On ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’

The first centennial of the Soviet revolution, indeed the fifth centennial of Luther’s, risk distracting us from a literary earthquake which happened just fifty years ago and marked the cultural emergence of Latin America onto that new and larger stage we call globalisation – itself a space that ultimately proves to be well beyond the separate categories of the cultural or the political, the economic or the national. I mean the publication of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, which not only unleashed a Latin American ‘boom’ on an unsuspecting outside world but also introduced a host of distinct national literary publics to a new kind of novelising. Influence is not a kind of copying, it is permission unexpectedly received to do things in new ways, to broach new content, to tell stories by way of forms you never knew you were allowed to use. What is it, then, that García Márquez did to the readers and writers of a still relatively conventional postwar world?
He began his productive life as a movie reviewer and a writer of movie scenarios nobody wanted to film. Is it so outrageous to consider One Hundred Years of Solitude as a mingling, an intertwining and shuffling together of failed movie scripts, so many fantastic episodes that could never be filmed and so must be consigned to Melquíades’s Sanskrit manuscript (from which the novel has been ‘translated’)? Or perhaps it may be permitted to note the astonishing simultaneity of the beginning of his literary career with the so-called Bogotazo, the assassination in 1948 of the great populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (and the beginning of the seventy-year long Violencia in Colombia), just as García Márquez was having lunch down the street and, not much further away, the 21-year-old Fidel Castro was waiting in his hotel room for an afternoon meeting with Gaitán about the youth conference he had been sent to organise in Bogota that summer.
The solitude of the title should not at first be taken to mean the affective pathos it becomes at the end of the book: first and foremost, in the novel’s founding or refounding of the world itself, it signifies autonomy. Macondo is a place away from the world, a new world with no relation to an old one we never see. Its inhabitants are a family and a dynasty, albeit accompanied by their fellows on a failed expedition which just happened to come to rest at this point. The initial solitude of Macondo is a purity and an innocence, a freedom from whatever worldly miseries have been forgotten at this opening moment, this moment of a new creation. If we insist on seeing this as a Latin American work, then we can say that Macondo is unsullied by the Spanish conquest as also by indigenous cultures: neither bureaucratic not archaic, neither colonial nor Indian. But if you insist on an allegorical dimension, then it also signifies the uniqueness of Latin America itself in the global system, and at another level the distinctness of Colombia from the rest of Latin America, and even of García Márquez’s native (coastal, Caribbean) region from the rest of Colombia and the Andes. All these perspectives mark the freshness of the novel’s starting point, its utopian laboratory experiment.
But as we know, the form-problem of utopia is that of narrative itself: what stories remain to be told if life is perfect and society is perfected? Or, to turn the question inside out and rephrase the problem of content in terms of novelistic form, what narrative paradigms survive to provide the raw material for that destruction or deconstruction which is the work of the novel itself as a kind of meta-genre or anti-genre? This was the deeper truth of Lukács’s pathbreaking Theory of the Novel. The genres, the narrative stereotypes or paradigms, belong to older, traditional societies: the novel is then the anti-form proper to modernity itself (which is to say, of capitalism and its cultural and epistemological categories, its daily life). This means, as Schumpeter put it in an immortal phrase, that the novel is also a vehicle of creative destruction. Its function, in some properly capitalist ‘cultural revolution’, is the perpetual undoing of traditional narrative paradigms and their replacement, not by new paradigms, but by something radically different. To use Deleuzian language for a moment, modernity, capitalist modernity, is the moment of passage from codes to axioms, from meaningful sequences, or indeed, if you prefer, from meaning itself, to operational categories, to functions and rules; or, in yet another language, this time more historical and philosophical, it is the transition from metaphysics to epistemologies and pragmatisms, we might even say from content to form, if the use of this second term did not risk confusion.
The form-problem of the novel is that it isn’t easy to find sequences to replace those traditional narrative paradigms; the replacements inevitably tend to reform into new narrative paradigms and genres in their own right (as witness the emergence of the Bildungsroman as a meaningful narrative genre, based as it is on conceptions of life, career, pedagogy and spiritual or material development which are all essentially ideological and thereby historical). These newly created yet soon familiar and old-fashioned paradigms must be destroyed in turn, in a perpetual innovation of the form. Even then, it is rare enough for a novelist to invent wholly original replacement paradigms (paradigm change is as momentous an event in the history of narrative as elsewhere), let alone to replace narrative itself, something modernism can be seen everywhere to strive for, unsuccessfully I might add: for what is here demanded is a new kind of novelistic narrative which replaces narrative altogether, something obviously a contradiction in terms.
