast. His wanderlust is never quenched, becoming reanimated with each visit of gypsies who bring exotic astronomical instruments and wonders like boxed ice. But Buendia’s sedentary life is also a source of his unceasing angst.
It takes nearly 100 pages to lay the foundation for the plot, which weaves the family history together through the lineage of Jose Arcadio’s sons—Aureliano the withdrawn yet somehow charismatic intellectual who becomes a rebel general, and Jose Arcadio, who shares his father’s impetuous spirit.
Garcia Marquez’s signature slant on the supernatural weaves its way through the book, creating delightful ambiguities as you attempt — and I emphasize, attempt — to follow its sweeping course. Literary symbolism is in no short supply, and the way the imagery shone through one language removed from the original Spanish gave me a newfound appreciation for translators.
In the end, I got the sense that this novel was about everything and nothing at the same time. Through the family lens, it’s a story of settlement and development, of a once-cohesive interior community trying to reconcile itself to outside influences. It’s a look at the restlessness of humanity, of our unceasing quest for something better, which often ends in disappointment or nostalgia for what once was.
Those who want strict historical fiction that will help them understand modern Colombia will be disappointed, even though certain themes of New World and Latin American history prevail, from European imperialism to the conflicts between the entitled elites and the common people which gave rise to leftist rebellions. (It was only after researching Garcia Marquez’s liberal sympathies later that I was able to see why the Nobel Prize winner chose to integrate these themes into the book.)
But anyone that seeks to better grasp human nature, our aspirations and disappointments, our need for each other, will feel as I did at the end: As if a lightning bolt had struck my brain and spirit, reinvigorating my understanding of what it means to be part of this earthly family, with all the tragedy and beauty that membership entails.
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