Filling up with elves

Now I will admit that I am not the world’s biggest fan of magical realism. I like magic and I like realism, but for me these are not two great tastes that go great together. So I wasn’t entirely sure how much I would enjoy One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I wanted to read at least one of the books Oprah had chosen during her classic-literature period, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous tome was the lucky winner. After all, he was the guy who put magical realism on the map.

Turns out I liked the darn thing. Maybe it was because, this time, I was prepared for people’s toenail clippings to turn into bats and dine on duck a l’orange with local fishermen. So when that actually happened in chapter two, I was all over it.

Okay, so that didn’t happen in chapter two. But it might as well have.

One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of five generations of the Buendia family, whose myriad screwed-up members all have variations on the same couple of names (it’s even worse than the Dirkfest mentioned in John’s previous post — Jose Arcadio Buendia, for example, is the father of Jose Arcadio who is the father of Arcadio who is the father of Jose Arcadio Segundo who is the uncle of Jose Arcadio). Yes, the name thing is totally maddening. But here — unlike in Clive Cussler — the repeated names actually serve a literary function. These are people whose sorrowful history repeats itself over and over, not only because they inherit the same names as their forefathers but also the same personalities. As one reads along, the characters blend together; it’s difficult to remember who is related to whom and how, reinforcing the vicious circle that ensnares the hapless Buendias for one hundred years.

Boy would this book never have been a recent bestseller if not for Oprah. It’s not emotionally driven. It’s not inspiring. It doesn’t have evil cackling villains and it doesn’t even have the number seven in it. It’s weird! It’s a book about lust and failure and obsession and unhappiness (and most of all, human nature, which so many of our bestsellers try to avoid). It didn’t make me feel good; honestly, it didn’t make me feel much of anything. I’m down with that, of course, but we all know Oprah isn’t. The little I can glean from her web archives suggests that she picked the book because she got “swept away by the magic.”

I don’t think that happened to me, but there is magic in the writing: a seamless blend of the mundane and fantastical, which is a storytelling style Marquez apparently absorbed from his grandmother. As a result the prose can shift from straightforward to sad and even quite funny (one of my favorite lines: “It was around that time that Fernanda got the impression that the house was filling up with elves”).

Despite my diligent attempts to keep all the characters and stories straight, what I will probably remember most about this book is that people had a lot of sex in hammocks. Darn it, there are just too many Arcadios.

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