The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The Latin American Boom

BEFORE

1946–49 Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias blends modernist techniques with surrealism and folklore in Mr President and Men of Maize.

1962 In The Death of Artemio Cruz, Carlos Fuentos layers memory, poetic imagery, stream of consciousness, and multiple perspectives to explore corruption in Mexico.

1963 Argentinian Julio Cortázar allows readers to choose their own path through his radically experimental work Hopscotch.

AFTER

1969 The shattered society of 1950s’ Peru is revealed at lightning speed in a discussion between two men of different classes in Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral.

As its name suggests, the Latin American Boom was an explosion of literary creativity that occurred in South America in the 1960s. Although Jorge Luis Borges had ignited a slow-burning fuse some 20 years before with Ficciones – a puzzle box of short stories that broke all literary conventions – the Boom years saw the publication of stellar works that gained worldwide attention for authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Mario Vargas Llosa. These intellectuals engaged with the political struggles of Latin America. Their writing was fuelled by the counterculture of the 1960s, and their narratives frequently make use of innovative and experimental techniques such as non-linear time, shifting perspectives, and magic realism – a technique regarded by many to be an invention of South American literature.

"Time was not passing … it was turning in a circle …"


One Hundred Years of Solitude

Isolation

Often considered the masterwork of the Boom, Colombian García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude brings together Bible stories, ancient myths, and South American traditions of magic, resurrection, and regeneration in a metaphorical commentary on the continent’s history.

The story spans one century and seven generations of a single family, the Buendías. Macondo, the town that they found, represents the history of Colombia at large. At the story’s opening, Macondo is a small village of adobe houses, wedged between mountains and swamp. Its isolation from the modern world is complete; no route stretches back over the mountains. Established by José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula Iguarán, it is a utopia where everyone is younger than 30 years old and no one has yet died.

José Arcadio and Úrsula have two sons – a lusty giant, also called José Arcadio, and his anxious, prescient brother Aureliano. Their names, physical traits, and personalities are repeated down the generations, while characters such as Pilar Ternera, the village prostitute, both enrich the gene pool and complicate it, by coupling with and bearing children for multiple Buendías.

Through all this complexity, the beating heart of Macondo is always the matriarch Úrsula, whose long life allows her to protect and maintain the Buendía family in every new generation after each invasion of incomers and the episodes of insanity that follow them.

Invasion

Each generation is faced with its own fresh catastrophe, many of which parody an episode in Latin American history or reflect the continent’s rich tradition of myth and legend. Although he is an artist at heart, Aureliano is soon caught up in civil wars that ravage the country for years. He becomes a famous colonel, renowned throughout the land as much for his poetry as his military exploits.

All Aureliano’s victories come to nothing however, as the country remains convulsed by conflict, a parody of the bloody struggles that wracked Latin America in the 19th century. The wars bring death and violence to the previously peaceful Macondo, and Aureliano’s nephew Arcadio becomes a dictatorial governor until he is shot by a firing squad. The town has been changed forever, and the opening of a new railway exposes Macondo to the influence of the outside world for the first time.

At first the villagers are enthralled by the wonders of modernity – they cannot understand how an actor who dies in one movie, can come back to life to appear in another – but Macondo soon becomes an outpost of US economic imperialism. The American Fruit Company turns the town into a banana plantation, controlled by a small encampment of Americans. When the workers go on strike for better conditions, they are massacred in an episode that forms the violent catalyst of the town’s final decline.

The misery inflicted on Macondo represents the centuries of pain caused by Western economic exploitation. Even a rain storm that lasts for four years, 11 months, and two days, fails to wash the town clean. It does, however, cause an exodus, leaving Macondo empty apart from a handful of Buendías living out their final days in the town.

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The house in Aractaca, Colombia, where Gabriel García Márquez grew up is now a pilgrimage site for fans of the author, who come to visit the place that inspired the creation of Macondo.

Bible stories and myths

Márquez draws on South America’s mixed heritage of myths and Bible tales to tell the story of a paradise destroyed through its loss of innocence. In Macondo “the world was so recent that many things lacked names”. The novel’s exploration of the history of human progress therefore begins with an idiosyncratic Buendía creation myth.

The family’s founding marriage is a union between the cousins José Arcadio and Úrsula, and the story of a previous Buendía incest that produced a child with a pig’s tail becomes an ever-present anxiety. As it turns out, this fear was entirely justified; the final Aureliano is born with the feared affliction. There are several Inca creation myths founded on incest between brother and sister, and the natural progression of family from Adam and Eve in the Bible would have progressed along similar lines. Some 17th-century arrivals in South America believed that the Garden of Eden was sited in eastern Bolivia. The first Conquistadors thought they had discovered a people descended from the son of Noah, a survivor of the Great Flood, or possibly from the lost tribes of Israel.

