What we have forever lost

One Hundred Years of Solitude is not only a brilliant book, but also a powerful tool with which to think about how to cope with the COVID pandemic and start imagining the New Normal

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This summer I had to go to Galicia, a north-western region of Spain where much of my family is from, to run some errands. I had to go alone. I’m not going to say it was by any means terrible, the weather was good (a rarity in that corner of the Atlantic) and COVID hadn’t hit in a particularly terrible way, so the atmosphere was that of a weary people who, nonetheless, felt somewhat relieved to have mostly avoided the brunt of the pandemic. This certainly compared positively with Madrid, where I came from, a city disillusioned with itself and its rulers after suffering heavy losses from the virus. A city sharply divided, where some clapped at 8pm for the carers and essential workers, while others shouted and rallied against the central government at 9pm. A city where songs and anthems were not being played for enjoyment or out of pride, but to spite half the neighbours. A city, in short, frustrated with its lot and tired of itself.

What Galicia was, or at least what it felt to me, was lonely. And is not like I had no one to spend time with, my cousin lived only a 20-minute bike-ride away, but he had his own life and matters to deal with, so we didn’t meet up that often. Most of the time was just me, spending time with myself, at my parents’ flat. It is oddly appropriate then that I happened to pick up the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez at the local bookshop.

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Cover of the book in one of its English editions.

I had, of course, already heard of both the novel and author. García Márquez is easily the most celebrated author in the Spanish-speaking world since Cervantes and this novel is generally regarded as his Don Quixote. I had also read a few of his short novels beforehand and a couple collections of short stories written by his generational contemporaries, who share many aspects of his narrative style and belong to the same literary movement: Magical Realism.

My opinion of these books was fairly homogeneous, short and sweet stories that were beautifully written and managed to tell unbelievable stories in a surprisingly honest, verisimilar manner. Some sad, some happy, some brainy, some simple. Be it a story about a man who pukes rabbits, a woman who travels the world to meet a homeless person she keeps dreaming of, or an elderly coronel who patiently awaits for a retirement payment that never comes, all tales are united by sense of wonder at a world in which everything is possible but still displays broadly the same troubles as our own.

What I didn’t expect, was for One Hundred Years of Solitude to be far more than a longer version of these short stories and short novels. The novel has a supernatural feel about it, not so much in the content of the story but in its scope. It is noteworthy that in a story that features flying carpets, frequent conversations with the dead, a plague that makes people never sleep but also forget everything they know, and a literal ascension to the heavens, the hardest thing to believe is the existence of the book itself.

The text is dense with characters, plot threats and events. However, this is not Tolkien-style complexity in which you are blown away by the quantity of characters, places and dates —famously, the book only ever focuses on one family over the course of seven generations and the narrative never leaves the town of Macondo— but rather, it is complex in that all characters are fully-fletched, real people. They all have just the right amount of agency to be human. Even the characters that could appear larger-than-life to others around them, feel bounded by the rules of the world in a fundamental way. From this emerge multiple arches, often interwoven with many others, sometimes more autonomous, but never independent from the world they inhabit. This makes the story feel true. Truer and bigger than anything I have ever read before.

And still, this is just part of what makes this book so much more than a book. As I said earlier, the story focuses on the history of a family, the Buendías, over the course of seven generations in the town of Macondo, founded not long before the beginning of the book by the patriarch of the first generation within an area known as the Enchanted Region. Over the course of the book, the core of the family never leaves the house which they built on the founding days of Macondo. Generation after generation, names repeat and family members who never met each other fall on the same patterns of behaviour and vices as their namesake forefathers. While all unique, they seem to be unable to escape their ultimate fate, which is that all members of the Buendía family are doomed to an eventual, unavoidable loneliness.

The loneliness of madness, of the defeated coronel, the widowed wife, the ageing great-grandmother lost in her dementia, the estranged bastard or the precocious daughter, just to name a few. They are all different but still the same.

Still, solitude is just a consequence of what the world takes from you. And that is the main theme of the book to me. Circumstances change, things break, people die and, most commonly, time just passes. And with the passage of time, the world grows older and more tired: the swamps of the old Enchanted Region become banana plantations first, later just a dessert; an old colonial Spanish wooden ship is destroyed to build a canal that is only used once; and family heirlooms get destroyed or lost. The history of the Buendías might seem cyclical, but their path and destiny are clearly foreshadowed from the beginning of the novel.

Houses decay, metal rusts and bones break. Macondo dies as people move elsewhere and things that we once had never come back. The elder Buendías just mourn and never let go, so much so that after just a few generations, everything ends.

Being alone, coming from a city tired of itself, in a country with cyclical vices that never seem to change, and in a world that is currently losing so much, I found this to be a powerful parallel. After the necessary mourning, will we be able to build a society which, while different, we can still call okay? Will the New Normal actually come, or will we reminisce of what we have forever lost?

…remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no path of return, that every spring gone by can never be recovered and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end”.

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