Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reviewed: One Hundred Years of Solitude

I have no timely plug for this review, except for the tenuous one between the recently awarded Nobel prizes and the author, who won that same prize in 1982. Like I said, very tenuous. I started reading "One Hundred Years of Solitude" because it arrived on my doorstep in a box. It was a gift.

Having once been fluent in Spanish (sadly, no longer the case) I resolved long ago to read all of Marquez' books in the original language or not at all. It will come as a surprise to no one that by and large I've opted for "not at all."

I have read Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the Colonel has no One to Write to Him, and various other Marquez works in Spanish, and his style lends itself well to that language. Perhaps because of the roll and flow of Spanish syllables and stresses, it's very difficult to translate Spanish poetry into English. I remember trying to adapt Lorca's "Romancero Gitano" only to find out that neither my Spanish nor my English were up to it.

It's tempting to overlook the translator of a work, just like it's easy to ignore a ghostwriter or a magazine editor. In some ways to do so is a mistake, because by filtering and adapting the text these people become part of its origin. It's difficult for me to say anything about Solitude without saying, up front, that I read an excellent translation, and that, as Robert Frost would say, has made all the difference.

The plot nearly boils with weird characters, foreign locations, sex and magic, but in spite of all this I couldn't get into it at first. The story rebounds with weirdness. Marquez has a talent for taking hyperbolic cliches - "I waited for forever" - and treating them like facts, a narrative trick that makes his characters at once more strange and compelling. But also not entirely human. The foreign location is a fictional town, a fact that Marquez expands upon to draw contrasts between the real and the imagined world. The sex is incestuous, class-conscious and occasionally pedophilic, but never gratuitous. And the magic is not really magic so much as the vague tricks reality plays on dislocated minds. The book runs long on imagination.

Although it is at times funny, humor is not the novel's central force, not even in disguised form. Marquez introduces the protagonist - a silent military hero with a penchant for fighting losing battles - as well as the hero's underage wife and fiercely dedicated mother. Despite his wife's early death, the hero manages to father 17 children on various unknown women, immediately introducing the novel to the central question of whether family can continue in the absence of paternity. Few of the characters who follow know where they come from, and they seek the knowledge in twists of fate and incestuous ties that turn the novel's pervasive orphans into an irony. The penultimate scene is almost Oedipal.

For a book intimately concerned with the passage of physical time, much of Marquez' plot takes place in the realm of inner monologue. Perhaps that's because of the author's obsessive focus on a family so isolated that the world outside them doesn't feel real. In the end, it is only through their destruction that they solve the mystery of their origin.

Some readers might be tempted to think of the Bible, with its epic fall and its loss of personal innocence. But Marquez' heroes follow an inverse and more dangerous route into the realm of innocence. Other readers might allude to Greek tragedy, with its overlapping layers of prophecy, memory and doom. But like most celebrated novels, the thing Solitude most closely resembles is itself.

Read it if you like: Things that go bump in the night, hidden insights into human nature
Skip it if you prefer: Disney

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