Chronicle of a Book Foretold:
Gabriel García Márquez’s
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
When I first read Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, finishing it at 4:00 in the morning, aged twenty, I lay the book on my chest and said aloud to myself, “That was the best book I’ve ever read.”
Since then there have been other favorites, but the impact of that overwhelming introduction to García Márquez’s world has remained one of the most formative reading experiences of my life. Looking back, it seems to have prepared me for many things that were to come, but at the time it felt like a totality, a final culmination of everything that a book could ever do or contain. Modeled on the Bible, it seemed the Alpha and Omega of novels, and as I lay there on that old red couch with the cheap mass-market edition of the book rising and sinking so lightly upon my breathing body, I felt wholly satisfied and couldn’t imagine a future beyond the book’s boundaries.
The Earth never stops moving through space and time, however, no matter how seemingly final an experience a soul can have, and the mind and heart evolve and encompass futher astonishments that often take you away from even the most profound revelations. But as with any other truly great experience, One Hundred Years of Solitude evolves and grows with you, encompassing more and more of what the universe has to show and teach you over the years.
Chronicling several generations of the Buendía family through the evolutions and revolutions and metamorphoses of the fictional/mythical town Macondo, One Hundred Years of Solitude sets up its own internal rules, following truths and logics exclusive to itself as its Genesis-like overture creates the book’s world and then carries the reader through its Bible-like begats that follow in dizzying succession and repetition. The universe of Macondo is peopled by patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, and magicians who seem to circle through a fluid time and morph into one another, some characters even living to an age much longer than the novel’s ostensible one hundred years.
When the book was translated into English in 1970, the great writer and critic William Kennedy wrote that it was “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” Many years later (the novel’s opening words are “Many years later”), after I’d graduated with a minor in Religious Studies and was doing a systematic study of the Bible while on a long trip across Europe, I began to see more than just Genesis in García Márquez’s vast novel-scheme, opening up an even more encompassing engagement that had been far beyond my original reading.
The rise and descent of the Buendía family, with all of its endlessly repeating name-variants of the family’s first-generation patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, mirrors the Bible’s arc from the Book of Joshua to the Book of Judges to the Second Book of Kings. Coming after the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy), this second major section of the Bible (called the “Deuteronomical History”) leads toward the establishment of the House of David over the land of Israel and then follows toward the nation’s inevitiable disintegration. When Israel’s center cannot hold any longer and breaks into two parts (the northern Israel, which God dislikes, and the southern Judah, which God favors because it’s still ruled by David’s ancestors, whose supporters were the people who compiled and redacted the Bible and who were naturally written to be the winning team), the names and trajectories of the parallel kings mirror each other (e.g. Jereboam/Reheboam) and sometimes even have the same name (and diminutive nickname). Eventually God “allows” the northern nation to fall to the Assyrians, but Judah endures long enough to have a kind of renaissance, when King Josiah has the high priest clean out the temple treasury so they can repair the temple, during which the priest discovers “the book of the law”—presumably an early version of Deuteronomy, which contains all the rules that the Israelites had supposedly forgotten.
After another brief golden age, Judah eventually goes the way of all flesh too and is conquered by the Babylonians as God decides that the nation has been sinning for way too long and that it’s too late to make up for it now. But the thread of Israel’s Davidic lineage continues in the Babylonian exile, because God has promised to let David’s descendents rule forever.
García Márquez mimics many of these biblical complexities and absurdities as Macondo rushes toward disintegration, and he has a mysterious Gypsy named Melquíades write it all down in a book of parchments—a book the memory of which is taken into exile by a minor character named Gabriel García Márquez, who had been friends with the last of the Buendías, Aureliano Babilonia Buendía (note his middle name), who’d translated Melquíades’ book. Near the end of the real Gabriel García Márquez’s book, which is the one we read and whose fictional original is Melquíades’ book, nobody but Aureliano Babilonia Buendía and Gabriel García Márquez even believe in the existence of the forgotten town anymore. Thus the character Gabriel García Márquez goes into a kind of “Babilonian” exile, and his real-life counterpart, the author Gabriel García Márquez, is the only one left to tell the tale when it’s all over.
As in the Bible, we read in One Hundred Years of Solitude of an endlessly overlapping and circling mythical history, and of that history’s translation into an ur-chronicle, which is then redacted by a human author to become the book that we get to hold in our hands and read. At twenty, with my hands empty and the finished novel lying on my chest, entirely dazzled by the book from within its own parameters, I only understood a glimmer of these vast resonances. But the book utterly changed me and sent me on journeys that I couldn’t have imagined at the time, making One Hundred Years of Solitude both a starting-place and a constant point of return, an Alpha and Omega that can be wholly loved and appreciated by the unschooled twenty year old and the educated writer/critic alike—and in my case, connecting and uniting them into one constantly evolving individual.