Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

In recognition of the 35th anniversary

b y   j e f f   k .   h i l l   ~   o g l e s b y ,   i l l i n o i s

MY INTRODUCTION to Gabriel García Márquez, and to the style termed "Magical Realism," came in 1988 with the publication of his novel Love in the Time of Cholera. I enjoyed it greatly, touched by the love story and enchanted by the everyday "magic." Based on that experience, I decided to try his proclaimed masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. Although I prefer the lighter touch and tighter focus of Cholera, Solitude has many aspects to recommend itself, and can indeed be considered a landmark literary achievement. What follows, then, is not a critique or review, but one avid reader's appreciation.

One Hundred Years of Solitude has been variously called myth, biography, and history. I find aspects of all these, and others, in the book. What one can say without dissent is that it is a wonderful and popular read not at all dependent upon a knowledge of the history or politics described. This has certainly helped it to become what Gerald Martin has called, "The first truly international best-seller in Latin American publishing history." Mostly for this book did García Márquez receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

Despite its warm reception outside Latin America, Western audiences have yet to truly understand the novel and the style in which it is written. Our emphasis on science and logic ignores a real and potent strain of enchantment that runs through our daily lives. Solitude is filled with these every day miracles. But the term "Magical Realism" is misleading at best. To draw a line between fantasy and reality is to misunderstand the novel completely. Everything García Márquez presents is genuinely real, but seen with a new (to Westerners) perspective. In fact, everything in the novel could more accurately be described as fantasy, because that is the perspective with which García Márquez has us view life. In an interview with Miguel Fernandez-Braso in 1969, García Márquez said, "My most important problem was to destroy the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic. Because in the world that I was trying to evoke, that barrier didn't exist." Solitude therefore erases the dichotomy between reality and imagination, history and myth, memory and prophecy. The book itself blurs the boundaries between popular consumerist fluff and enduring literary art. To categorise Solitude as "Magical Realism" is lazy and denigrates the Latin American experience of life, forcing it to conform to Anglo-American norms. This novel and others of the same style are more precisely described by Alejo Carpentier's term, "the marvelous real."

A fine example of the blending of history and myth (and the precise and sincere narrative tone in the novel) is the aftermath of the banana workers' strike. The government summons the workers to a meeting. One of the main characters of the novel, José Arcadio Segundo, is among the workers:

"Next to José Arcadio Segundo there was a barefooted woman, very fat, with two children between the ages of four and seven. She was carrying the smaller one and she asked José Arcadio Segundo, without knowing him, if he would lift up the other one so that he could hear better. José Arcadio Segundo put the child on his shoulders. Many years later that child would still tell, to the disbelief of all, that he had seen the lieutenant reading Decree No. 4 of the civil and military leader of the province through an old phonograph horn. It had been signed by General Carlos Cortes Vargas and his secretary, Major Enrique García Isaza, and in three articles of eighty words he declared the strikers to be a 'bunch of hoodlums' and he authorized the army to shoot to kill." (p. 309-10)

Just such an atrocity occurred in Colombia's history. And just as in the novel, the government denied the event ever happened and the victims ever existed. Such a thing seems more like fiction to an Anglo-American audience, but it is indeed horribly true. Governments do deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate in their own interests. (See also the "conspiracy paranoia" of Special Agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files.)

That brutal episode aside, there is something clearly magical about Macondo. It is a state of mind as much as, or even more than, a real geographical place. To further underscore the difference in the perspective of García Márquez, the inhabitants of Macondo are unfazed by things that seem plainly supernatural in the Western world, such as a flying carpet or levitation by means of chocolate; but when they encounter electric buses, movies, phonographs, and telephones, they can no longer recognise the boundaries of reality.

In general, the history of Macondo follows a linear development, from its Edenic founding, through the military struggles as it becomes integrated into the rest of the world, to its invasion by technology and civilisation, and ending with its decadence and physical destruction. There is clearly a line connecting definite points in history, beginning with the exploration of Sir Francis Drake and continuing until the banana workers' strike. But this line inscribes a circle. Úrsula, the central female character, is repeatedly struck by the conviction that time is going in a circle and events are repeating. Pilar Ternera observes that "the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle." (p.402) In the case of the room of the gypsy Melquíades, "it was always March there and always Monday." (p.355) And the very first sentence of the novel is constructed such that past, present, and future all exist at once, with time flowing out in every direction. Indeed, the novel is multilayered, telling many stories of many characters often all at once, as if they coexisted all at once. I have found the best way to read and understand the book is to digest it in individual episodes that follow characters and thoughts with no regard at all for time.

Some of my favorite episodes in the novel are the trickle of blood (p.135), the shower of flowers (p.144), and the discovery of a monster or fallen angel or the Wandering Jew (p.349-50). Embedded within the episodes are also synopses of several of the author's short stories.

Many people recognise in the novel a central Oedipal plot line veined with a theme of solitude. At the start of the book, the founders of Macondo are familiar with their family history, how their relatives had produced a male child with a pig's tail. This tail was a badge of solitude and an integral part of the son as a human. When the tail was removed, the son died. This episode of the past is actually a future (or prophecy) which never comes about, despite the fact that the Buendías eventually lose track of their history, and the last couple has no idea how closely related they are. When pressed on the subject of the novel, García Márquez has said that he really wanted to write a book about incest. And so it is that incest becomes the ultimate solitude of the Buendías and ends the family and the town.

