The Secret History of One Hundred Years of Solitude

The house, in a quiet part of Mexico City, had a study within, and in the study he found a solitude he had never known before and would never know again. Cigarettes (he smoked 60 a day) were on the worktable. LPs were on the record player: Debussy, Bartók, A Hard Day’s Night. Stuck up on the wall were charts of the history of a Caribbean town he called Macondo and the genealogy of the family he named the Buendías. Outside, it was the 1960s; inside, it was the deep time of the pre-modern Americas, and the author at his typewriter was all-powerful.

He visited a plague of insomnia upon the people of Macondo; he made a priest levitate, powered by hot chocolate; he sent down a swarm of yellow butterflies. He led his people on the long march through civil war and colonialism and banana-republicanism; he trailed them into their bedrooms and witnessed sexual adventures obscene and incestuous. “In my dreams, I was inventing literature,” he recalled. Month by month the typescript grew, presaging the weight that the great novel and the “solitude of fame,” as he would later put it, would inflict on him.

Gabriel García Márquez began writing Cien Años de Soledad—One Hundred Years of Solitude—a half-century ago, finishing in late 1966. The novel came off the press in Buenos Aires on May 30, 1967, two days before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, and the response among Spanish-language readers was akin to Beatlemania: crowds, cameras, exclamation points, a sense of a new era beginning. In 1970 the book appeared in English, followed by a paperback edition with a burning sun on its cover, which became a totem of the decade. By the time García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1982, the novel was considered the Don Quixote of the Global South, proof of Latin-American literary prowess, and the author was “Gabo,” known all over the continent by a single name, like his Cuban friend Fidel.

Many years later, interest in Gabo and his great novel is surging. The Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas, recently paid $2.2 million to acquire his archives—including a Spanish typescript of Cien Años de Soledad—and in October a gathering of his family members and academics took a fresh look at his legacy, repeatedly invoking the book as his magnum opus.

Unofficially, it’s everybody’s favorite work of world literature and the novel that, more than any other since World War II, has inspired novelists of our time—from Toni Morrison to Salman Rushdie to Junot Díaz. A scene in the movie Chinatown takes place at a Hollywood hacienda dubbed El Macondo Apartments. Bill Clinton, during his first term as president, made it known that he would like to meet Gabo when they were both on Martha’s Vineyard; they wound up swapping insights about Faulkner over dinner at Bill and Rose Styron’s place. (Carlos Fuentes, Vernon Jordan, and Harvey Weinstein were at the table.) When García Márquez died, in April 2014, Barack Obama joined Clinton in mourning him, calling him “one of my favorites from the time I was young” and mentioning his cherished, inscribed copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “It’s the book that redefined not just Latin-American literature but literature, period,” insists Ilan Stavans, the pre-eminent scholar of Latino culture in the U.S., who says he has read the book 30 times.

How is it that this novel could be sexy, entertaining, experimental, politically radical, and wildly popular all at once? Its success was no sure thing, and the story of how it came about is a crucial and little-known chapter in the literary history of the last half-century.

The creator of contemporary fiction’s most famous village was a city man. Born in 1927 in the Colombian village of Aracataca, near the Caribbean coast, and schooled inland in a suburb of Bogotá, Gabriel García Márquez quit pre-law studies to become a journalist in the cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla (writing a column), and Bogotá (writing movie reviews). As the noose of dictatorship tightened, he went on assignment to Europe—and out of harm’s way. He had hard times there. In Paris, he turned in deposit bottles for cash; in Rome, he took classes in experimental filmmaking; he shivered in London and sent back dispatches from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. Returning south—to Venezuela—he was nearly arrested during a random sweep by military police. When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, García Márquez signed on with Prensa Latina, a press agency funded by the new Communist government, and after a stint in Havana he moved to New York in 1961 with his wife, Mercedes, and their young son, Rodrigo.

The city, he later said, “was putrefying, but also was in the process of rebirth, like the jungle. It fascinated me.” The family stayed in the Webster Hotel, at 45th and Fifth, and then with friends in Queens, but Gabo spent most of his time at the press office near Rockefeller Center, in a room with a lone window above a vacant lot overrun with rats. The phone rang and rang with calls from inflamed Cuban exiles who saw the agency as an outpost of the Castro regime they detested, and he kept an iron rod at the ready in case of attack.

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