Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

[Copied from my book review posted on Amazon]

After hearing all the accolades that have been bestowed on it, and receiving a personal recommendation by someone close to me, I decided to give Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s landmark Magical Realism novel a try. A hundred pages in I felt my attention waning. Two hundred pages in I was utterly bored and disgusted. The next few hundred pages were an exercise in artistic diligence, as, for the love of the craft, I forced myself to search for any hint as to what made the novel good to so many others, and forbade myself from turning away from the abyss lest I someday not recognize it in my own writing.

It is by far the hardest book to finish I’ve ever read, and when all was said and done, did not in the least bit reward my patience.

It seems to me that only those with a very limited experience with novels would find this book enthralling in the modern day. Its “storytelling” is so poor that it’s akin to our ancestor’s scratching on the walls of their cave, one dimensional and confusing and, while surely inspiring when it was first done, unfulfilling compared to the rich tapestry of written literature available to us today.

It started out okay, with a great plot hook of a first sentence: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

This plothook is occasionally mentioned for awhile as we go over not just Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s childhood, but also the lives of his parents and the way they formed the town he grew up in. Okay, great. I’m all for inter-generational stories and settings.

But the plot never truly coalesces around that hook, and it soon becomes obvious there is none. The story is a rambling exploration of a family’s ancestors and descendants, and their town’s history. And while this might be done in a truly engaging way by some authors, it’s not by this one. The sheer amount of random, pointless, and mundane details that fill the pages and pages and pages of this book can be described as nothing less than filler, to me… and I don’t necessarily think filler is a bad thing. Hell, I love the King of filler, Stephen King.

The difference is, when Stephen King spends ten pages detailing a minor character’s formative years, it’s engaging and serves to give you insight into the character. It makes you empathize or feel close to them. It fleshes them out, adds an extra dimension.

None of that ever happens in this book. It’s just random details about people’s random quirks, all written in a distant, third-person-omniscient writing style that makes it sound like a history textbook, with all the worst implications that has for immersion. There are perhaps a dozen scenes in the entire book that last longer than half a page… it’s a nightmare of “tell, don’t show” which makes it hard to care about any of the characters, even without their actions making them so utterly hard to empathize with or like.

And the “magical realism” was perhaps the most disappointing part. I thought I enjoyed magical realism when I was young, but as I grow older and read more of it, I’ve found myself despising the genre when it’s done like this: when it means nothing, nothing, to the story or characters. We hear about how flying carpets are real a few chapters into the story, and no mention is ever made of what world-shattering changes the existence of such a thing would have on history. Aureliano Buendia’s father, who was captivated by the gypsies’ magic inventions like magnets and magnifying glasses and potential alchemy, utterly ignored the power of a flying carpet and what he could do with it. To take this idiocy to the ultimate level, he later tries to search for the ocean near the town, slogging through swamps, over mountains, etc… and never once is any mention made of even considering using a flying carpet to do it.

This treatment of the supernatural makes the genre name a misnomer. Magical Realism implies that it treats the magic as real, as an affecting part of the story. Not as blatant as a fantasy story would, perhaps, but still an intrinsic part of the tale. This book is magical unrealism, because it describes the magic as if it’s real, but it has absolutely no affect on anything. None of the characters act in a realistic fashion when confronted with the magic. It’s a gimmick, pure and simple, as pretty much admitted by the author himself, just a style of storytelling his grandmother would engage in when he was young. You could take out all of the magic in the book and absolutely nothing would change.

On top of all that, it’s incredibly frustrating to read about so many unlikable characters without even a basic plot to string them together… and as if actively trying to break his readers’ immersion, the author continuously drops little bits of future events carelessly into the narrative, so that you might sometimes just meet a new character and within a few lines find out how they die. I can count on one hand the times I felt some true sense of immersion or interest in the novel, and then things went back normal.

Overall I grew quickly disillusioned with all the praise heaped on the book. Back when it first got published, maybe it was seen as “innovative” and “groundbreaking” and “transformative,” but I’ve read dozens more engaging, more educational, more impacting stories that took a quarter of the time to read as this lump of bland, flavorless drivel.

I could rant for hours about this thing, so I’ll stop there.

TL;DR: Don’t buy this book. Find a copy to read first and decide if you like it based off the first few chapters: it doesn’t get any better past that.

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