Sunday, January 20, 2013

Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude"

As I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, I kept thinking of how much Salman Rushdie owes to this novel when writing his Midnight's Children. Not just for the general method, now labeled magic realism, but also for particular incidents such as the plague of insomnia and particular characters such as the old prostitute Pilar Ternera. Was Rushdie electrified by the discovery that the language that generations of Buendias tried to decipher in the parchments of the gypsy Melquiades is Sanskrit? Did his discovery establish a personal link to the Muse of Marquez's city Macondo so that one novel directly inspired another? I felt such a connection, though in a far smaller way, when I read that Melquiades died on the sands of Singapore. The island-state is still a killer of the imagination.

Rushdie's brainchild in Midnight's Children was to dramatize the history of post-independence India through the life of one magic child Saleem. In doing so, Rushdie achieves a unity of design that I think is missing in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez tells the story of five generations but the dominating figure is that of Colonel Aureliana Buendia who leads the Liberals' war against the Conservatives. After his death, the novel shrinks to a family tragedy, poignant in its own way but pessimistic in its outlook. Jose Arcadio Segundo, the leader of the banana plantation workers, was a hapless witness in comparison to his heroic forebear. Ursula, the matriarch, does live through almost the whole of the novel, but she is increasingly powerless to affect the course of events. The novel does not end so much as run out of steam, much as the family does. Aureliano, the bastard son of Meme, decodes the parchments and realizes that Melquiades has predicted down to the smallest and last details the fortunes of the Buendia family.

By encompassing many generations, however, Marquez is able to deal with the notion of repetition in history with greater penetration and persistence than Rushdie. The repetition of names in the Buendia family--Aureliano, Jose Arcadio, Amaranta, Remedios--makes the notion impossible to forget. Do the later generations inherit the same character as their namesakes? Are they as fortunate or unfortunate? The problem of repetition is compounded in the twins Aureliano Segundo and Jose Arcadio Segundo, who look and behave alike until their adolescence. Their adult lives are vastly differently but what a trick fate plays on them when they are buried in the grave intended for the other. For all our frantic attempts to distinguish ourselves from others, we end up in a similar place. That is also the conclusion of the novel, for repetition does not prevent the coming to an end, as Aureliano the Bastard discovers as he reads to the end of Melquiades' parchments, which is also the end of the novel:

Before reaching for the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aurelian Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

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