By Gene H. Bell-Villada
"Alvaro was the first to take the advice to abandon Macondo. He sold everything, even the tame jaguar that teased passersby from the courtyard of his house, and he bought an eternal ticket on a train that never stopped traveling." (from page 433 of One Hundred Years of Solitude)
One Hundred Years of Solitude is best known not for its scrupulous realism but for its imaginative flights of fantasy, its unreal sorts of actions such as a levitating priest, a young woman who rises to heaven, and an apparently conscious trickle of blood. It is not that material of this kind is new in literature—similar events are commonly depicted in folk myth, classical epic, medieval romance, fairy tale, gothic novel, and science fiction. What is special about this book is its perfect integration of these unusual incidents into everyday life.
The fantasy matter in García Márquez's novel forms a broad and diverse spectrum ranging from the literally extraordinary through nonetheless possible, to the farthest extremes of the physically fabulous and unlikely. As an example of the former, the relatively possible, when Colonel Aureliano Buendía shoots himself in the chest, the bullet comes out through his back without having injured a single vital organ. In another instance, Úrsula secretly figures out the exact trajectory of the sun and the configuration of shadows it will cast within the house, day by day, in the course of the year.
The next level of unreality is the systematic use of hyperbole, exaggerated entities represented with a precision that gives them a distinct, palpable, and cogent profile. García Márquez has himself remarked that if you say you have seen a pink elephant, you will not be believed, but say that you saw seventeen pink elephants flying about that afternoon, and your story gains traction. The exaggeration in this novel is almost always numerically specific, like Colonel Buendía's thirty-two defeated uprisings and the rainstorm that lasts four years, eleven months, and two days. Flying carpets and human levitation, in contrast, are events that are truly magical, and their author's conjuring craft deserves a close look. As has often been noted, what makes these unrealities convincing and credible is the entire narrative and physical scaffold that surrounds them. In a classic instance, Father Nicanor Reyna gulps down a cup of hot chocolate every time he is about to rise from the ground. The impression created is that the humble beverage has something to do with the priest's powers.
The wilder incidents in One Hundred Years of Solitude make perfect sense for their respective characters and situations. The subject matter is often death, an event so typically charted with emotions and concerns that it calls out for a meaningful legend (whether religious or literary) from the imagination. The expected wonder of all such happenings is nonetheless displaced as the townspeople routinely accept extravagant unrealities while reserving their incredulity and awe for technological artifacts like moving pictures, false teeth, or the very significant ice that begins a novel-worth of things that both the residents of Macondo and its readers find downright amazing.
Read up on the other major themes of One Hundred Years of Solitude:
Time | Fate | Humor
Excerpted from Gene Bell-Villada's examination of the author's life and novels Garcia Marquez: The Man and His Work.