By Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
458 pages
New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1998
ISBN: 0-06-074045-0

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2013

This is my second read of this novel. My first was at least 15, perhaps 20, years ago. It was one of the first, if not the very first, novel I had read that was in the “magical realism” style of writing. That read was one of discovery of a new writer for me, and my introduction to magical realism. However, I didn’t write about that reading, so, looking back on my readings and coming back to reread some of my favorites, I took this novel for a second read.

Along the years I had read that the novel is rooted in significant happenings in Columbian history. However, in my comments that follow below that theme is simply absent. Fully. When I read it the first time I knew virtually nothing of Columbian history and I haven’t added to the tiny bit I did know, so my comments below are internal to the novel and various questions and puzzles the novel itself presents to me. I simply can’t comment on the historical connection of the novel to the actual history of Columbia.

What makes this novel so complex as well as fascinating to me, is that not only is it a hundred years in the family of Jose Arcadio Buendia and Ursula Iguaran over seven generations, but it is told within the parameters of Marquez’s magical realism. I’ll begin with a few comments on my experience with his particular version of this literary tool, and then move more into the history of the family.

I’ve read quite a number of authors who use the basic genre of “magical realism” in one form or other, but from my reading experience Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s manner, especially in this novel is the most extreme. I’ve read three other of his novels and commented on them in my book review section of this web page.

I begin with a comparison that has helped me. I grew up in an Irish-American family in St. Louis. I was born before WWII, and many of the family lived in close proximity in the same working class neighborhood in St. Louis. Our own home had a back yard that was shared with my grandparents, and uncles, aunts, cousins and other relatives were all around us (and many of their families still are). The Irish are notorious for storytelling, and one comes to accept as part of the territory, the “tall tale” told as though it were rigorous and exact history. Yet we all learned early to take the essence of the story, assume that MOST of those were rooted in fact, but there was likely to be a bit of stretch here and there, and sometimes even more than a “mere” stretch. However, unlike the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this Irish story telling was radically different. The stories may have been exaggerated, but were put forward to be believed if the storyteller could get away with it.

However, that’s not so of older realms of Irish literature. In so much of old Irish tales there are elements that are much closer to magical realism, but still different. I just recently read Seamus Heaney’s retelling of the Irish medieval story SWEENEY ASTRAY. In that work there is much more that is similar to magical realism, and it is even “over the top” in relation to what magical realism is, since the actually impossible seems to completely dominate over the strange occasional happenings of magical realism.

However, the comparisons with the old Irish myths and the tall tales of my own elders gave me a sort of base to begin to be more comfortable with Marquez’s magical realism and to delight in it.

It makes for astonishing and delightful reading, for some real belly laughs at the impossible things that go on. I would love to have a whole list of the delights provided by the magical realism of the novel, but will give one simple example that seems to me to well illustrate the off-hand way it is used. One of the key characters has a friend who finally decides to leave the village. He “. . . brought an eternal ticket on a train that never stopped travelling.” I think I was still giggling 20 minutes after I read that line. There are family members who live to be well over 125 years old, an ancient Arab trader who becomes very close to the family, travels the world but keeps coming back to this tiny remote village and even dies a couple times but still comes to visit. The patriarch of the family is tied to a tree for some 20-25 years by the family since he has gone insane, and even after he dies, he comes to have a meal with them now and again and all such manner of things. It takes some getting used to but is marvelously enriching of the whole process and sets the novel up so it can get away with these wild happenings.

Jose Arcadio Buendia marries Ursula Iguaran sometime, probably the mid to late 19th century. (There are virtually no dates that are clear identifiers of time in the novel). They create a tiny village in a remote area of an unnamed South American country. They are visited by travelling Arab merchants who are into ancient wisdom and literature, and bring with them new inventions, even before those inventions are well-known in the rest of the world, or at least contemporaneous with such inventions.

The leader of the Arabs is Melquiades and he appears to be hundreds and hundreds of years old. Among the many late 19th and early 20th century inventions he brings are machines and processes that changed the economic face of the world during that period. He brings them ice, a phonograph machine, cures for diseases and, very important to the novel, the ability to work in silver, and eventually he leaves them a set of sacred texts which they cannot read, but several of the Aurelianos of the family spend time trying to translate or penetrate these texts.

Eventually this group of gypsies ceases to come to the village. They no longer existed.

“(They). . . had been wiped off the face of the earth because they had gone beyond the limits of human knowledge.”

But not Melquiades himself. He comes back a few more times and even stays for years at a time helping one or other of the Aureliano’s in their attempts to read the sacred and mysterious texts, and to master the work with silver.

The family has many children but the dominant names for the first born men in each generation are Aureliano and Jose Arcadio. The various Aurelianos have a tendency toward scholarship and trying to understand the hidden knowledge of the gypsies. The Joses tend to be more warlike and violent, world travelers and such. But there is a constant worry in the family: intermarriage. The matriarch of the family, Ursula (who lives to be over 125) is constantly worried that members of the family intermarrying with each other as they do will eventually produce children which will be:

“. . . born with the tail of a pig.”

Jose Arcadio Buendia and his wife Ursula Buendia are the elders of the family. Jose was a man who tried all sorts of things from an astrolabe to prove to himself that the world was round even though the village people thought him mad. He was deeply influence by Melquiades, who is a sort of mythical figure who guides the deeply curious and restless mind of Jose Arcadio Buendia.

The nature of the village changes after Melquiades and his group cease coming. In their place a second group began to come. They were much more interested in selling fun of a carnival sort whereas Melquiades and his band sold knowledge and technology. The village culture begins to shift with the new ways of the new gypsies with the exception of the various Aurelianos who continue two practices of the older band:

  1. They work in silver.
  2. They keep studying and particularly trying to figure out the scripts and texts that Mequiades had left with them.

The story is complex and we follow the family, the generations, many variations on the theme of incest inside the family, and the rise and fall of the family fortunes and the well-being of the village itself. We witness many changes in technology over time, but the one constant seems to be the mode of the Buendia clan and especially of the hope of the Aurelianos to break the mysterious code of Melquiades.

The book is an awesome read, a real page turner. Wonders appear constantly and one’s credibility is constantly challenged, but the reader who just accepts the tale as presented and enters into Marquez’s world of magical realism is well rewarded.

There is a bit of a surprise ending in the very last pages, but that is left untouched, best discovered when one reluctantly reaches the very end of this wonderful novel.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett