One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

For a long time I could not find words to write anything on One Hundred Years of Solitude, for Marquez mesmerised me into a silence I didn’t know how to break. But I have been commenting here and there on Goodreads and now it is good time, finally, to gather my thoughts in one piece. But this somewhat longer review is more a labour of love than a coherent attempt to review his opus.

Marquez resets the history of universe such that the old reality ceases to exist and a new parallel world is born in which things do not conform to obsolete, worn-out laws. Everything in this world is to be discovered anew, even the most primary building block of life: water. Macondo is the first human settlement of Time Immemorial set up by the founding fathers of the Buendia family. It is a place where white and polished stones are like ‘prehistoric eggs’; an infant world, clean and pure, where ‘many things lack names.’ And it is natural that here, in the farther reaches of marshland prone to cataclysmic events, the mythscape of One Hundred Years of Solitude should come into existence.

The tone of this epic and picaresque story is set ab initio. Take a gander at this:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

It is not long before fateful human activity mars the innocent beauty of creation. The more they discover the more they are sucked into the inescapable cycle of life. The primordial myth that moulds and shapes their destinies does not let them advance in their efforts to defeat the infernal solitude of existence, whatever they might do, however they might try. History gets back at them again and again and every generation is but a repeat of the past. It is to emphasise the cyclical nature of time, in my opinion, that names of principal characters are repeated in every generation, sometimes to the confusion of the reader, easily rectified by going back to the family tree provided in the start of the book.

An external, portentous, disastrous, evil-like power guides and transforms the lives of people in the hamlet of Macondo. The sense of foreboding pervades the whole story: the rain continuing for many days and inundating the streets, the unceasing storm before the arrival in town of a heraldic character, and the fearful episode when townspeople begin to suffer a terrible memory loss, so that to remember the names and functions of things they write it down on labels and tie those labels to objects like chairs and tables. It tells us that we cannot hope for a future if our past is erased from the slates of our collective consciousness. Past may be a burden but it is also a great guiding force without which there’s no future.

The only way to retain your sanity is to remember your history and cling to it, or prepare to go insane. When one Jose Arcadio Buendia loses the memory of things, he goes mad:

“Jose Arcadio Buendia conversed with Prudencio Aguilar until the dawn. A few hours later, worn out by the vigil, he went into Aureliano’s workshop and asked him: “What day is today?” Aureliano told him that it was Tuesday. “I was thinking the same thing,” Jose Arcadio Buendia said, “but suddenly I realized that it’s still Monday, like yesterday. Look at the sky, look at the walls, look at the begonias. Today is Monday too.” On the next day, Wednesday, Jose Arcadio Buendia went back to the workshop. “This is a disaster,” he said. “Look at the air, listen to the buzzing of the sun, the same as yesterday and the day before. Today is Monday too.” That night Pietro Crespi found him on the porch, weeping for…his mother and father. On Thursday he appeared in the workshop again with the painful look of plowed ground. “The time machine has broken,” he almost sobbed,…he spent six months examining things, trying to find a difference from their appearance on the previous day in the hope of discovering in them some change that would reveal the passage of time.”

The town is threatened when the change taking place in the outside world begins to spill over into Macondo. Here we have a metaphor for the struggle of Maruqez’s native country and continent which is passing through internecine wars on its way toward externally imposed modernity. Divisions that hitherto did not exist come to define the inhabitants of Macondo and of towns farther afield. One of the Buendias, Colonel Aureliano, takes up a piece of metalwork as new and strange as a gun to mount a revolt and bring the promised glory to his land. New lines are drawn. New alliances are made. Old friends become enemies and enemies, partners. Colonel Aureliano Buendia, when he is about to kill him, tells General Moncada:

Remember, old friend, I’m not shooting you. It’s the revolution that’s shooting you.

The scene above captures the mechanistic element of their revolutionary war; the one below bares the meaninglessness of the conflict, so pertinent to the 20th century militarisation of the whole continent and its endless armed strife led by colonels and generals of all hues and shades.

Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”
What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez answered. “For the great Liberal party.”
You’re lucky because you know why,” he answered. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride.”
That’s bad,” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez said.
Colonel Aureliano Buendia was amused at his alarm. “Naturally,” he said. “But in any case, it’s better than not knowing why you’re fighting.” He looked him in the eyes and added with a smile:
Or fighting, like you, for something that doesn’t have any meaning for anyone.”

Although I tried to avoid getting into this discussion, but a review of this work is not possible without throwing in the inevitable buzzword – magical realism. Although the book gets high praise from most readers, it is to be expected that some readers would take a disliking to the basic ingredients from which Marquez draws his style and narrative devices. I want to address in particular one argument from the naysayer camp that pops up again and again: it is not realistic; it can’t happen; this is not how things work. So I ask (and try to answer): what is it with our obsession with “realism” that makes some of us reject the conceptual framework of this novel?

Aristotle in Poetics argues that a convincing impossibility in mimesis is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. The stress is not on what can physically happen but on mimetic persuasion. This is why some novels that follow every bit of convention, every bit of realistic element in them turn out to be unbelievable stories with unbelievable characters. You want to forget them as soon as you finish the book – and toss it aside. But on the other hand Greek tragedies populated with cosmic characters pulling suprahuman feats continue to enthrall generations of readers. How realistic are those stories? It is the writer’s task to convince us that this could have happened in a world he has created and set the rules for. In that Marquez is more than successful, and this is the basis of the enduring appeal of this work.

