Hearing that I hadn’t read any of Gabriel García Márquez’s work, when his death was announced, a friend kindly bought me this, as he had Wolf Hall. Clearly, he knows what’s good for me.
This twentieth century classic in the magical realist tradition was my first foray into the realm, unless Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller counts.
I urge you not to wait as long as I have, but to throw yourself into the story of the Buendía family across six generations and their doomed trajectory intertwined with that of Macondo, their near utopian village soon despoiled by the industrial revolution. For all that it’s a translation, Gregory Rabassa has rendered the original prose into something surely as fizzing and gorgeous as the original:
“…he left his accumulated grief behind and found Remedios changed into a swamp without horizons, smelling of raw animal and recently ironed clothes.”
“He (Melquíades) went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumble down from their places…”Things have a life of their own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.”
Thus Melquíades first appears to José Arcadio Buendía and his wife (and for me the keel of the whole novel) Úrsula. The family are the heart of Macondo, the principle family, and soon their wealth builds them a house that itself reflects and anchors the emotional and nihilistic journeys of their offspring. With the railroad and then a banana plantation, ‘civilisation’ comes to Macondo, and it grows, whorehouses and schools and all manner of industry, and soon civil war.
As the generations progress, from their first children, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, Amaranta and José Arcadio (jnr), through all the Aurelianos and Josés and Amarantas, each seems somehow fated to varying extremes of self-loathing, lust, greed, insanity and above all, infusing all, passion.
Passions rule this novel, the magical realism amplifying the periods of bitter poverty and Gatsby-esque wealth and ennui, and make it a wild and compelling tale as the family’s generations spiral in their various ways out of control, with runaways, step-children, and an actual angel growing up in Úrsula’s house; Úrsula, at the heart of it, keeping the gyre from its widening for as long as she has strength, a superhuman stoic and the counterpoint that stops the novel from dissolving. Through it also, Melquíades’s secrets in his books and his notes, left for decades in the room he had once occupied for a time. These secrets puzzle generations of the Buendía men, drawn like their ancestor José to all things alchemical and occult. Their unravelling is integral to the book’s visceral and shocking ending.
I can say little else for spoilers. It is a masterpiece of course, as rich a tale of humanity’s excess as I’ve read, a defining statement on the savagery of love.