Sometimes I have this craving – I have to find a book. You may see me wandering from aisle to aisle here in the library, eyes fixed on the shelves, looking for that volume that will somehow take hold of me and say “Here I am – the book you’ve been looking for your whole life.” I’m seized by these feelings often: I remember one week at university, I had just finished finals and papers for the semester, and I needed a book. Not just any book. A book that would suck me in and change me. A book that would overwhelm me and leave me in a deep breathing, inchoate sort of awe. One of the first of these books to take me over and leave me a new person was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was very saddened to hear about this author’s death on April 17; so, in honor of his work, and to mourn the fact that there will be no more stories from his pen, here are some reflections on some of my favorite things he has written, which in many ways have spoiled me as a reader for anything less challenging or delightful.
I first encountered Marquez when I purchased his collection of novellas and short stories called Leaf Storm at a bargain bookstore in upstate New York. The story from this volume that grabbed me was “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” It was such a simple story, and the people in the village seemed real because the narrative made them so commonplace, so rooted to their unremarkable, hardworking and physically hemmed-in existence. The narrative made me feel sympathy for them, and then eventually to find myself among their number. The arrival of this corpse – not so very surprising; for a people who catch their living in the sea, drowning is all too common, really – changes this village and the villagers. The size of this man. As the villagers go through the familiar rituals associated with preparing the body for the funeral, they discover his differences. He is enormous. He is not from their village, or another one nearby. He is like nobody and nothing they have seen before. In the face of the mystery of this man, they have to make up some kind of life for him, a way to understand him. They create an identity for him: they give him a name, Esteban, and a history of sorts. The work to lay him to rest in his death becomes an imaginative creation of a life that somehow matches the greatness his dead body suggests to the villagers. When they hold the funeral, he is mourned as one of their own, and they have fallen in love with him. They are now his. This was a love story like one I had never read before, and I was sucked in. I was in love with Esteban, too, and shivered in the bittersweet pleasure of the story as it was told, and the sense of loss it created.
And then, I can’t remember exactly when or why, I found myself reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Talk about shivering in bittersweet pleasure. The thought of sitting down and opening the book even now means I must have the leisure of time. I want balmy weather, so I can open my window to feel the breeze move around me. I want light refreshments. I must be prepared for company. The characters who stride across these pages are driven: the desire for children, for revolution, for freedom, for gold, for each other; the unending hunger surges through their blood and family and tugs you along with them. They are never fully satisfied. Sometimes it comes close, but that just sharpens the coming up short. This family and this village are small and insular, but they are the whole world. Everything is shocking, yet you shake your head and enlarge your heart to take it all in, because you love these people, and you know them, because you have come to recognize the patterns repeating themselves over and over again in the house and the family. Somehow, the unspoken desires, the unknowns, the unfinished and unsatisfied elements from your life find a place here in Macondo, too, and you can sigh over them while you marvel at the events of the hundred years.
And then there is his short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” that I read and discussed with literature students for a couple of years. It gave time to discuss the genre Marquez is best known for, magic realism, as well as other rhetorical devices like antithesis, allegory, and allusion. It’s a charming fairy tale, from one perspective, seemingly best suited for children with the appearance of angels and disobedient daughters turned into spiders. But it’s also a story about the hard work and disappointments that characterize so much of adult life, and that blind adults to the magic and inexplicable all around them.
The library has three pages in the catalogue of books written by Marquez, some in the original Spanish; most of them are English translations. Try One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera, both in the fiction section. Maybe you will be like me and fall in love with the people engendered in Marquez’s brain. Maybe you will be fascinated by the real history and political tragedy that gets woven into every narrative. Maybe you will long for the sultry and soporific Caribbean landscapes that somehow spread across your own mind as you enter his world. Read something, then come talk about it with me.
One Hundred Years of Solitude