The perpetual resurrection of newer narrative paradigms and sub-genres out of the still warm ashes of their destruction is a process I would attribute to commodification, as the primary law of our kind of society: it isn’t only objects that are subject to commodification, it is anything capable of being named. Many are the philosophical examples of this seemingly fatal process, and the philosophers who – like Wittgenstein or Derrida in their very different ways – set out to free us from stable, reified, conventional categories and concepts have ended up as brand names in their own right. So it is with the creative destruction of narrative paradigms: your ‘knight’s move’, your deviation or defamiliarisation, ends up becoming just another ‘new paradigm’ (unless, as in postmodernity, it chooses the path of what used to be called irony, namely the use of pastiche, the play with a repetition of dead forms at a slight remove).
Such are, in my opinion, the consequences of Lukács’s insights in the Theory of the Novel – insights which did not have the benefit, as we do, of generations of accumulated modernist experiments in this direction. Returning to One Hundred Years of Solitude with a view to demonstrating and validating what I have proposed, let’s begin with its principal narrative paradigm, the family novel. It has been debated a good deal lately, the upshot being that it is no longer possible, if it ever was (and perhaps, indeed, in the West it never was). The Bildungsroman is not a family novel but a flight from the family; the picaresque novel turns on a hero who never had a family; and as for the novel of adultery, its relation to the family speaks for itself.
Someone, I think it was Jeffrey Eugenides, has claimed that the family novel today is only possible in the non-West, and I think there is a profound insight here. We may think of Mahfouz, for example, but I would argue that it is one of the greatest of all novels, the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, one should have in mind. After all, it is from China that we have the slogan that epitomises the ideal of the family as the fundamental structure of life itself: five generations under one roof! The great manor or compound thereby includes everyone from the eighty-year-old patriarch to the newborn baby, including the intermediate generations of parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents, at the appropriate twenty-year generational intervals: patriarchy in its ideal or even Platonic form, you might say (overlooking the often malign role of the various matriarchs and uncles in the process). Folk wisdom through the ages has – along with many philosophers, beginning with Aristotle – assimilated the state itself to this patriarchal or dynastic family, and it is this deep ideological archetype that One Hundred Years of Solitude brings to the surface and makes visible. The extended family founded by José Arcadio Buendía is the ‘mythic’ state, which will only later, in its days of prosperity, be infiltrated by personnel of the professional or official state, in the person of a ‘magistrate’ and his police, who are at once assigned a minor and inconspicuous position, along with the other hangers-on of any city-state, such as merchants and booksellers. And just as an extended family has its own service personnel – gardeners, electricians, pool maintenance specialists, carpenters and shamans – so also these appear and disappear punctually in the entourage of the Buendía family, of which they may be considered honorary members.
The family considered as its own city-state has, as the anthropologists teach us, one fundamental problem: it is endogamy, the centripetal tendency to absorb everything external into itself, risking the danger of inbreeding (the intermarriage of cousins and even incest), and all the consequences of triumphant identity, including repetition, boredom and that fateful genetic mutation, the family pigtail. What is not the family, to be sure, is the other and the enemy. Still, the law of endogamy does have its own way of thinking inoffensive otherness; it has its own thought categories for acknowledging difference and relegating it to a subordinate and intermittent, indeed cyclical and harmlessly festive category. It calls such incursions from the outside gypsies. These bring, as the opening pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude so memorably show us, radical difference, in the form of trinkets and inventions: magnets, telescopes, compasses and, finally, the only true miracle achieved by these swindlers and con-artists, the wonder that testifies to their authentically magical power: ‘Many years later,’ the immortal first sentence of the novel reads, ‘as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ Ice! An element with inconceivable properties, a new addition to the atomic chart. The existence of ice in the tropics is ‘memorable’ because it is remembered, as Benjamin might have put it. It marks, in that opening sentence, the dialectical nature of reality itself: ice burns and freezes simultaneously.
So it is the raw material of the ‘family novel’ which will in this opening section be worked over for all its resources and all its possibilities of musical variation, structural permutation, metamorphosis, anecdotal invention, the production of endless episodes which are all in fact the same, structural equivalents in the myth of ‘magic realism’, whose production and reproduction is itself what is then tautologically described as ‘mythic’. Yet the identity of this seemingly irrepressible and irreversible proliferation of familial anecdotes is betrayed by the repetition of names down through the generations – so many Aurelianos (17 of them at one point), so many José Arcadios, even with some Remedios and Amarantas thrown in on the distaff side. Harold Bloom is right to complain of ‘a kind of aesthetic battle fatigue, since every page is crammed full of life beyond the capacity of any single reader to absorb’.
