For many years I’ve been telling anyone who asks, and many who don’t, that I consider One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to be the greatest novel of the 20th Century. As a Professor in an English Department, I’ve had the great fortune to be able to teach a course in Latin American Literature in Translation, allowing me to make sure that at least twenty or so people at a time would get to read that greatest of all 20th century books. And since word of Garcia Marquez’s death, I’ve read on Facebook a number of testimonials from some of those former students, many of whom are now teachers themselves, of what an important book Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece has become in their lives and how well they remember their first encounter with it.
What can bring more joy than sharing some great thing you know about that others haven’t yet had the chance to know? My small town Missouri wife’s first slice of NYC pizza, the time I was ten and assigned by my mother to go throughout our neighborhood in Queens to spread the word to a bunch of classmates that St. Teresa of Avila school would again be closed the next day due to snow. Those are memorable moments, but how can they compare to introducing dozens of fellow humans to the joys, the surprises, the nowhere-else-in-the world-ness of Macondo, that mythical place where Garcia Marquez reinvented the novel and the universe.
I’ve been a student of magical realism for a long time; I’ve published articles on it and fashioned my own fiction around its crazy borders. Some people point to some of the funny things in One Hundred Years of Solitude: the insomnia plague, the character who is always followed around by yellow butterflies, the priest who levitates a little by the aid of hot chocolate, and think they have representative examples of what it is. But lots of other authors have put in similarly unusual things and similarly attempted to have their characters be blasé in their reactions to that strangeness, but no one else comes close to catching the magic in Macondo.
There is the absolute conviction within the narration that this is all real, the authority that only comes from humility, as in Cervantes, the same conviction as in Don Quixote that if this is a world invented by a madman, we all have to reconsider what sanity is. And there is the preeminent question of all the literature of the Americas: What does it take to resolve our loneliness, how can we love if we do not understand what human sympathy would really be like?
These are issues no one puts before us with more audacity, humor and authorial commiseration than Garcia Marquez. Furthermore, there exists an absolute condemnation of the political abuses and the rampant violence that is so much a part of Latin American history, without one word of preaching or seeming bias. It is a novel that never forgets the self-sufficient power of what a novel can be. Whoever has yet to read One Hundred Years of Solitude ought to stop everything else he or she is doing and purchase or borrow a copy today. Whoever does so will be forever grateful they read these words I now am writing. It will be among the joys of my life to know I might have sent another reader to one of the best experiences life offers.
Of course Garcia Marquez wrote lots of other things and lived a life outside of his invented Macondo. It’s always made me sad that he was not allowed entry into the U.S. because of his politics. I’ve always thought it was a particularly stupid way for the United States authorities to punish its citizens for the existence of other ways of thinking in the world. This sad fact almost seems like something from his writing, which is characterized by a consistent sense of serious play, of existential fatalism that is hard to describe or replicate.
One of my very favorite pieces is “No One Writes to the Colonel,” a novella length work about a very minor character from One Hundred Years of Solitude (though “No One Writes to the Colonel” was written first.) In it two very elderly, poor people who have been undone by the cruel, inhumane politics of their country (and Garcia Marquez was a master of making the real horrors of Latin American political abuses seem more difficult to believe, and thereby countenance than the oddest types of fantasy he could invent) are resilient and indomitable throughout their story, in a way that is perfectly believable and compelling. What makes them even more memorable is a single line from the story, when the Colonel, who, along with his wife, has suffered dire poverty, the death of their only son, imminent threats upon his life, and betrayals by both the government and his supposedly closest friend, can still say, without hesitation or forethought: “Life is the best thing that’s ever been invented.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is no longer among the living. Even so, the body of his writing helps make that memorable line from his stoically humorous and undefeatable colonel true. Because there was a man who could somehow gather the sum of his talents and human experience to fashion the irreverently sacred gem that is One Hundred Years of Solitude there is hope for the world, even the insanely, magically unfair world that often is Latin America, even the world that we inhabit here in the States that has so often undercut and misunderstood that world. There is a way to smile that knowing yet unjaded smile his writing invites and a way to agree that nothing beats life among human inventions. I’m feeling the urge to pick up One Hundred Years of Solitude again soon, though, once you enter Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, you never really leave.
Joe Benevento is a professor of English at Truman State University and the longtime co-editor of the Green Hills Literary Lantern. Dr. Benevento’s poems, stories, essays and reviews have appeared in Poets & Writers, The Chattahoochee Review, Pearl, Wisconsin Review, Inkwell, South Dakota Review, RE: Arts & Letter and Bilingual Review and his work has three times been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. His most recent book is The Monsignor’s Wife.