BOOKS OF OUR LIVES: Fifty Years after reading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’

By Douglas John Imbrogno | september30.2023 |

My friend Delford and I got to discussing great books recently and our conversation landed on “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez. Released in 1970, this epic, influential book almost single-handedly created the genre of ‘magical realism’ (although literary fiction with fantastic elements goes well back in time). Delford later sent me a link to a hardcover first-edition copy priced at $25,000, signed by García Márquez and his translator. (It’s an epic translation, too, from its original Spanish when first published in 1967 as ‘Cien Años de Soledad.’) Curious, I went to my bookshelf and got down my hardback childhood copy. It turns out to be the self-same first edition in English by Harper & Row. This one’s not for sale.

Around 1970, my Mom had just taken her first employment outside the house at this new chain called Walden Books. The store manifested one day at the Tri-County Mall near ‘Forest Park: The Planned Community’ (as the signs proclaimed), a suburb 30 minutes north of downtown Cincinnati where we lived. This was in the midst of her other immense, complex job of raising and mothering the gaggle of us six kids. In another life, her restless mind and inquisitive intelligence may have led her to become a college professor, published author, maybe the owner of her own inspired business. She was a voracious, well-read autodidact of great writing, with an alert sense of world-quality literature. She must have instantly recognized “One Hundred Years of Solitude” as fine reading to bring home in her brown work satchel. She purchased the book with her employee discount and consumed that 1970 first-edition hardback, with its evocative cover showing a green jungle of leaves crossed by an ethereal sprite and a beached ship’s bow. She then passed the volume on to me as my mother often did with works she loved.

The book proceeded to blow my 13-year-old mind with its engrossing evocation of the semi-fantastic realm of Macondo (based in part on García Márquez’s hometown of Aracataca, Columbia). The tale unfolds the history of the fictional town across seven generations of its founding family, the Buendias, with a crazy-quilt weave of interwoven multi-generational storylines. To give the work a metaphor suited to a streaming-besotted 2023 audience, it’s like an epic multi-season series you binge upon and then obsess about. It has appearances by roving gypsies, hucksters and the multifaceted old writer Melquiades, who may be the author himself as a fabulist character. The Britannica page about the book sums it up well as a “labyrinthine fantasy.”

By turns picaresque and witty, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is full of conventional narrative depth interwoven with fantastical elements. Along the way, the allegory of the tale surveys a hundred years of Spanish history, from the postcolonial 1820s to the 1920s, as family patriarch José Arcadio Buendía builds the utopian city of Macondo in the middle of a swamp. There are levitating priests, flying carpets, a four-year-long rainstorm, and a young woman who ascends to heaven while folding sheets. The startling, revelatory ending still screws with my head. It changed my perception of the strange places a narrative might finally land and fixed in my wannabe writer’s soul the idea of the author as a kind of sorcerer of the story. (Jorge Louis Borges, a fellow South American writer whose work critics say influenced García Márquez, had already seeded that soil for me.)

After my exchange with Delford, I retrieve my childhood copy from the shelf. I flip through the pages, enjoying the book’s heft and solidity. How many times had I read it growing up? Two? Three? I wonder about my Mom first encountering this very book on a shelf at Walden Books at Tri-County Mall a few miles from my boyhood home. Taking it into her hands. Scanning these same pages as I am doing more than 50 years later. And what is this tucked deep within the book? A bookmark? It’s a small piece of colorful card stock. I look at it, turn it over. Oh. It is my father’s Catholic Mass funeral card, marking his birth on September 21, 1925 and his death on January 8, 2005. Beneath the dates of his entrance and exit from this world is a poem about being called away by God to heaven, titled “I NEEDED THE QUIET.”

I return the card to the book. I must have stashed the memorial card in its pages, a reunion of sorts of my parents’ two lives. They could fight like cats and dogs, and — at the worst of it — Tasmanian devils. Yet their lives were profoundly entwined and joined at the hip, although born of two divergent strains of humanity. He was more working class and earthy. He rarely if ever cracked any of the books and magazines with which my cerebral, world-starved mother crowded that house, chasing a restless, avid desire to learn new things.

They raised us nettlesome kids well, though. After my mom’s torturous passing from Alzheimer’s disease with him at her side to the end, he was gone within a year, having lost the one person in the universe who knew all his stories and about whom his world revolved, despite their frequent altercations and disharmony.

My mother and father on the day they sailed off into marriage.

I close the book by García Márquez, whose swarthy face, black hair and wrinkled brow in a photograph on the back cover recall my own father’s visage as he aged. I set it upon the reading table beside my living room easy chair. Those are some deep connections there within the 441 pages of a classic of world literature about a complicated family.

Ours, too.

I realize that it is time to re-read “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Thanks to Jeff Seager for his editing feedback on this piece.

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