Tuesday, August 25, 2009

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Another anecdote: flashback to 2004, a session of the creative writing class already referenced in an earlier blog post, officiated by a talented, vaguely depressive, former hotshot with latin roots. I invited a friend of mine to class with me, since he was visiting that week for his spring break. We exchanged a couple notes and a couple conversational asides during the process of a critique of my story. Our activity does not go unnoticed. A week later we receive our "notes" for the class--a rambling "free write" about the creative writing process that our instructor hands out each week and which more often than not, is quite compelling. This time it is extra special for me because I am singled out as an asshole. The instructor tells me that there is nothing more rude than talking to someone else while you are receiving feedback on a story. He takes a few more potshots at my character that I can't recall, though those notes are saved somewhere in my forgotten academic archives. He then goes on to discuss the writing potential of most of the other students in the class, calling some "baby writers," and talking about my ego being huge, and who knows, maybe I might make it one day, but I wouldn't bank on it. He then talked about his own experience. These details I remember. Having a book of short stories published early in his career, becoming a critical darling, making a good deal of money, moving to Manhattan Beach and playing volleyball everyday. Then soon after, realizing that he would need a real job, and working on the runway directing airplanes at LAX. (In retrospect I have to say, not so bad a job--at least the commute was easy). A year and a half later, I wouldn't be friends with that companion that caused me to get in trouble anymore, and two years later I would ask that same instructor for a letter of recommendation for my MFA applications and never receive a reply. None of this has anything to do with One Hundred Years of Solitude except the aforementioned "latin roots." Once in his notes he had written about running through Central Park to pick up Octavio Paz for an honorary ceremony at Columbia University. He also wrote stories for the class for us to critique, which I found extremely endearing, acting as if he were one of us. For one of the stories he said he had written it in my style and another student's style whose name rhymed with mine. That was a great compliment. The second great compliment was the only real piece of advice that did not seem tinged with malice of any kind. He said, "Before you ever try to write anything serious, you have to read One Hundred Years of Solitude. I can't recommend it enough."

The summer of 2004, I went to South Carolina and tried to read it. I made it through about a hundred pages and then had to return it to the library, I think. Now, five years later, it has finally been completed. It took me about two months, minus the time to read One L, which was about a week, making it the longest period I have ever spent reading a single book since the inception of this blog--a troubling development. This includes behemoths like Underworld and The Magic Mountain. I will say first of all that the long time it took me to read this has been dictated by difficult outside circumstances (LSAT 1 test results, job search, LSAT 2 prep, job found, applications imminent, "nerves") and second of all that while I did not find this book to be the revelation that so many before me have called it, I do believe that anyone who cares about improving their literary knowledge should seek it out at some point in their lives and experience it.

Here is my main problem with the book: it is a family saga, and it is a very confusing one. I find it hard to believe that a reader will be able to get through the first two hundred pages without skimming across a few for boredom or tedium or pure confusion. That is why there is a family tree on the first page, for your reference. And while studying this single page may help understanding, it could also give away a few secrets and spoil some parts of the book, but it usually doesn't. My main problem with One Hundred Years of Solitude is that I have read Buddenbrooks, and I would still recommend that family saga over this family saga anyday. However, both are responsible for earning their authors the Nobel Prize. And they are separated by some 67 years, which would make one believe that this one is more modern, but, and this is almost laughable, even Buddenbrooks is more modern.

I felt like quitting for the first 250 pages of the roughly 450 pages this version contains. Most tedious of all was the discussion of the civil war in Macondo, and the differences between liberals and conservatives that made almost no sense to me at all. Also frustrating were the repetitions of the male characters' names Jose, Arcadio, and Aureliano (the latter in particular has 5 characters named that, plus 17 other minor characters) which made me feel like character development was sorely lacking. But there were great parts in the opening 250 pages--for example, the character of Melquiades--who remains present for practically the entire novel and is the true masterstroke of the work. This book introduced the literary term "magical realism," and true, I have not read anything else that approximates this blend of the fantastic and mundane, but then again, I have not read Cervantes, nor any other latin writers--embarrassing, but something I hope to remedy over the years. One exception--I have read some Borges--but Borges still strikes me as more trustworthy than Marquez.

And in two separate afterwords to my edition, it is mentioned in both that this book had its origins in Marquez's childhood, a large part of which he spent living with his grandparents. His grandmother's habit of telling true stories with the same facial expression as when telling completely made-up stories is the device he sought to mimic in the tone of this book--and after reading that, it's clear to me that he has achieved his goal perfectly. Still, it is difficult for me to select any passages for quotation in this post because I did not find any description, exchange, or explanation particularly beautiful. I do believe the last page or two merits quotation, but it would not be right to do that--the ending is the single best part of the book, in my opinion, and well worth the journey to get there.

So I will recommend One Hundred Years of Solitude with reservations. You will have to know that you are getting into a novel that appears to play by no rules, only to find that around page 300, there has always been a relatively clear and focused modus operandi, though one that eschews traditional narrative detail. Marquez does not get sentimental about his characters. They are exposed to myriad punishments and suffering. Many of them do embrace solitude, but none are totally divorced from the outside world.

The reservations that I have about recommending this novel are primarily cultural. This book will not meet the same expectations as a book like say, American Pastoral will. It may be a Nobel Prize winning work of literature, but it does not fall in line with the concept of a "great American novel." It may be a great "South American novel," but for a person such as myself, it is difficult to feel very close to the characters, or to be deeply moved by their story. So for me at least, the greatest value of this work is its imaginative quality. It is almost like Marquez is a crazy grandfather that tells fantastic bedtime stories. And indeed an enterprising parent might read a chapter to their children before bed, in spite of the racier segments, and achieve a connection to an earlier part of society that is increasingly disappearing--oral culture. Whatever mechanism is used for the enjoyment of this text, it will ultimately impress by virtue of its scope. But I do find it hard to believe that every single word could be treasured, and that a reader would not find a single part slow going.