Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

I just finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and holy smokes, is that a good book! It has been a number of years since I read something so revolutionary in both writing style and content.

This book was my selection for book group a couple of months ago, but due to a crazy work schedule, I was only able to get about two-thirds of the way through it before the meeting. I often don’t finish books that I couldn’t complete before the discussion, since the ending is revealed and I tend to lose interest, but I knew this one I would finish. I was already falling in love with it by that point, and the comments from the rest of the group piqued my interest even more. Now that I have made it to the end, I want to meet again to dissect all of the connections from the end of the book to the beginning. There’s so much to talk about.

One of the endorsements on the back cover says “this is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” That’s quite a statement and I wondered how the book could live up to such praise. Now I know. It’s not simply a story about five generations of a family living in a small village in Latin America; it is the story of the rise and fall of civilization.

The writing style is also biblical in its development of myth and symbolism. So you can get a feel for the kind of writing Garcia Marquez employs in this book, here is one of my favorite passages:

Colonel Aureliano Buendia organized thirty-two armed uprisings and lost them all. He had seventeen male children by seventeen different women and they were exterminated one after the other on a single night before the oldest one had reached the age of thirty-five. He survived fourteen attempts on his life, seventy-three ambushes, and a firing squad. He lived through a dose of strychnine in his coffee that was enough to kill a horse. . . . Although he always fought at the head of his men, the only wound he received was the one he gave himself after signing the Treaty of Neerlandia, which put an end to twenty years of civil war. He shot himself in the chest with a pistol and the bullet came out through his back without damaging any vital organ. The only thing left of all that was a street that bore his name in Macondo. (p. 103)

The genre is magical realism, and you can see why. The exaggeration is ridiculous on first reading, but the ideas aren’t so far from reality. This man accomplished unheard-of feats of survival, was integral to the start and end of a civil war, yet in the end, the only evidence of his existence was a street someone named after him.

Seemingly crazy or impossible or illogical things happen throughout the book, but the reader accepts them, and after some evaluation, the occurrences don’t seem that far-fetched after all. In fact, you can probably think of some events in your life or in history that happened just like that. (To put this into a pop culture context, think of Wes Anderson’s movies, particularly The Royal Tenenbaums. Anderson uses this technique of exaggeration and unreality to great effect.) The story questions linear time, truth vs. lies, reality vs. unreality vs. matters of perception. It forces you to put aside preconceived notions (Western notions, at least) of what is and what should be so that what you distill from it is a new understanding of human nature.

That sounds pretty highfalutin, and you can definitely enjoy the book without getting into all that theory nonsense. My thought is, if you just read it for the story, this other stuff will come out and you’ll be as surprised and astounded as I was at the result.

This book is not for everyone. It takes a little work on the part of the reader to follow the story, keep all the characters straight, and appreciate all of the underlying messages. I’m sure I’d have to read it a few more times to get it all. (In fact, someone in book group had just read it for the third time and said he felt he’d gotten something new out of it every time.) But the imagery and the texture of the writing were enough to sustain me. It was well worth the effort.

Is this too much of a rave review? Maybe. There are flaws in it, for sure, where the story gets long or too involved and where the reader might get frustrated trying to keep all the characters straight. For a minute, somewhere in the last third of the book, I thought I was going to be let down by the ending. But then, no, it was a beautiful ending, genius, solving the mystery you didn’t even know was the key to the story!

Certainly I’m not the first person to discover the wonders of this book. (It was published in 1967, after all.) But it has jumped into my top ten books and now I want to share it with everyone. So go check it out of your library and read it. Then tell me what you thought. But be ready to buy a copy too. This is one you’ll want for your shelf at home.

2 thoughts on “Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

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