Ok so I get the metaphorical nature of GGM’s novel. I understand the aspect of magical realism. I have no choice at all but to catch the motif of ‘solitude’ in all its facets (I appreciate I’m reading a translation but even so, he hammers the word home a lot!). I can even accept that this novel will mean a lot more to Latin American readers than to a middle class Brit like me.
What I don’t understand is this: why?
Why is this book still so popular, decades after being published? Why do so many people I know talk of it as though it is some fondly remembered ex-lover? Why did GGM write it in the first place? Why, for that matter, did I read it (apart from it being on my literary bucket list)?
I’m not saying it was a bad book. He writes well, the pace never stops even for a single sentence. Blink and you’ve missed some part of the story because GGM doesn’t do transitions, padding or giving the reader a chance to breathe. I wouldn’t say the story, following the lives of one family in one Colombian-like rural town over 100 years, was disinteresting. I did, perhaps, struggle a little to battle the myth I had drummed into me as I learned my trade as a writer: Show not tell. GGM definitely does not follow this rule. But then nor do many other writers; it’s no big deal.
I guess what I’m saying is that I found this book somewhat pointless. If I ask the question – what did I take away from reading this book? – I can’t answer it. Perhaps it is telling that the adjective I’ve most heard from fans of this novel is ‘beautiful’. That seems about right. Like a pretty painting or pleasant photo of nature, ‘One Hundred Years’ isn’t an unpleasant reading experience; it’s lovely. There’s just a complete absence of depth – despite all the characters, situations, metaphors and motifs running throughout.
Again, I get that this is, to an extent, a potted history of Latin America and there’s lots of things in there that are easily missed that I’m sure literary students spend many hours poring over writing countless thousands of words to identify and explain. But what do we learn about humanity from all this? The characters aren’t real; GGM never pretends that they are. They don’t behave the way real people do. There isn’t enough criticism in there to make it a metaphor for the human condition or even a political statement dressed up as story.
That said, I could well imagine (but I don’t know for certain) that Terry Pratchett read this novel early in his life and thought “there’s so much more you could do with something like this. Could be funnier too” and then went on to write his Discworld novels. The best parts of this novel made me think of Pratchett’s series with its own form of magical realism, its own metaphors and its own criticism of society. But perhaps I’m just making too much of a leap?
I do know that my initial feeling after reading a couple of short stories by GGM a few years ago was right: he’s not the writer for me. I feel no need to read any more of him in much the same way I feel no need to read any more Hemingway after ‘For Whom the Bells Tolls’. At my time of life, I’m aware of the clock ticking and ‘the good is the enemy of the best’. ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is definitely good – no doubt about it – but it doesn’t go into the box labelled ‘Best’.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org