I have a conflicted relationship with Spanish (as in the language) literature. I used to be quite fluent -- I was born in Puerto Rico, I heard Spanish growing up, I studied it extensively in school, I even spent a summer living in Spain. So there was a time when I could read novels in Spanish just as easily as English, and in fact did it quite a bit as a result of all the lit courses I took. But I can't really call myself fluent any more; it's been years since I've had an opportunity to really use the language, and while I can converse decently in Spanish, reading a complex novel is beyond me now -- figuring out the literal meaning of the words would keep me from fully appreciating the work itself. Reading English translations, on the other hand, means admitting defeat. I've been wanting to read Don Quixote for a long time (it's meta!), but I'm not good enough to read the lovely Spanish copy I received as a prize from my High School, and I'm too stubborn to read it in English.
When Gabriel García Márquez died in April, I wanted to reread One Hundred Years of Solitude.Luckily for me, I had already read it and most of his other works in Spanish. So with some relief (and a bit of guilt) I picked up my husband's English copy. Of course, it's foolish to let the language issue keep one from such a great work of art, and I'm glad I didn't. 100 Years is considered García Márquez's greatest work for a reason. In his depiction of seven generations of the Buendía family living in the odd town of Macondo he encapsulates the history of Colombia, from exploration, conquest, and immigration to civil war, the Banana Massacre, and modernization.
As the town prospers and decays, so do the characters. Colonel Aureliano Buendía starts out as an idealist, determined to bring about justice and freedom through a revolution, but over the course of decades his ideology becomes more and more rigid, until even his closest friends are enemies to be destroyed. He reasons for fighting degenerate from ideals to pride to revenge to, ultimately, inertia -- the futility of a civil war where no one can tell the sides apart and no one really knows what they are fighting for. José Arcadio and Aureliano Segundo are creatures of appetite, who let their various lusts waste away their potential. Amaranta, despite her name, lets bitterness and fear dominate her life. Arcadio is a schoolteacher-turned-tyrant, making the rather remarkable transformation over only a few months. Fernanda allows her obsession with propriety to circumscribe her life until she becomes a recluse corresponding only with her children (who lie to her) and "invisible doctors." The family's slow fall is heartbreaking, especially as witnessed by the matriarch Ursula, a wonderful character who did much to hold the family and town together but is finally too old and infirm to halt the descent.
There is a sense of futility in everything the family does, whether it is fending off the red ants, attempting to restrain passions, trying to create the philospher's stone, waging a civil war, or fighting the foreign fruit companies; fate cannot be avoided. Much like the real history of Latin America, the beauty and pleasures of the land and its people cannot be separated from the chaos and horrific violence. The elements of magical realism in the book -- a rain of yellow flowers at the death of a patriarch, Remedios the Beauty's assumption into heaven, a baby born with a pig's tail -- suit the tone perfectly. These beautiful and terrible oddities are calmly accepted by the characters, because to do otherwise is pointless. No explanations for the magic are ever offered, because that is life in Latin America.
It is a gorgeous, sad, violent, stunning novel, well worth reading in any language.