By Alejandro Jenkins
Though many eminently respectable critics have identified it as one of the greatest novels ever written, personally I find One Hundred Years of Solitude weak even as compared to García Márquez’s other novels (my personal favorite is The General in His Labyrinth). Despite being an avid reader in Spanish and a native Latin American, it took me a great effort actually to make it though the damned thing. In fact, I only got past the first fifty pages after my sixth attempt.
The idea behind Hundred Years of Solitude (to create a saga-esque mythology for post-independence Latin America) is attractively ambitious, to be sure, but the actual execution is almost entirely lifeless. The key problem is that there’s hardly any character in it that can hold any interest for the reader, or that even has a well defined personality. (Only the transplanted inlander Fernanda del Carpio, with her insane aristocratic pretensions and fanatical Catholicism, struck me as a plausible and distinct character.) García Márquez himself must’ve been aware of this, because he re-uses the same names over and over, until the reader hardly knows or cares who’s who. (As I read through the novel I often couldn’t muster the energy to try to disentangle which Aureliano or José Arcadio was involved in which episode.) But this is a huge weakness in a work of literature (it reminds of the joke in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall about an avant-garde film that failed at the box office because of its “austere elimination of all human characters”).
Perhaps a sufficiently interesting plot could’ve outweighed this, but frankly I found that plot of Hundred Years of Solitude to be as inert as its characters. The world that it depicts isn’t just physically but also morally and emotionally unreal. The intended climax of the novel, the murder by the army of 3,000 banana plantation workers (an episode inspired by a much debated episode in the history of modern Colombia, the 1928 Massacre of Santa Marta) struck me as just another arbitrary narrative twist, on the same level as the plague of insomnia or yellow flowers raining down on Macondo.
There’s something else about Hundred Years of Solitude —incidentally, what does that title mean?— that bothered me to no end but that I couldn’t for a long time put my finger on. Now I see that it’s the artificial way in which García Márquez tries to recruit the history of science (of all things!) in his efforts of myth-building.
I realize now that this is actually a characteristic vice of the modern Colombian intelligentsia. Perhaps even more than other Latin American nations, Colombia has a bloody and opaque history, in which it’s hard even to figure out why some faction was killing another at a given time. Traditionally, this has fed hopes of finding some esoteric key that might unlock the hidden meaning of that history (hence the enormous role played in Latin America by, for instance, esoteric Freemasonry).
I recently encountered(in Spanish) with Jorge Arias de Greiff, an engineer and formerly the rector of Colombia’s National University, in which he makes the bizarre claim that the history of science (he has written extensively on the history of astronomy) could “illuminate confused aspects of the other history” of Colombia. He doesn’t say how this might come about, which strikes me as quite improbable in light of the much smaller role that science has played in Latin America, as compared to the rest of the Western world.
I suspect that Arias de Greiff’s hopes are subconsciously tied to a sense that the grave obscurities of the modern academic practice of the history of science can provide a new, secular esotericism to replace the old, descredited ones with which Latin American intellectuals traditionally attempted to illuminate their dolorous national histories. This, I think, is at least a part of the answer to one of the questions that bothered me most when I finally managed to finish Hundred Years of Solitude: just what are heliocentrism, ice-making, magnets, alchemy, etc., supposed to do or mean in the novel’s context?
Hundred Years of Solitude is, of course, widely regarded as the great showpiece of magic realism, so effectively marketed internationally after the 1960s as the brand of the new generation of Latin American writers. I find, at length, that this magic realism is mostly a con.
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For starters, there’s absolutely nothing innovative about writing stories with fantastical elements: Jorge Luis Borges (an incomparably better writer than García Márquez, in my opinion) emphasized that fantastic fiction is as old as human language. It’s true that the specific techniques of magic realism serve to capture certain aspects of traditional Latin American culture (such as the conflict between the desires to join the modern world and to retain a distinctive identity, the syncretism of Catholicism with animistic religions, the perceived continuity between the worlds of the living and the dead, etc.), and also that it helped free Latin American writers from the narrow political strictures of the “social realism” to which much of the older literary generation was devoted. But, even though literature doesn’t obey a scientific, psychological, or political logic, it absolutely needs to have its own internal literary logic, and this requires an artistic discipline that one can’t just throw out of the window by claiming license on grounds of magic realism.
Jenkins has a Ph.D. Physics, California Institute of Technology