March 18, 2006

Book Review: "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez


This book is as much about solitude & isolation as it is about society & family. On one side are the extremes of depravity & life-long virginity, on the other side is passion & sexual obsession. Starvation, asceticism, & scholarship are beside a mindless gourmandizing. The book is about a family which founds a remote town in the middle of the Caribbean jungle, & the town begins & ends with the family. We follow six generations, from the patriarch to the termination of the line; but it is not a simple rise & fall, or rags-to-riches-&-back-again-in-six-generations. Blake's poetry took the fall of man & the salvation & apocalypse, & shuffled the deck; for all happens in every moment depending on mental perspective. The Buendía family has tendency towards extremes, but they are alway occurring at once, mixed up in their progressions. For instance, the two repeating male names - José Arcadio & Aureliano - represent a sort of Mary/Martha divide of the extremes. The family keeps naming their next offspring one of these two names, & the men suffer the implied sins, despite how much bastard blood dilutes the initial incest. The Aurelianos are prone to a retired study - in particular, being destined to interpret certain coded texts hidden away in the chamberpot room - but their restraint unleashes itself into intense Liberal military actions, union organizing, & heartless visiting-of-prostitutes. They eventually get over it, confused with what it all meant, & spend the rest of their lives in a total, useless seclusion. The José Arcadios tend to be big, bawdy, social, dumb & full of love. At one point, of course, a pair of identical twins have the two names, & they switch themselves for their entire adulthood. Only the matriarch Úrsula suspects the confusion, & when they die, their coffins are accidentally switched. The twins with the reversed names carry out the destinies of what their names should have been. In the beginning, all of the antipodes are contained in the patriarch José Arcadio Buendía, but I think it's the potential of the godhead, or the questions, which drive him mad. When the line diminishes, they funnel again to one man, Aureliano, who is able to combine the Love with the Study, the passion with the focus, & when the repression & lisense meet in one, the rapture finalizes the decay.

"A project like [the satellites] Tom and Jerry demonstrates all the strengths of American science: technological sophistication, restless curiosity, & monumental budgets. But, at the same time, it points to the fundamental disconnect in our culture. Why spend tens of millions of dollars to produce such an elegant set of measurements only to ignore them? With knowledge comes responsibility, & so it is that we turn from the knowledge we have gone to such lengths to acquire."
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Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, March 20th, 2006

I read this book cover to cover on Amtrak's California Zephyr train, which I picked up in Chicago on Monday afternoon, & deboarded in Reno on Wednesday morning. For those who are addicted to air travel & roadtrips, forgive me for doing a bit of advertising, because I believe these particular tracks should be a mandatory right-of-passage for all Americans. If you take it eastward from Emeryville, California, Day One is spent crossing the Sierra Nevadas, the sun setting in the beautiful Nevada Desert. Day Two follows the Colorado River for 268 miles, the longest an American train follows a river, over the Rockies. Then you sleep thru Nebraska. Day Three is in Iowa, crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois & ending in Chicago. Many countries, of course, insist on a triple system of transportation: roads, rail, & air. In America, once the land of trains, the government is cruelly biased against Amtrak, believing it shouldn't be running at a deficit, & continually cutting its support. Of course, it's nothing like the price it pays to build highways, subsidize gas prices, & rescue the airlines from their endless losses. Also, in Europe, trains are timed by the minute. Amtrak takes you out of the 21st century, to a time when West-bound trains misinformed the clocks, & train time tends to be four hours late, especially when commercial transport always has the right-of-way. After taking the Zephyr & other Amtrak trains many times now, my pet peeve has become those few riders who walk up & down the aisle bitching about the train's tardiness, not knowing what they got themselves into. There's a few on every train, & they're always frowning fat women with big glasses. I explained to one once that traffic jams are no better; & as opposed to airports, the train conductors will actually explain to you why the train is late, rather than keep you waiting, tied in your seats, with cold ambiguous announcements. Really, our country has got some extreme transportation issues. Imagine if the funds annually flagellated into the Military-Industrial complex were spend on transport reform. (But I don't want to litter my literary 'blog with political rants.)

Think about highway travel. You're surrounded by other members of your civilization, but you only ever catch fleeting glances of them. Americans have, at this point, almost entirely replaced our centers of social contact - city streets, public theaters, public transportation - with bubbles we share with a few family members - cars, television, & more cars. No wonder America puts such a strong emphasis on family. This makes train travel especially shocking for someone who grew up in a middle-class mansion in the mountains. The Chicano teenage girl in front of me asks me if she's on the right train. Try asking your neighbor on the freeway what exit you need to take. In Sacramento, as I walked fifteen blocks to work, people would constantly roll down their windows & ask me for directions, being the only pedestrian in sight. It was practically my responsibility to understand in which direction I-80 was.

Greyhound busses, interestingly, are almost entirely occupied by the lower-income riders, with the occasional middle-class vagabond with his guitar. Amtrak often contains an incredible cross-section of American society, racially & economically. If anything, it over-emphasizes the eccentrics & the margins: there are certainly more crazy old men eager to start a converation, there are more Mennonites, more retards, more whatevers. In our country of diversity, do we have to either move to New York or pay $200 for a train ticket to have this kind of social experience?

Of course, I don't take the train to meet strangers or have interesting conversations. I tend to answer the inquiries of my neighbors with short, to-the-point answers. I look forward to the solitude, to looking out the window at mountains for 76 hours, to reading a good book from cover to cover. On Wednesday morning, I finished Gabriel García Márquez's book about loneliness & the extremes of social contact, how they somehow define a civilization.

4 comments:

MrA said...

This book, both in its English and Spanish versions, accompanied me on my voyages in Peru. I had tried reading it years ago and couldn't finish it; after hearing, many a time, of various critics and other sorts lauding it as "the best book of all time," I decided it was worth another gander. It was definitely better the second time around. I don't think I understood the humor when I was younger. It really is a rather humorous book--I suppose the greatness of the writing is that it manages to be funny while also being tragic, moving, and politically and socially satirical all at the same time.

MrA said...

As to whether I would call it the greatest book of all time. . .No way. I don't know why anyone would say that, as great of a book as it is. Who the hell said that anyway? I just have that phrase associated in my mind with this book, and I don't know where exactly I gleaned it from. Probably one of those little quotations on the book cover where the 'critic' ejaculates effusively all over themselves so that their name can be seen on a book cover.

James Welsch said...

Bill Clinton said it was the best book of all time. George Bush is into the Old Testament, & Hungry Hungry Caterpillar, which, interestingly, wasn't published until the '80s. The Old Testament was published in like the '70s or something. Just shows that Clinton reads older books. Fucking nostalgic liberals.

LoringParkMan said...

Of all the blog reviews on this book I have chosen yours to be included on my blog. Link: http://mansguidebook.com/blog/archives/44