Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of Colombia’s most well-known exports and one they are very proud of. You see his name on many a school, plaza, and street. I knew I needed to start 2017 with Marquez: I wanted to feel at home in my new home and I was hoping he could welcome me, One Hundred Years of Solitude it would have to be.
Well, Colombia itself has been incredibly welcoming, the warmth of the people here has been overwhelming, but unfortunately Solitude was more challenging than comforting and I think I still have a long ways to go before I am understanding Marquez the way Colombians do. But therein lies the point of immersing yourself in a new culture: challenging yourself to learn new things and to better yourself as a person, by understanding others for who they are and appreciating both your similarities and differences. This is always one of my goals when choosing a new book or a new country to visit, and this novel was definitely an example of the times it can be harder than you thought in a new place (whether fictional or not).
One Hundred Years of Solitude is Colombia’s most famous author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s telling of the story of the fictional Buendía family and their participation in the establishment and growth of the town of Macondo in the early 1900s. This book is considered one of the most important pieces of literature to come out of Latin America.
And I hate that I didn’t love this book; I read and enjoyed Love in the Time of Cholera a few years back and I thought this would easily be a new favorite that I could discuss with my new Colombian friends. Well, we’ve definitely discussed, and especially where I live in the coastal region of Colombia (Valledupar-Cesar), the Costeños love Marquez’s story and really relate to it, but for me, the “magical realism” was just confusing instead of enlightening.
To back up momentarily, there were portions of this novel that I really did enjoy. Marquez is beautifully descriptive (and I can only imagine him to be even more so in Spanish) and he brought to life the scenes in his fictional town of Macondo very easily. There have been a few moments (especially during a weekend visit to Manaure-Cesar) that I actually felt I could’ve been standing in a modern day Macondo. That type of vivid description usually sells me on any author. There were also a lot of interesting anecdotes in the story of Macondo and the Buendía family: the story of the gypsies, the building of the train, the first new telephone, as well as intellectual capacity and mysticism of Melquíades (though granted Melquíades storyline isn’t quite an anecdote by definition, but that’s beside the point).
Marquez is able to bring to life what I can imagine it really was like in small town Colombia in the early 1900s. I have seen a few examples myself of how the old and new can coexist, even still, in these small communities. And the beauty of his language really does this country proud, so much of the beauty he speaks of is around every corner.
So, while I tried my best to appreciate the story of Buendía family and to learn more about Colombian culture from them, I finished the novel feeling even more confused than when I began it. As I mentioned earlier, I am attributing this confusion to Marquez’s “magical realism”: there were a lot of characters that remained throughout the story as ghosts, or even just as a “presence” within the family, and I struggled to interpret what this meant, both as a part of the story and culturally. In Marquez’s Macondo, the citizens live in their own little world, removed from the rest of society, and learn to accept both magic (or mysticism) and scientific or technological advancement as fact. I am always happy to follow along with a little “magic” in a novel, but here I found myself questioning what I was supposed to understand as fact or fiction in the context of the story (see the story of the massacre at the banana plantation). A similar point of confusion comes with the theme of incest and the consistent sexual relationships between family members: the matriarch of the Buendía family is constantly worried about this, but no one else seems to care or, at times, even be aware of it. What are these things meant to represent in relation to solitude and selfishness and how is my background and/or lack of experience with Colombian culture leading me to a different understanding? On the whole, the themes of time, family relationships, and history versus the future were challenging for me: I have never referenced a family tree as many times as I did during my reading of Solitude!
All told, reading a novel such as Solitude was a positive challenge, even though I didn’t come out with a full understanding of the author’s intentions behind the story. There are numerous cultural differences between the United States and Latin America, I don’t claim to understand them all, but reading this type of book, so vastly different from what you are familiar with, puts in you a position that forces you to begin to consider them. You are required to shed the way you normally think in order to better understand the story and the lessons that the author can provide. There is huge historical and cultural significance in this novel, and that was not lost on me, it just further reinforced the idea that I need to continue to allow myself to be educated by the richness of this country and it’s people.
I think I will need to re-read Solitude when my time in Colombia comes to a close. Many people I’ve met here have explained that understanding this book can help with an understanding of Colombian people and culture and I want to be able to draw those connections for myself. More than anything, in reading and reflecting on Solitude I’ve learned more about my attachment to concrete evidence and logic, and that when it comes to fantasy or mysticism I want the two ideas to exist in opposite spaces as opposed to being braided together. I do see so many aspects of the connections between the two, especially visually and in the nature of a few of the characters, but feel like I am missing out on a secret key to truly understanding Solitude that life in Colombia has yet to provide me. If magical realism is something that is intended to force us to question the truths in our daily lives, then I am ready to embrace the lessons Colombia (and Marquez) have to teach me.