Deluge myths were widespread among indigenous South American people. These bubble to the surface in the great rain towards the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

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The same names recur across the seven generations of the Buendía family with bewildering regularity. This family tree depicts the various relationships of the Buendías with family members in yellow boxes and incestuous couplings shown by yellow lines.

Science and magic

Magic is not sprinkled lightly across this novel; it is woven into the fabric of its lilting, poetic text. At first, the villagers are mystified by modern phenomena such as false teeth and photographs. But even when the modernization of Macondo is well underway, the forces of magic carry just as much weight as reason and science. Remedios the Beauty, a woman too beautiful to be looked upon, rises to heaven in a cloud of bedsheets. After the first José Arcadio descends into madness, he becomes literally bonded to the chestnut tree in his garden, and when he is taken indoors the smell of mushrooms and wood-flower fungus follows him. As Úrsula ages and her sight fades, “the lucidity of her old age allows her to see”, and she develops her other senses: using odours to remember sights, she tracks a child’s movements by sprinkling a little rosewater on his head; and she distinguishes colour by texture.

García Márquez said that he discovered the key to handling the narrative voice in his novel in his grandmother’s stories and from an aunt who had a knack for offering fantastical explanations with the conviction of the truth.

"The last that remained of a past whose annihilation had not taken place because it was still in a process of annihilation."


One Hundred Years of Solitude

Resurrection

In One Hundred Years of Solitude the dead continue to exert an influence on the living and the grave is a door to multiple realities beyond our own. Early in the story José Arcadio Buendía throws a spear through the throat of Prudencio Aguilar, a neighbour who insults him. José Arcadio is then haunted by the man’s spirit until he is on his own deathbed. The two men make plans for a bird-breeding farm in the afterlife so that they will have “something to do on the tedious Sundays of death”.

The fixation on death persists when distant relative Rebeca arrives at the Buendía house dragging a bag of her parents’ bones. She eats earth and lime, the stuff of the grave, while she awaits their proper burial.

Circular time

Fractured or non-linear time is a key feature of the Latin American Boom’s postmodernist approach to literature. The opening lines set this up in a very memorable way: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Time is cyclical in the story: present, past, and future events are commingled in the 100-year span of the Buendía family. The setting, too, is circular. All of the action takes place within concentric spheres: first, the modern world that is encroaching on Macondo; then the village itself; the Buendía’s house; and finally the mysterious laboratory that is established in the heart of the house and which remains untouched by the passing of time. Rescued from the firing squad, Aureliano retreats there to fashion tiny gold fishes, which he then melts down and makes all over again in an attempt to live forever in the present moment – a bitter reflection of the futile repetitions of the story and of human history.

When the last Buendía is drawn to the laboratory to finally unravel the scrolls which document and prophesy Macondo’s 100-year history, and which were delivered to the first José Arcadio by the gypsy Melquíades, he finds prehistoric plants and luminous insects have removed “all trace of man’s passage on earth from the room”. As he reads he finds himself “deciphering the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror”. In this extraordinary metafictional moment the narrator, character, and reader arrive at the point at which past, present, and future combine and fall into the void beyond which the words stop on the page.

One Hundred Years of Solitude has sold more than 30 million copies and is regarded as a masterpiece of a literary boom that reverberated across two decades. Márquez’s postmodern vision spoke to both Latin America and the wider world in its depiction of a planet that is doomed to repeat a cycle of endless environmental catastrophe, warfare, and infighting over and over for generation after generation.

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A banana plantation is established in Macondo, and the American Fruit Company’s economic imperialism leads to a massacre and reflects the USA’s exploitation of Latin America.

"Races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth."


One Hundred Years of Solitude

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Born in Columbia in 1928, Gabriel José García Márquez was raised by his grandparents in Aractaca, a town resembling the fictional Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude. This upbringing shaped his anti-imperialist beliefs. During The Violence, a 10-year period of political repression in Colombia, García Márquez became a reporter in Barranquillo.

Although Garcia Márquez’s journalism flourished, his liberal views meant that he had to leave Colombia and work as a foreign correspondent in Europe.

After reporting on the Cuban revolution in 1959, he worked in Bogotá and New York for Prensa Latina, the Cuban news agency. His second full novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude was written in Mexico City and earned the author worldwide acclaim. Márquez authored 22 books and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He died in Mexico City in 2014.

Other key works

1985 Love in the Time of Cholera

2004 Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores

See also: Ficciones • Hopscotch • Pedro Páramo • The Death of Artemio Cruz • The Time of the Hero • Midnight’s Children • The House of the Spirits • Love in the Time of Cholera • 2666