It’s been so long since I did one of these! I’ve been slacking on my reading this year (for, ah, fairly good reasons) but I’ve been meaning to read my magical realism classics for a while. I started House of the Spirits a while ago and promptly… put it down and forgot where it went. But this is my first go at One Hundred Years of Solitude, and… wow.
The book, strikingly, starts with a man facing a firing squad. The rest of the book – or at least, the chapter, so we’ll see where it goes – is about his thoughts right at the end of his life. Quite literally, his life flashing before his eyes. This man, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, grew up in a small village called Macondo somewhere in the Andes; cut off from the rest of the world and connected to the idea of a wider world only through the visiting gypsies. These gypsies bring all sorts of fascinations to the village, which whip up his imaginative father’s fancy, despite their warnings otherwise.
Obviously, I’m not fond of the word ‘gypsy’, but between this being a book in translation (it’s a Colombian novel, so originally written in Spanish) and being published in 1967, I’m willing to let it slide. I’m also willing to let it slide because the depiction of the gypsies is fascinating. The main Romani character in the first chapter, Melquíades, warns Aureliano’s father time and time again against his fantasies. The first time, Melquíades shows off an immensely powerful magnet that pulls all sorts of iron and steel towards it — and Aureliano’s father immediately buys it and tries to use it to search for gold, despite Melquíades warning him that it won’t work for that. The second time, it’s a magnifying glass that Aureliano’s father wants to repurpose as a weapon, and in a wonderful bit of characterization, after this also fails, Melquíades gives him the money back in exchange for the magnifying glass, and gives him a map. (So often, Romani characters are immediately depicted as shady and dishonest; the only comment I have is that it’s a little funny how much time the narrative spends on ‘no, no, they were super honest and super forthcoming about this’. Goes to show how deep the assumptions run.)
Ultimately, Aureliano’s father wants to set off and explore the world, and only his wife Ursula manages to dissuade him from it — because, for one, he’s absolutely terrible at it. (He manages to, through some extremely bad navigation, convince himself that Macondo is on a peninsula with no way forward. He’s, uh, wrong.) Two, his sons need attention – so the next time the gypsies come to town, he takes them down with him, and it’s together that they discover the ‘latest’ invention; ice.
I’ve always loved magical realism, but there’s something about reading one of the first books to establish the style to really ground what it means. ‘Dreamlike’ is correct; but also the sense of dislocation, the blurred lines between reality and fantasy, where it’d be just as easy to believe this is a fantasy world where Aureliano’s father really is discovering that the world is round and witnessing the invention of ice. The writing is gorgeous, too, and such a huge part of establishing the tone — some of this, obviously, is thanks to the translation. One day I hope I get to read it in the original Spanish, but even in English, the prose is just… so so good. And all of it’s colored with a bit of darkness, the knowledge that Aureliano dies by firing squad; and we don’t know why.
I’m excited to read the rest – keep your eyes peeled for my full review! This went up 24 hours early for my Patreon supporters.