One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books. Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes a novel about the seven generations of the Buendia family. There really is no plot, for garcia is interested in vignettes which illustrate his themes about the circularity of time, the importance of remembering history, discovering the magical in the real. And that's where we get the notion of magical realism. Realism is a basically European development, and is technically "social realism," or portraying the social realities, the problems of a world which has no meaning. Magical realism includes the idea of myth and magic inside this movement. It seeks to glory in the nonsensical, magical part of reality that the social realists ignore. Because of this, the magical realists can paint more heartrending tragedies, and comic hilarity than their ancestors, the modernists, while being more significant than their descendants, the post-modernists.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude there are delightful examples of magical realism. To pick these out of the novel may seem absurd, but I think that this will offer an opportunity to the person who has already enjoyed the novel once to see what Marquez has done and how he does it.
Jose Arcadio Buendia, the pater familias of the seven generations of the Buendias family, begins a quixotic search for the mythic philosopher's stone that grants eternal life and also the transmutation of lead into gold. If he is not insane before the quest, he is after. He is so insane that they must tie him to a tree, and is reduced to speaking only Latin. The search for the myth is not unlike what Marquez pursues in his writing, and the price of such a pursuit is being thought insane. The social realism is also evident in the primitive treatment of mental disease and the elderly.
And this is much like the rest of the novel. Moments of significant social realism are interspersed with mythic events, with no distinction between the two.
Jose Arcadio is seen naked by a gypsy woman who proclaims that he has the largest sexual organs she has ever seen. That is juxtaposed with his marrying a step-sister and being banished from the family. His mother Ursula is a archetype of the powerful Latina mother who runs the household, but she also has an unusually long life span, spanning several generations in almost biblical fashion.
The Colonel, Aurelio Buendia, was born with his eyes open because, while in the womb, he had cried copiously. He is prescient. But this pensive man also leads warriors against the conservative government and is turned into a war hero. He is at the focus of the political civil wars that plague Colombia. He has seventeen sons during his war years, all named Aureliano (like George Forman naming all his kids George). During an Ash Wednesday service the ones who stay in Macondo are marked with a permanent smudge of ash on their foreheads, which identifies them to the conservatives who kill them.
Rebeca and Amaranta are sisters who fall for the same man. Rebeca ends up marrying him, but leaves him and marries her step-brother, Jose. Amaranta goes into seclusion like a Colombian Miss Haversham, and is visited by an old woman, Death, who tells her to begin weaving her burial shroud. When she completes it, she dies. Rebeca came to Macondo with her parents's bones and carried an infectious insomnia. When Jose dies, she goes into seclusion and is never seen again. With the utter fantasy of infectious insomnia or the incarnation of death is mixed the complex reality of sibling rivalries, incest, family politics and heartbreak.
Remedios is Arcadio and Santa Sofia's child. She is the most beautiful woman in the world and caused the untimely death of several men who desire her. So far, pretty much a fairy tale, right? Turns out that she is chaste, and innocent, and good. She is so good that she eschews materialism and sews her own cassock. One day she is ascended into heaven. She is a combination of the Virgin mythos that pervades Latin America and the social and family politics of the Buendia clan.
Aureliano Segundo shacks up with a mistress. While they fornicate happily like beasts, his livestock flourish and he becomes wealthy. But this does not last and the revelry and the wealth end. When he and his twin brother die at the same moment, their bodies get switched at the funeral and they get buried in opposite graves.
Melquades is a traveling gypsy. He dies in Singapore, but nevertheless returns to live with the Buendias complaining that the solitude of death was too much for him. He writes a prophecy in a secret language that Aureliano Babilonia eventually is able to translate. The prophecy turns out to be an accurate history of Macondo and the seven generations of the Buendia family. It turns out that the book we are reading is the book that Mel writes. Marquez loved the idea of self-referential and circular recursive writing. Marquez Is Melquiades, the writer, the prophet.
Everything in the novel seems bigger than life: the rains are biblical, the women are the most beautiful, the men have the largest. . . whatever. But Marquez never allows us to forget the realistic world, either. There are civil wars, Europeans oppress the serfs in a banana plantation, then allow the town to disintegrate after the plantation fails. Marquez is both magical and yet socially conscious.