14. Gabriel García Márquez: Cien años de soledad (Spanish, 1967); One Hundred Years of Solitude (English, 1970), Columbian.
It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing this entry, primarily because, though I recognize GGM’s novel as one of the few undeniably great novels published in my lifetime, I can’t say I really grasp this novel, nor can I claim the kind of personal meaning that was easy to describe for others on this list.
I first read the novel sometime in the late ‘80s, after GGM had received the Nobel Prize (1982) and after I’d read Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981; English, 1983), and after I’d begun to study Art History and Comparative Literature at the University of Delaware, living again in the state and town I grew up in. And I think all those factors play a part in dividing me a bit from the experience of reading this novel: I read it from a sense of duty as much as curiosity, GGM being the first Nobel winner of the period of my adult life that I already had some interest in. So there was a definite intention to read someone who had become internationally famous and well-respected. It was also the case that, as a student of literature, I wanted to read works that enlarged my knowledge of the tradition—at that point, the only Spanish-language writers I’d read were a few poets, notably Pablo Neruda. GGM represented a step outside of the parochialism of reading only English-language contemporaries, but also represented a recognition on my part that here was a living master of the novel. Otherwise I might begin to think that Proust was the be-all and end-all.
But more than my haziness with regard to the time when I first read Solitude my haziness with regard to the novel itself stymies me. I believe I’ve read the novel four times, and one of those was aloud to my daughter, and yet I can’t say I have a clear knowledge of what transpires in this book. While I’m reading it, I can recall that I’ve been there before, but that’s no help. I don’t feel I could enumerate its plot, its major scenes, its dominant themes. What’s more, I don’t want to. What the oft-used phrase “magical realism” means to me with regard to this novel is that the action of the novel is real enough while one is reading it, the way dreams are, but that it also magically disappears upon “waking.”
One enters the story with an unflagging faith in its narrator, whose voice seems to know so well, and indeed to love so fondly, the characters whose tales he must tell, but trusting that voice and the events it unfolds also means not simply the suspension of disbelief, it means a suspension of the will to interpret, to record, to make sense. More than any other novel I can think of, one reads Solitude in a trance, letting it, like a dream, unspool across the screen of one’s mind, while accepting its slightly fantastic but incredibly vivid world, a world that comes to fruition with the unmistakeable odor of the New World of Latin America in a fascinating interplay with the Old World of Europe, but which of course overturns that distinction by presenting the great age, indeed the ancient mysteries and strengths, of a world much older than the colonizing, modernizing imperatives of Spain. Which is to say also, for me personally, that the indigenous elements of Columbia as well as the Spanish importations are equally foreign, equally alienating, as I have no connection with the respective cultures, not even through the mediation of Spanish-language classes or courses in Spanish literature.
GGM’s novel, in which I can catch fitful traces of Faulknerian yarn-spinning and audacious underpinnings of family sagas and ethnic, almost tribal, associations of blood and soil, together with whiffs of the surrealist and symbolist modernism I find in the Spanish-language poets I know of, resonates in my mind as a kind of hothouse transplant, an exotic flower in my predominantly northern European mindset, and for that very reason it has to be on this list. The notion of fiction as a waking dream exists nowhere better illustrated. GGM’s accomplishment—one that makes me think as well of Beckett, Kafka, Moby Dick—is to provide a personal mythos (meaning both the telling and system of the world told) that seems to pre-exist the fiction it exists in. In other words, Solitude is so imaginatively convincing that I can really only think about it when I’m in it. I can’t discuss it; I can only revisit it and watch it happen to my mind again. The novel strikes me as a truly unique performance, unrepeatable and unforgettable, but also uncanny in its elusiveness. It is a lyric novel, perhaps the best possible example of what that might mean.