In an article published at the end of May 2017, John Dugdale wrote a fifty-years-on article in The Guardian celebrating the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude (Spanish: Cien años de soledad) in 1967.
“In a fascinating coincidence, the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released just two days later, on 1 June. As it happens, Merseyside and Macondo – the fictional town featured in the novel – were far from being worlds apart: the Fab Four were moving towards a psychedelic surrealism not unlike magic realism in 1967. The film Magical Mystery Tour came later in the year, while A Hard Day’s Night had been one of the LPs that kept García Márquez company as he wrote his novel.”
This novel by Gabriel García Márquez has, over the years, received much critical acclaim and been widely feted. According to Pablo Neruda, the novel is “Perhaps the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since the Don Quixote of Cervantes”, while the reviewer of the book in The New York Times opined, “You emerge from this marvellous novel as if from a dream, the mind on fire: with a single bound Gabriel García Márquez leaps on to stage with Günter Grass and Vladimir Nabokov, his appetites as enormous as his imagination, his fatalism greater than either”.
Sadly, I only managed to get around to reading the book in 2019, fifty-two years after publication. A big mistake!
Dare I go against the overwhelming consensus regarding the novel’s dazzling brilliance? It would take a very brave man or woman to do so. I, most certainly, am not that man! Indeed, as far as I can judge, this is one of most extraordinary novels in the twentieth century and not just in the Spanish-speaking world.
Sadly, it is impossible to summarise the plot adequately given the limits of this format. Suffice it to say, One Hundred Years of Solitude concerns the founding of the isolated fictional town of Macondo by the Buendias family and the corresponding history of that family over seven generations.
Is it an enjoyable read? Most definitely. Is it an easy read? The answer here has to be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. At the level of immediate engagement, the descriptions and delineations are captivating, indeed frequently spellbinding. However, at another level, trying to make sense of the novel as a whole is a more demanding task, and one which may ultimately prove elusive. Certain themes, however, can be slowly identified. These include self-isolation, self-absorption, elitism, incest and fatalism which in some sense weave together into an Hispanic danse macabre.
The critic John Dugdale was not being opportunistic or in any sense jejune in making a connection between this novel and The Beatles’s equally celebrated masterwork. Frequently, García Márquez’s novel is cited as being a pre-eminent example of magical realism, a genre of fiction where magic or the supernatural is presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting. Curiously, discussions about magical realism within the groves of literary criticism normally eschew any reference to psychedelic forms of consciousness. This lacuna or oversight is particularly telling when it comes to this novel. Ayahuasca (featuring exogenous DMT) is used not only in the western part of the Amazon Basin, but also the western part of the Guiana Shield which encompasses much of Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam and French Guiana. The question here is not whether García Márquez, as a Columbian, ever imbibed ayahuasca, whether ritualistically or in a private setting, but the degree to which he was aware of the latter’s embodiment within his native culture.
In an interview with Miguel Fernandez-Braso in 1969, Márquez commented, “My most important problem was to destroy the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic. Because in the world that I was trying to evoke, that barrier didn't exist”. And that, in a way, sums up the enterprise undertaken in this extraordinary work. We are, nonetheless, left with the ultimate question as to whether this bold approach, where an enormous premium is placed on subjectivity, inevitably leads to pessimism and, finally, fatalism or whether it can create a novum rerum, a ‘brand-new day’. The jury is probably still out.