When Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, there can have been few more popular choices. It is unusual for this most prestigious of awards to be bestowed upon a writer so publicly beloved. Not many achieve that happy marriage of popularity and critical acclaim, but Marquez seems to do just that every time he puts pen to paper.
All his original texts were written in Spanish, but, unlike many of his more staid contemporaries, translation has not stymied the floridity of his language or the fantastical use of metaphor and exquisite lyricism.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is usually acknowledged as Marquez’s masterpiece. It tells of Macondo, a settlement established in the bowels of the South American jungle by the indomitable Jose Arcadio Buendia and his band of intrepid comrades. The progress of the village is charted through Buendia’s large extended family over a century of torrid change encapsulating swift modernisation, technical innovation and eventually Civil War and a bubbling discontent as the small, simple community is dragged through the political mill.
Macondo is a microcosm of mankind and the book is a modern allegory that replaces preaching and trite morality with dark humour and sly satire. It is, by turns, a touching portrayal of life’s struggles, and a lurid romp through the recesses of human fallibility.
The Buendias are not heroes, they are human stereotypes made flesh. From the earnest scholars to the rampaging playboys; from the greedy, power-crazed misanthropes to the kindly, avuncular benefactors; from the prim, virginal spinsters to the lustful harlots; the beauties and the beasts – all are represented on the splendidly intricate family tree at the beginning of the book. To read One Hundred Years of Solitude is to visit and revisit that diagram and emotionally connect with every character, taking a rare fulfilment from unravelling the complex network of family members.
Unusually, none of Marquez’s characters are lionised, but none are judged either. His narration is impassive yet warm and told with the breathless candour of a child peering through the frosted glass of a sweet shop window. The details of births, marriages and deaths are described with an eloquent straightforwardness that never approaches pathos. It is a novel that is larger than the sum of its parts and while the characters are intricately – lovingly even – realised, Marquez never lets them outstay their welcome.
The result is an astounding depiction of family life across five generations with only the indefatigable matriarch Ursula providing a consistent presence throughout. The tales of her kinsmen fairly rattle by, peppered with magical interludes, improbable couplings and compelling human drama, and, just as you are settling in, they fizz off on weird and wonderful tangents.
The key is that all the fables, sagas and light-hearted anecdotes are laced together with an unforgettable story-telling verve that stretches the reader’s credulity far beyond where it would normally be. And only Marquez, with his unrivalled imagination and lyrical prowess, can get away with such prolonged dabbling in base material, for his novel is strewn with incest and promiscuity. As it is, One Hundred Years of Solitude is as rich and sexually ambiguous as a threesome with JK Rowling and the Sultan of Brunei and yet the tone remains delightfully ingenuous.
Books like this are rare indeed. Everything that is exceptional about the writer’s craft is displayed within its pages. It should be treasured, not only as a classic of contemporary literature, but as one of the greatest works of fiction ever conceived.