Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Cien Años de Soledad

This week caught me by surprise learning that it is the 40 th anniversary of the publication of Cien Años de Soledad, and the 80th birthday of his author.

It is easy to go bonkers on what is one of the essential books, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet the first time I tried to read it I did not like it much, I did not even finish it. These days I was in high school, molded in the Cartesian way while Zola was making slowly a socialist of me. Socialist in the good sense, not the XXI century hogwash which is refried communism cum militarism. Reading the definitely non Cartesian work of Garcia Marquez was not my cup of tea then.

Years went by. Once at home over some holiday I found the unfinished book. The same edition, by the way, on Garcia Marquez head. Then I had the strange ability, and vice I suppose, of being able to read more than one book at once and thus to leave a given book for months or even years. These days, I could just go back to the last read page and keep going on as if nothing, not even reading back a few pages. Today at the end of a newspaper article I catch myself sometimes trying to remember what was at the beginning. After picking up the book again, I got where I had left it, two thirds of the way and I finished it in a single sitting, and then went back to read the start again, though the next day I think.

I have read it twice since, and once in English. The time in English I did not read it completely I must confess, I was just checking out the quality of the translation and I was not impressed, but I still was caught enough, even in English, that I read more than half of it, jumping from highlight to highlight.

And I know that I will read it again, at least once again. It probably will be one luxurious edition, hard back, large print. I will read it sitting on a wooden rocking chair if possible, or laying in a hammock, with the window open, to let the tropical evening breeze in, to hear the deafening rainy season, or smell the dusty dry season. I will read mostly at night, a couple of pages at a time, aloud to myself. I will read it all aloud since I discovered on my last reading that it was better read aloud, like children learning. I always learn in Solitude. It is the Spanish of my childhood, it is the Spanish that took me away from my Cartesian French education and made me a Latin-American.

I have read most books of Garcia Marquez. I think that Love in the Time of Cholera might be his best work. The General in his Labyrinth was perhaps his most interesting for me, how Bolivar shaped us through his legend for better or for worse, even if it is not implicit when you read it. But all of us who know of Bolivar have him on the back of our mind as we read the book.

Saying that Cien Años is my favorite book would be silly: I have read and loved too many books to have a favorite. But One Hundred Years has something that gets to me. It is indeed so rich, one can discover so many new things each time one reads it. But that is not why it hits me. The thing about Cien Años is that it speaks to every moment of one’s life; it changes language as you get older, so it can keep talking to you. It says to us all what we need to know about our countries and our people, and how we change over time. There is probably no better introduction to Venezuela and the Chavez phenomenon than to read One Hundred Years of Solitude and follow it with Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Read these two books carefully, with an open mind, and you will realize that Garcia Marquez has said it all, has invented nothing, and just as Melquiades did in one Hundred Years he wrote his own Chronicle to foretell all what will happen in Latin America. Macondo might be Aracataca, but it is also Choroni, it is Chivacoa, it is Caracas when it was a small town, and it is Miraflores which has become a small town inside Caracas where a group of lunatics explore ideological incest.

But there is also something about Cien Años de Soledad. It has one of the best opening lines of any book I have ever read, as good, if longer, than perhaps the best opening line of all times from the Quijote:
En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.
Even if you have never read the Quijote, as is shamefully my case, you cannot help but think that this opening sentence cannot be matched in any language. Garcia Marquez almost matches it, or matches it in my very humble opinion. It could only have been matched in Spanish I suppose:
Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo. Macondo era entonces una aldea de veinte casas de barro y cañabrava construidas a la orilla de un río de aguas diáfanas que se precipitaban por un lecho de piedras pulidas, blancas y enormes como huevos prehistóricos. El mundo era tan reciente, que muchas cosas carecían de nombre, y para mencionarlas había que señalarlas con el dedo.
I do not know about you, but I am unable to read this without reading it again aloud.

But what is perhaps the most unique feature of this book is the ending. Because Cien Años has a memorable beginning but perhaps an even more memorable ending. I confess that after having read this last paragraph of the book dozens of times, I still get goose bumps each and every time I read it.
Entonces empezó el viento, tibio, incipiente, lleno de voces del pasado, de murmullos de geranios antiguos, de suspiros de desengaños anteriores a las nostalgias más tenaces. No lo advirtió porque en aquel momento estaba descubriendo los primeros indicios de su ser, en un abuelo concupiscente que se dejaba arrastrar por la frivolidad a través de un páramo alucinado, en busca de una mujer hermosa a quien no haría feliz. Aureliano lo reconoció, persiguió los caminos ocultos de su descendencia, y encontró el instante de su propia concepción entre los alacranes y las mariposas amarillas de un baño crepuscular, donde un menestral saciaba su lujuria con una mujer que se le entregaba por rebeldía. Estaba tan absorto, que no sintió tampoco la segunda arremetida del viento, cuya potencia ciclónica arrancó de los quicios las puertas y las ventanas, descuajó el techo de la galería oriental y desarraigó los cimientos. Sólo entonces descubrió que Amaranta Úrsula no era su hermana, sino su tía, y que Francis Drake había asaltado a Riohacha solamente para que ellos pudieran buscarse por los laberintos más intrincados de la sangre, hasta engendrar el animal mitológico que había de poner término a la estirpe. Macondo era ya un pavoroso remolino de polvo y escombros centrifugado por la cólera del huracán bíblico, cuando Aureliano saltó once páginas para no perder el tiempo en hechos demasiado conocidos, y empezó a descifrar el instante que estaba viviendo, descifrándolo a medida que lo vivía, profetizándose a sí mismo en el acto de descifrar la última página de los pergaminos, como si se estuviera viendo en un espejo hablado Entonces dio otro salto para anticiparse a las predicciones y averiguar la fecha y las circunstancias de su muerte. Sin embargo, antes de llegar al verso final ya había comprendido que no saldría jamás de ese cuarto, pues estaba previsto que la ciudad de los espejos (o los espejismos) sería arrasada por el viento y desterrada de la memoria de los hombres en el instante en que Aureliano Babilonia acabara de descifrar los pergaminos, y que todo lo escrito en ellos era irrepetible desde siempre y para siempre porque las estirpes condenadas a cien años de soledad no tenían una segunda oportunidad sobre la tierra.
I cannot think of anything better to write to give homage but to quote one of the most important books in my life.

-The end-

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