One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez, 1967

This is going to be pretty much the opposite of a Slate article.  A Slate article on this book could take one of two forms.  The first would go like this: "One Hundred Years of Solitude is almost universally considered one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century, but it sucks!"  Problem: It actually is one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century.  That leaves the more subtle version.  "One Hundred Years of Solitude is almost universally considered one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century, and it is — but not for the reasons you think!"  Problem: The reasons it is great are the same reasons everyone says it's great.  These are:

Narrative density.  The basic structure of the book is that García Márquez takes a novel, distills it down to about three to five pages of viscous sentences, and then puts a hundred of these pieces together.  When you're finished you feel as though you have read the entire contents of a small library.  And, with rare exceptions, each storylet flows seamlessly into the next.  I read this book aloud to Zoe the Squirrel over the course of the first half of this year and it was very difficult to find natural places to stop. 

Magical realism.  I'm sure that the precise meaning of this phrase has been expounded upon at length in any number of articles, dissertations, books, Vine loops, etc., but all I mean by it here is (a) the treatment of miraculous things (e.g., flying carpets) as if they were mundane and (b) the treatment of mundane things (e.g., ice) as if they were miraculous.  This sort of thing is such a reflex for me that on more than one occasion I have had to be reminded that magical realism is not the default genre of every creative work.  (A few months ago I was working on a script and I came up with the idea to give a certain character the ability to make woodland creatures obey her — and to call no attention to it.  It would just happen a couple of times.  "Why?" my boss asked.  Because it'd be interesting, I replied.  He said that wasn't what he'd meant — he wanted to know why the animals would obey her.  And I was like, uh, well, for the same reason that a cloud of butterflies follows Mauricio Babilonia around in One Hundred Years of Solitude.  The very fact that it isn't explained is what makes it work so well.  At which point it was explained to me that "but Gabriel García Márquez does it!" is not an argument that flies with studio execs.)

Time out of joint.  One theme/lament I have returned to ad nauseam since the very beginning of this blog back at the turn of the century is that the passage of time is both inexorable and accelerating.  For instance, last month I wrote about how in 2003 I had gotten all weepy about some far future date when my crazy meowing pal Ditko would no longer be with us, and then all of a sudden it was a decade later and he had in fact just died.  To which the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude would say the following:

"What did you expect?" Úrsula sighed. "Time passes."
"That's how it goes," Aureliano admitted, "but not so much."

Gérard Genette opens the first chapter of Narrative Discourse by quoting Christian Metz's description of narrative as a "doubly temporal sequence": "There is the time of the thing told and the time of the narrative (the time of the signified and the time of the signifier). This duality not only renders possible all the temporal distortions that are commonplace in narratives (three years of the hero's life summed up in two sentences of a novel or in a few shots of a 'frequentive' montage in film, etc.) More basically, it invites us to consider that one of the functions of narrative is to invent one time scheme in terms of another time scheme."  What's interesting here is that even as we're used to narrative time flowing in fits and starts — with flashbacks and flash-forwards, with two minutes of story time taking up a full page of dialogue while ten years pass in a blank line between paragraphs — we tend to assume that, to the characters, everything feels like it's happening in order, and that those two minutes feel like two minutes and those ten years feel like ten years.  That is, we imagine that story time flows in a steady, unvarying manner.  But this is not how time flows in One Hundred Years of Solitude — neither in the telling nor to the characters.  It seems that in Macondo, the village at the center of the novel, time is kept by Salvador Dali's melting clocks.  At different points, it:

  • …is frozen — e.g., the patriarch of the Buendía family has to be tied to a tree after insisting that every day that week has just been Monday after Monday;

  • …is disjointed: time flows altogether differently inside one room of the Buendía house than it does outside;

  • …repeats, with the same names (particularly José Arcadio and Aureliano) reoccuring generation after generation such that it is hard to tell from the dramatis personae whether events are occurring near the beginning of the titular century or near the end;

  • …goes backward.  I once wrote a paper contrasting One Hundred Years of Solitude with (ahem) Sid Meier's Civilization, in which civilizations may rise and fall but in which technology, once acquired, is never lost.  In Macondo, by contrast, technology progresses as one would expect — the railroad arrives, as does electric light, the telephone, the phonograph — but within a few years, it's all forgotten.  Crowds that had seen not just lenses but movie projectors, not just magnets but electrified fences, are once again dazzled by gypsies showing off magnets and lenses, as their ancestors had been a century before.  For that matter, consider the fact that the inhabitants of Macondo speak Spanish and are descended to a large degree from European settlers.  Their forebears knew of ice; their forebears knew the world was round.  By the time the story begins, this has all been forgotten as well.

I've encountered all of these phenomena in other works, just in the time that I've been doing these write-ups: frozen time in Nicholson Baker's execrable The Fermata; disjointed time in William Sleator's Singularity; repeated time in Groundhog Day; backward time in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow.  I think the difference is that in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the odd flow of time is not the premise — again, this is magical realism, and García Márquez seems to be suggesting that of course this is how time really flows, so why bother commenting on it?  And it seems to me that he's probably right.  Playing with order, duration, and frequency is not just storytelling gimmickry: it reflects the subjective experience of time much better than a metronome does.  Time, as lived, races and crawls, loops around on itself, and eats away everything we build.

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illustrations by Noah Banks