on June 9, 2009
This is a hard book to read. It is equally despising and depressing, and somewhat boring in its literalness of the biblical-style apocalyptic approach to the whole fiasco that is the comedy of Latin America. But at its surface (and the novel is entirely a surface phenomenon because of its literalness) there are levels of cruelty unimagined by any other writer, and maybe for this the novel deserves its distinction. Jose Arcadio Buendia, a former god-believing man hoping to acquire science (because he doesn't want to "live like donkeys") then losing his faith (because the "daguerreotype proves god's inexistence") declares after extensive investigation that the earth is round ("like an orange") and ends with him going crazy (in the deadest of dead languages, Latin). Garcia-Marquez saves the worst cruelty for the son, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who hopes for military glory and meaning to his life, but who instead is thrown back into the dark pit of memory and regret, dragging around military failure and indecision like a paralyzed limb, despising everything, women, ideals, etc. And introducing vultures at his death just seemed to underscore the literalness and cruelty of the text as a whole. Every other Buendia after them is parodic of the modern man or woman. Choose the degeneracy, and Marquez embodies it in a later Buendia: the libertine, the glutton, the free spirit, philanderer, the rake, the reprobrate, isolationist. All of these are present to some extent in Jose Arcadio Buendia or Colonel Aureliano Buendia, but they are not definitive of and do not circumscribe their personalities as they do in the later Buendias. And of these later Buendias Marquez depicts their downfall like roaches being stamped out, in the blackest of black humor, which is why readers complain about the unheroic qualities, the hollowness and boredom of succeeding generations, which is the whole point. Marquez detests his world (not in the beginning which is idyllic, but its later manifestations) and weaves his story with the cruelty this form of detestation takes: Locked in fatalistic moments as inescapable as Homer's, whether living tediously (usually the women) or dying early (usually the men) for they-don't-know-what. The Buendia men utter stupid things before being executed and wholly misunderstand their existence. And there are no gods to lighten things up, like in the Iliad. War is farcical (Ursula reminds them that although they are soldiers, their "mothers reserve the right to take down their pants and spank them"). Loyalty is literally a laughing matter (the illegal painting of ballot cards being the spur for Aureliano to choose political sides, because one side is "trickier than the other"). There isn't even a redemptive figure, like in the Bible. There is a level of literalness here which is juvenile (e.g. names as determinants of behavior), almost naïve for a modern novel, until you realize the meticulous stage-setting for destruction taking place. The novel doesn't suffer from too much fantasy, it's mired in too much depressive reality. The fantasy only leavens it a bit, but this doesn't distract from the cruelty being perpetrated. Sex is of course freely enjoyed (and that taboo, incestual sex) but this sensual mirage is only a distraction, for the characters and the reader, from what's happening right before their eyes. The book has no political, philosophical, or sociological agenda, moral or immoral. The only point, foretold in the beginning and coming at the end, is eventual extinction, which is hardly a point. Although it is better than the Bible and the Iliad, by being crueler, the reader should beware: this novel is like a Toltec or Aztec statue, one with snakes for heads and hearts and severed hands for necklaces, unimpressive at first sight until you do a complete 360 survey of it and realize it fits right into the cruel landscape their sculptors inhabited. And there is no way out. Everything is there on the surface. There is no redemptive value in this kind of fiction. It doesn't extend outside itself. Multiple readings do not yield multiple levels of meaning. It means everything it says.