I would add to this an embarrassment the literary commentator is loath to confess, namely the difficulty of keeping the characters’ names separate from one another. This problem is rather different from students’ complaints about impossible Russian patronymics and matronymics (and now Chinese or non-Western ones), and worthier of attention in its own right as a symptom of something historically more important: namely, the renewed significance of generations and the generational, in an overpopulated world henceforth doomed to synchrony rather than diachrony. I can remember when, in the development of that now respectable literary genre the detective story, a writer of some originality (Ross Macdonald) began to experiment with multi-generational crimes: you could never remember whether the murderer was the son, the father or the grandfather. So it is with García Márquez, but deliberately, in a spatial world beyond time itself (‘No one has died here yet’; ‘the first person born in Macondo’ and so on). Everything changes in Macondo, the state arrives, and then religion, and finally capitalism itself; the civil war pursues its course like a serpent biting its own tail; the town grows old and desolate, the rain of history begins and ends, the original protagonists begin to die off; and yet the narrative itself, in its rhizomatic strings, never grows extinct, its force remaining equal to itself until the fateful turn of its final pages. The dynasty is a family of names, and those names belong to the inexhaustible narrative impulse, and not to time or history.
So, as Vargas Llosa has observed, there lies behind the repetitive synchronicity of García Márquez’s family structure a whole diachronous progression of the history of society itself, against whose shadowy, inexorable temporality we follow the structural permutations of an ever changing yet static family structure, whose generations ring the changes on its permanency, and whose variations reflect History only as symptoms, not as allegorical markers. It is this dual structure which permits a unique and unrepeatable solution to the form-problem of the historical novel and the family novel alike.
But the family narrative has one last trick up its sleeve, a final desperate move at its moment of saturation and exhaustion: the absolute structural inversion or negation of itself. For what defined the autonomy of Macondo and allowed its luxurious exfoliation of endogamies was its monadic isolation. Yet as in the ancient cosmologies of atomism, the very concept of the atom produces a multiplicity of other atoms, identical to itself; the notion of the One generates many Ones; the force of attraction that pulls everything external into the internal, that absorbs all difference into identity, now subverts and negates itself, and the repulsion into which attraction suddenly turns acquires a new name: war.
With war, One Hundred Years of Solitude acquires its second narrative paradigm, only apparently a mirror-image of the first, whose secondary, eccentric filial protagonist now suddenly becomes the hero. The war novel, to be sure, is itself a peculiar and problematic kind of narrative: if you like, it is one manifestation of a deeper structural necessity of all narrative, namely what the screenwriters’ handbooks recommend as conflict, and what narrative theorists such as Lukács (and Hegel) see as the essence of the pre-eminence of tragedy as a form.
The Latin American version of the war novel, however, is a little more complicated than it looks. Colombia’s institutionalised civil war, the Austrian-style alternation of its two parties, is at first memorialised in Aureliano’s identification with the Liberals, but is then transformed by his repudiation of both parties in the adoption of guerrilla warfare and generalised social ‘banditry’. Meanwhile, in the country of Bolívar, this atomisation is modified by a truly Bolívarian pan-Americanism (of the type aspired to by both recent Latin American revolutions, the Cuban and the Venezuelan), which is itself but a figure of that ‘world revolution’ onto which the original Soviet revolution had hoped to open. The ambiguity is not only that of South America as a distinct geographical and ethnic ‘autonomous zone’ in a world history of which it nonetheless wishes to be a central part; but also of the imbrication of these various autonomies – from village to nation-state to region – between which the representation freely moves. We remember that the mythic founder, José Arcadio, set out from the Old World ‘in search of an outlet to the sea’ (discouraged by his discovery of a primal swamp, he settled on the halfway position of Macondo). The space of independence (and solitude) is thus something like the attempt to become an island. The sea here figures that ultimate boundary and end of the world otherwise socially and economically embodied for Latin America by the US. (It is true that the other great regional autonomous zone in which García Márquez’s Cartagena participates is the Caribbean, but it scarcely has the importance in One Hundred Years of Solitude that the regional centrality of the Cuban revolution had in García Márquez’s own life.)
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