The distinction fell into place for me when I replaced ‘realism’ with ‘truth.’ Kafka’s haunting stories are so far from the 19th century convention of realism we have come to accept as the basis of novel-writing. His The Metamorphosis is not a representation of likely human activity (how could a human transform overnight into a large insect?) but it is nonetheless a harrowingly truthful story that advances existential dilemmas and makes a statement on human relationships, familial in particular. We say this is how it would feel like to be an outcast from one’s family. Or consider Hamsun’s Hunger in which a starving man puts his finger in his mouth and starts eating himself. In the ‘real’ world Kafka’s, Hamsun’s and Marquez’s characters cannot exist but the effect of their existence on us is as truthful and real as the dilemmas of any great realistic character ever created.

Marquez, like a god, has written the First Testament of Latin America, synthesising myth and magic to reveal the truth of the human condition, and called it One Hundred Years of Solitude.

(First published in Spanish 1967; in English 1970)

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

“What happened?”
“Nothing happened.”
“Why did nothing happen?
“How would I know?”
“You would know.”
“I would?”
“Yes.”
“How I would know?”
“Because you read it.”
“Did I?”
“Yes.“
“How do you know?”
“It is on your shelf.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means you have read it.”
“Oh I have.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing happened.”
“Why did nothing happen?”
“Because they were waiting for Godot.”

Waiting and nothing – I could take these two words and use them in as many combinations as the rules of probability allow to create a ‘review’ that is as much meaningful as it would be meaningless. I could draw upon the elusive symbolism of the text in the manner of a perspicacious hermeneut whose convoluted exegesis would only serve to frustrate him even more. Or like a blurb-writer I could summarise the four-and-a-half characters, the austere landscape, the leafless tree, the role of the taut rope and jangling bucket, and the heap of nonsense, but what would that achieve?

Suffice it to say that the sheer speed of bare dialogue makes you want to slow down and look for something queer happening between the lines, but nothing happens. Yet something very important happens: everything happens. Aye. Beckett in his frugal minimalist brilliance has created in every reader’s mind a throbbing sense of meaningless wait. The act of wait which is an act of life, since every moment of human life is spent at the same time in a concurrent act of waiting – whether it is waiting in the womb of your mother for nine months or waiting for nine hours for your lover to turn up. Or just waiting at the bus stop for a vehicle that never arrives. You wait for things to happen; but nothing happens; yet life happens.

The best review I have read said, “This is a very interesting play.” Which is to say that the best review of Waiting for Godot is precisely the one that is not written down.

(First published 1953)

Thinner Than Skin – Uzma Aslam Khan

After the success of The Geometry of God and Trespassing, I expected Uzma Aslam Khan to build further on her reputation as one of the eminent novelists chronicling the lives of contemporary Pakistanis but this novel has come as a disappointment.

It started well enough, with two lead characters, Nadir and Farhana – the former a Pakistani in the United States struggling to build a life of promise in a country his parents had sent him to study; and the latter, a mix-raced Pakistani-German who wants to discover the Pakistani side of her identity by ‘returning’ to Pakistan which is now gripped in turmoil. Through their uneasy love we see the uneasy love Pakistanis carry for their homeland, which they have many reasons to despair for and leave behind. And the promise of the new lands of the West, which, despite it glitter and glory, cannot fully satisfy the needs of those who have shunned their homelands.

Parallel to it runs the story of Maryam and her family who are herders for generations. Through them the author has painted a grim picture of the situation the locals of the mountainous north of Pakistan have found themselves in. Hemmed in by all sides in a conflict that spills across borders – trouble in Xinjiang, violence in Central Asian states, perennial instability in Afghanistan, oppression in Kashmir – all this spills into the once peaceful mountainous regions of Pakistan where the state and its rebels fight out each other at the cost of the local people.

The fates of Nadir and Farhana get entwined with that of Maryam and her family when an accident happens during their visit of discovery to the Northern Areas. They are sucked into a conflict which is as much personal as it is public and political.

Our story stalls after the accident, the manner in which the author shows both parties dealing with the accident is…very lacking. There are lots of monologues the characters address to themselves, that do little but confuse the reader. If the author was attempting unreliable narration, it certainly didn’t work.

Maryam’s story and the characters that populate her world, in my view, do not talk and behave as northern mountain people do. An air mystery surrounds Maryam’s family which is not dealt with cleverly. She is also depicted as following some strange pagan cult, even though they are clearly shown to be Muslims, albeit holding on to some ancient mountain rituals for which they get plenty of scorn from Muslims who purport to follow a more ‘purist’ form of Islam. Bluntly put, the writing on Maryam’s family is not intelligent – it has little to hold your attention; it is more like a long and repetitive ramble.

The last part of the novel did not satisfy me. The thread of the plot is lost after the accident takes place. From that point on the story only drags and ends abruptly and nonsensically.

I vacillated between giving it two stars and three stars. If I had given it two stars, this would have been quite harsh of me; if I had awarded it three, this would have meant I liked it more than I had. So I settle for 50/50; I rate this novel as halfway between acceptance – a 2.5 stars out of 5.

(First published 2012)