On One Hundred Years of Solitude
Richard Z. Santos
No novel needs a recommendation less than Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel floats above every novel, perfect and removed like Remedios the Beauty, while simultaneously serving as a foundational piece for the Latin American “boom,” modern family epics, and somehow both realism and magical realism.
I don’t feel the need to defend García Márquez or to introduce his novel to a new reader. People tend to find this novel when they need it. But I do want to explore how García Márquez pulled this off.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a demanding book that requires your full attention. Of course readers get swept away by the Buendia family and find themselves immersed in Macondo. Still, I doubt even its staunchest supporters would call it a breezy read or the kind of book you can knock out in a couple days on the beach.
The novel requires you to read its long sentences slowly and then to reread as the narrative jumps from person to person and across the generations all within a few pages. Whose head am I in? Which Aureliano is this? The novel casts off less attentive readers with its branching story and assertive narrator who seems to spend as much time describing what the characters are feeling as showing us.
This narrative structure has been called circular, recursive, branching, atemporal, and compared to spirals and tree roots tangling underground. Imagine anything complex and interlocking and you’ll find someone somewhere comparing it to One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Countless dissertations have been written on García Márquez’s masterpiece and how it achieves its unique power, but I want to focus on how each chapter begins. I think there’s a lesson here for writers and readers. If you can, read them aloud:
- Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
- When the pirate Sir Francis Drake attached Riohacha in the sixteenth century, Úrsula Iguarán’s great-great-grandmother became so frightened with the ringing of alarm bells and the firing of cannons that she lost control of her nerves and sat down on a lighted stove.
- Pilar Ternera’s son was brought to his grandparents’ house two weeks after he was born.
- The new house, white, like a dove, was inaugurated with a dance.
- Aureliano Buendía and Remedios Moscote were married one Sunday in March before the altar Father Nicanor Reyna had set up in the parlor.
- Colonel Aureliano Buendía organized thirty-two armed uprisings and he lost them all.
- The war was over in May.
- Sitting in the wicker rocking chair with her interrupted work in her lap, Amaranta watched Aureliano José, his chin covered with foam, stropping his razor to give himself his first shave.
- Colonel Gerineldo Márquez was the first to perceive the emptiness of the war.
- Years later on his deathbed, Aureliano Segundo would remember the rainy afternoon in June when he went into the bedroom to meet his first son.
- The marriage was on the point of breaking up after two months because Aureliano Segundo, in an attempt to placate Petra Cotes, had a picture taken of her dressed as the Queen of Madagascar.
- Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo did not know where their amazement began.
- In the bewilderment of her last years, Úrsula had had very little free time to attend to the papal education of José Arcadio, and the time came for him to get ready to leave for the seminary right away.
- Meme’s last vacations coincided with the period of mourning for Colonel Aureliano Buendía.
- The events that would deal Macondo its fatal blow were just showing themselves when they brought Meme Buendía’s son home.
- It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days.
- Úrsula had to make a great effort to fulfill her promise to die when it cleared.
- Aureliano did not leave Melquíades’ room for a long time.
- Amaranta Úrsula returned with the first angels of December, driven on a sailor’s breeze, leading her husband by a silk rope tied around his neck.
- Pilar Ternera died in her wicker rocking chair during one night of festivities as she watched over the entrance to her paradise.
The whole novel is in these twenty sentences.
The first sentence alone contains the patriarch, his powerful son, and a reference to Melquiades, whose gypsies bring marvels to Macondo and whose words we read. From there we have the children, their spouses, women who are definitely not spouses but are treated as such, war, death, and, over the final six sentences, Macondo’s slow decline.
The sentences themselves call back to each other. The tenth sentence echoes the first. The twelfth sentence reminds us of the marvels of ice but with the melancholy awareness that the “marvelous inventions” (electricity and the train) will only speed up the town’s decline and the novel’s ending. The nineteenth sentence sweeps in full of hope only to be thoroughly extinguished by the twentieth and final sentence.
These sentences are a chronology, of sorts, and a family tree. They’re also a gift from García Márquez to himself and this is the valuable lesson for writers.
García Márquez starts each chapter with a specific character going through a specific event. After establishing an anchor in space and time he has permission to spiral around and back because he put a stake in the ground and knows where he must return. Usually these parameters exist within the same chapter, but sometimes, as in the first sentence, it’s much later.
García Márquez created a beautiful and complex book and I’d never claim to completely understand how he did it. But a key to the book’s internal logic lies in these beautiful sentences.
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher in Austin. His debut novel, Trust Me, was published in March 2020. He is a Board Member of the National Book Critics Circle and served as one of the 2019 Nonfiction Judges for the Kirkus Prize. Recent work can be found in Texas Monthly, Awst Press, Kirkus Reviews, CrimeReads, and many more. In a previous career, he worked for some of the nation’s top political campaigns, consulting firms, and labor unions.