“Things have a life of their own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.”
Melquíades, the gypsy, has brought magnets to Macondo, and that is how he is describing their marvelous ability to draw nails from wood and make pots crash down from shelves.
José Arcadio Buendía is fascinated by the magnets and trades his donkeys for them, believing they can draw gold from the earth.
They can’t. But they do lead him to a rusted suit of fifteenth-century armor that, when opened, reveals a skeleton wearing a locket containing a woman’s hair around its neck.
Buendía trades the magnets for a magnifying glass that he tries to turn into a weapon to sell to the government. Then he acquires an astrolabe, a compass, and a sextant and learns how to navigate.
This is the story that opens One Hundred Years of Solitude by the celebrated Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. I started rereading the novel a couple of weeks ago, thinking that I would crash through most of it in a weekend, but that didn’t happen. I needed to read those few opening paragraphs again and again – so beautifully written, so compelling, so sad and awful and funny at the same time. In fact, literary critic Harold Bloom has written of this book, “…every page is rammed full of life beyond the capacity of any single reader to absorb… There are no wasted sentences, no mere transitions, in this novel, and you must notice everything at the moment you read it.”
I had been reading some background information on García Márquez as part of my UConn Reads committee work, and this led me to his 1982 Nobel Prize speech. Those first paragraphs of One Hundred Years of Solitude resonated with his speech, which connects the European experience of Latin America as a land of marvels to the tragedies of Latin American politics and history:
I dare to think that it is this outsized [political] reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.
This paragraph can be read, in part, as a critique of the term “magic realism” to describe the work of García Márquez and other Latin American writers. The term can be exoticizing and distancing and fails to acknowledge García Márquez’s style as, paradoxically, an expression of reality.
In fact, we should read this book for UConn Reads not as an exemplar of magic realism, or to tick off a Nobel Prize box, but for García Márquez’s astonishing ability to meld politics and aesthetics – to make the most beautiful and awe-ful writing matter as a way of coming to grips with the history and experience and idea of Latin America. This is something that should matter a lot not only at UConn, with our strong commitment to the study of Latin America, but, really, anywhere.
García Márquez’s Nobel speech is available here.
Harold Bloom, ed., One Hundred Years of Solitude (Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations), Chelsea House Publications, 2002.