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About the Book…

We’re going to be taking some time to post thoughts by a few KR student associates about what books they love and why. This is the first in the series, by Rob Kunzig, a rising senior at Kenyon College. He is an English / art history double major who wishes Joan Didion would call him back.

We start with stories. Stories are simple. Stories are enough–for a while. At some point we move on to novels, and our coming of age is qualified with “mature themes,” while the story, though obviously essential to the novel, is obscured by agendas of style, or language, or some meta-meaning. In some cases, the twenty-something novel reader can forget the simple joy of discovering a good story, no other qualifications, nothing else. Sometimes, this is lost in the coming-of-age.

I came to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude because I read his later novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, first; and I read it first because it had the better title. Fair enough. Love in the Time of Cholera entranced me. It was suicidally romantic, harnessing older notions of love thought arcane in the age of existentialisme, but it was also filthy, gritty, full of cruelty and uncompromising realism. But at its core, it was a novel, and it couldn’t have prepared me for One Hundred Years.

One Hundred Years doesn’t feel like a novel. It rings with the conviction of myth, something time-worn and assured. Ultimately, it feels too natural. I’m used to the synthetic taste of a self-conscious narrative; something that knows it’s a novel and in turn lets you know. With Macondo, with the Buendia family, I felt like I was dipping into history itself. There is more story in the book’s first 25 pages than you can find in most other novels.

Marquez re-taught me the joy of discovery starting with its legendary first sentence: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” In a way, it summarizes the signature Marquez tone, something always wavering between warmth and tragedy, choosing neither and never compromising. But it penetrates further, reaching back to the days when we, too, discovered ice, when were amazed that water could freeze. The wonder of simple things suspends the book in a sense of prehistory. Anything is possible, all things open to reinvention, rediscovery.

This is the magic of Magical Realism. Melquaides, the gypsy king who brings the wonders of the foreign world to Macondo, dies on the shores of Java, is buried in a deep Pacific trench, and returns from the dead with the knowledge of the afterlife. Jose Arcadio Buendia spends his final days tied to a tree in the village square, talking with the ghost of a man he murdered. Rebeca carries her parents’ bones in a tin and eats dirt. Remedios the Beauty ascends into heaven, or somewhere, through her bedroom window. At age 100, people can talk to the dead.

But there’s also the realism that provides such odd and perfect ballast for the fancy. Death, love, sickness, suicide–the troubles are endless, and unsparing. The modern world inevitably intersects with Macondo, bringing with it politics, colonialism, Christianity, and the United Fruit Company. War is intermittent and never completely gone. Striking banana workers are massacred, penned in a square by machine gun nests and cut down. The windows are opened, the animals let in, and havoc wreaked in the most fantastic way. Maraquez takes care to remember the dirt and the grime.

That’s what I remember, when I think about Macondo. The smells fill my nostrils: bodies in jungle heat, chemicals burning in Jose Arcadio Buendia’s metal shop, rot, rain, soot, gunpowder, more rain, and finally dust, which I taste more than I smell. All these things are strung together and orchestrated with such force, such sheer volume, that it’s impossible to deny. My bones are still shaking. It’s the greatest story ever told, if only because there’s nothing it fails to say. If Joan Didion is right in saying “We tell stories in order to live”–and she is–then Marquez has given life in stunning abundance.