Can One Hundred Years of Solitude be read as more than just fantasy?

Gabriel García Márquez’s magical novel is packed full of political commentary on real-life events. But can we say that the misogyny and violence don’t matter because none of it is real?

“The problem,” says Salman Rushdie, “is that when people say ‘magical realism’, they only hear magic. They don’t hear realism.”

I’m tempted to give people a pass on that one. It’s natural enough to focus on the magical elements in books such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its floating virgins, reincarnating gypsies and soothsaying colonels all front and centre. It’s this magic that made the novel seem extraordinary when it came out in the 60s, and has kept it interesting for generations since.

That’s not to criticise Rushdie. He’s right to point out that even the most overtly magical passages in the book contain plenty that might also be termed real. The famous account of the trickle of José Arcadios’ blood seeking out his mother resonates because it’s embedded in such recognisable emotions. The bonds between a mother and her child are about as real as anything can be, aren’t they?

But I’m entering slippery territory. If I wanted to go further down this line, I would have to define what is real and what is magical – and frankly I wouldn’t fancy my chances, especially since this novel so cleverly blurs the boundaries between those concepts.

From the start of One Hundred Years of Solitude, there are several reminders of the tangible material world. A good portion of the first chapter comprises descriptions of the workings of astrolabes and telescopes on a world that “is round, like an orange”. Maths and physics are often presented as stranger than the novel’s supernatural events. Inventions inspire both alarm and wonder; trips to the cinema baffle the residents of Macondo when actors who have died in one film “reappear alive” in another, and they are outraged to learn that the projector is “a machine of illusions”.

The train line that eventually comes to town is even worse, bringing with it all the baffling and crazy apparatus of market capitalism. Soon the town is battling “the banana company”, an overbearing, absurd corporation that forces the residents into a disastrous strike. Its inscrutable actions defy reason more than Arcadios’ trickle of blood.

But the strike is a good example of the way Gabriel García Márquez makes wider points about our world. The United Fruit Company wreaked similar havoc in García Márquez’s home town, across Chile and in numerous “banana republics” throughout Latin America. Even the machine-gunning of a crowd is based on a real event.

Much of the book is similarly grounded in politics and history, and other kinds of truths. One Hundred Years of Solitude offers plenty of reflections on loneliness and the passing of time. It can also be seen as a caustic commentary on the evils of war, or a warm appreciation of familial bonds. García Márquez has urgent things to say that still feel close to home, here on the other side of the world, 50 years after the book was first published. After the strike and the massacre, he tell us: “The banana company did not have, never had had and never would have any workers in its service because they were all hired on a temporary basis.” The debates raging in the UK about zero-hours contracts are not quite so new as we might imagine …

Such relevance adds to the novel’s appeal. But if we are to agree that the book carries this kind of weight, we should also admit that it presents problems.

Earlier this month in the Reading Group, a reader posted: “I stopped after one hundred pages, too queasy about the marital rape, paedophilia and agonising death of a pregnant girl.”

The more I considered this comment, the more it worried me. It would be a shame to set aside such an interesting (and frequently compassionate) book on this basis. But perhaps it isn’t possible to dismiss all the raped women, abandoned mothers and abused children in the novel as harmless elements in a weightless world. Can we also accept all the additional material about contented, warm-hearted, well-treated prostitutes as bearing no more or less consequence than funny material about shooting musicians? Could we perhaps say that García Márquez is making a political point about the mistreatment of women? Should we grant him that all this apparently misogynist material is counterbalanced by sympathetic portrayals of strong female characters such as Ursula?

Can we say that the disagreeable elements in the book don’t matter because none of it is real? If we concede that magical realism works as a device for discussing hard truths, doesn’t it also follow that it can never be read as just fantasy? If that is the case, is this book always as loveable as people say? Or should we perhaps admit that Gabriel García Márquez is sometimes a little creepy too?

Contributor

Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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