The men and women of the Buendía family become the two sides of the marvelous real in Macondo. It is here that the line is most clearly drawn between the fantasies of the men and the realities of the women. Yet they all eventually resign themselves to the failures of their efforts. It is their very acts of resignation that condemn them to solitude of every kind. There is fearful solitude, terrible solitude, miserable solitude, and bitter solitude; a shell of solitude, an aridity of solitude, a cloister of solitude, and a pox of solitude; a solitary bed, a solitary vulture, a solitary chestnut tree, a solitary vocation, a solitary meditation, a solitary window, and solitary frustrations, streets, and hours; there is the solitude of death (which is nothing compared to the solitude of living!); there is a pact with solitude, and even accomplices in solitude. Despite all this, Úrsula believes the downfall of the Buendías can be attributed simply to war, fighting cocks, bad women, and wild undertakings.

The novel is also full of allusions to the Bible. Some interpretations are based on the presumption that Solitude is a reworking of the Book of Genesis. Macondo is initially a paradise in which no one dies. The inhabitants suffer numerous plagues. One of the women ascends bodily into the clouds. A storm of biblical proportions annihilates the town. The discovery of a Spanish galleon in the middle of the jungle elicits thoughts of the ark. And throughout the novel there is an implicit acknowledgment of the power of namery. When Macondo is still a village, many things are yet to be named. Later, a plague of insomnia is combated by inscribing the names of things and their purpose, and the inhabitants realise they are "living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words...."(p.49) By far the most potent example is the names of the characters, which repeat incestuously and doom the characters to the events of their predecessors.

But something else is happening here. Near the end a priest seems to know what is going on, as he tells Aureliano Babilonia, "It's enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment." (p.415) So what exactly does he mean?

In 1965, García Márquez withdrew to the study of his Mexico City home and essentially remained there for eighteen months until he had overthrown a three-year reign of writer's block with the thirteen-hundred page manuscript for One Hundred Years of Solitude. In his novel, the gypsy Melquíades acts in exactly the same manner to create a mysterious quadruple-coded manuscript. There is another famous novel concerning one Don Quixote which is purported to be a translation of an Arabic manuscript, which mirrors life much like Solitude, and in which the author refers to himself. Readers of either book can easily find a copy in English, and thus treat themselves to an extra layer of decoding. For the Buendías, the task of deciphering and understanding the manuscript of Melquíades is not so simple. Generations pass and histories are forgotten before Aureliano Babilonia finally succeeds.

At the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia discovers he is only a character in a manuscript, I realise that the narrator is not outside the novel but within. I survive (though not forever!) to share my appreciation of this fabulous novel. But the self-knowledge Aureliano Babilonia gains means the end of his family and town.

"…he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he was looking into a speaking mirror. Then he skipped again to anticipate the predictions and ascertain the date and circumstances of his death. Before reaching 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 Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments…." (p.422)

It has all been like a dream, seemingly so real when we are in it, until we wake to discover the dream doesn't really exist, and it all vanishes.

How does one interpret this novel then? Brian McHale has posited that "a character's knowledge of his own fictionality often functions as a kind of master-trope for determinism -- cultural, historical, psychological determinism, but especially the inevitability of death… being the puppet of playwright and director is a metaphor for being the puppet of fate, history, the human condition." (Postmodernist Fiction, p.123)

But Aureliano Babilonia never dies. He remains in the room, reading about his end, as the city of mirrors is swept away by a warm wind "full of voices from the past, the murmurs of ancient geraniums, sighs of disenchantment that preceded the most tenacious nostalgia…." (p.421)

Melquíades had been through death, but returned "because he could not bear the solitude." (p.50) He was the first one to die in Macondo, and was buried there. "He was a fugitive from all the plagues and catastrophes that had ever lashed mankind. He had survived pellagra in Persia, scurvy in the Malayan archipelago, leprosy in Alexandria, beriberi in Japan, bubonic plague in Madagascar, an earthquake in Sicily, and a disastrous shipwreck in the Strait of Magellan." (p.6) The one hundred years of solitude are his.

A person who exists in solitude also exists outside of time. Melquíades claims to have discovered the means to immortality -- it is that of written memory. He is a prophet because he is an author; he knows what will happen because he writes it. His name itself, based on a Hebrew root combined with a Greek suffix, leads, according to Kabalarian wisdom, to writing as a more natural mode of expression than the spoken word.

Alicia Edwards has made another enlightening observation. She draws a comparison of the text-within-a-text to a set of Chinese boxes. Though it is readily accepted there could always be another box inside, creating an infinite history, one rarely explores the possibility of another box outside. With our new Latin American perspective on reality, can we begin to imagine that García Márquez and his readers are merely characters in a much larger text written by a much greater author? Wow, I am boggling my own mind!

Let me suggest one more interpretation. Milan Kundera has said that all his books are basically transcripts of the discourses he has with the characters he creates. It is possible García Márquez has done this, one step removed, through Melquíades. What Úrsula sees as the wild dreaming of the men is their struggle to be alive, to somehow escape the text. Whereas the women are docile and accept their fate as characters in a book, the men attempt to rebel against their author. Indeed, as the book progresses, the women no longer see Melquíades, and they think the men are talking to themselves when they are really talking with him. But try as Melquíades might, García Márquez makes certain that Macondo and the Buendías are not "exiled from the memory of men" as the massacre of the banana workers has been. For this we should all be grateful.

I prefer to read One Hundred Years of Solitude as a demonstration of the magical ability of writing to create a reality.

NOTE: All quotes and references to One Hundred Years of Solitude used in this retrospective correspond to the 1971 Avon Books publication of Gregory Rabassa's English translation.

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