It was in June 1967 – one of the iciest months ever recorded in Buenos Aires – that Argentinian readers first encountered an unforgettable 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.” So begins Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel that this month has been in print for fifty years.
Many years later, as García Márquez faced celebrity and fame, he confessed that “nothing was the same” after the publication of the novel. He was dead right; nothing was the same either for him or for Latin American literature. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 and the novel cemented the literary scaffoldings of Latin American “magic realism,” a genre of narrative fiction initiated years earlier by Cuba’s Alejo Carpentier.
On Tuesday, 30 May, 1967 Argentina’s Sudamericana press printed the last of 350 pages of the first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel that García Márquez had intended to call The House. Six days later, on Monday 5 June, the novel showed up on the streets of Buenos Aires with a cover by an anonymous designer. The design of the original one, commissioned from Mexican painter Vicente Rojo, failed to arrive on time. The copy that hit the streets showed three geometric golden flowers at the bottom and a galleon, perhaps Spanish, aground in the middle of a negative photo effect with a blue-greyish jungle.
Eight thousand copies were sold in the first week in the Argentinean capital alone. Since then more than 50 million copies have been sold. Since its original publication in Spanish the novel has been translated into 37 languages. Fortunately not a single movie has been made of the novel. García Márquez wouldn’t allow it. It was “unfilmable,” he declared.
A road epiphany on a trip between Mexico City and Acapulco allowed García Márquez to finally start writing One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabo told the story countless times. On January 1965 he was driving his family car – a 1962 Opel – to the seaside town of Acapulco, on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Aged 38, he had already written Leaf Storm (1955); No One Writes to the Colonel, (1958); Big Mama’s Funeral (1962) and In Evil Hour (1962). But it was One Hundred Years of Solitude that had been fermenting in his imagination since the early 1950s when, as a young man, he went back to Aracataca, in Colombia’s Caribbean Region. He was born there in 1927.
When he reached Cuernavaca – 86 kilometres south of Mexico City – he abruptly stopped the car in a blitz of ideas. Here was the novel he had always wanted to write. The novel was – as he remembered – “so ripe that I could have dictated the first chapter – word by word – to a typist.”
Without delay he returned to Mexico City, walked into the studio that he dubbed “the cave of the mafia”, and sat in front of his Smith Corona typewriter. García Márquez wrote for 18 months from 9am to 3pm every day while his wife Mercedes worked to keep the family afloat. By then he had smoked 30,000 cigarettes. But the manuscript was done.
In a story for the Spanish newspaper El Pais, in 2007, García Márquez wrote about how the manuscript reached the city of Buenos Aires. The story was as turbulent as his magnificent novel. “In early August, 1966 Mercedes and I went to the post office in Mexico to send the finished edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude to Buenos Aires,” he recalled. The heavy parcel was addressed to Francisco Porrua, literary director of Sudamericana. “The employee of the post office placed the parcel on the balance, did some mental arithmetic and stated: it is 82 pesos.” Mercedes – his wife – counted the loose coins inside her purse and pronounced: “We have only 53.” They took the decision to open the parcel and split it in two equal parts. They sent one without knowing how to post the rest. Soon after, “we realised that we hadn’t sent the first part. We sent the end.”
After receiving the first printed copy from Sudamericana García Márquez destroyed his original manuscript so – as he said – “nobody would be able know either the secret tricks or the carpentry of his writing.” (He spared the galley proofs where he had made 1,026 corrections and structural changes to the text; from rearranging paragraphs to striking through sentences.)
García Márquez’s masterpiece was celebrated by the left and the right. Julio Cortázar said it rescued Latin American literature from its “boring obstination to paraphrase circumstances and chronicles.” And Jorge Luís Borges described it as novel that is “profound as the cosmos and open to endless interpretations”. A “literary feat”, declared Mario Vargas Llosa.
Apocryphal tales are not in short supply in Latin America and soon many of them emerged about the novel. One of them involved two giants of Latin American writing, Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. After reading the novel Fuentes telephoned Paz and told him that the novel of the twentieth century had been already written.
Critics pounced on the English translation, which came out in 1970. In his New York Times review, Robert Kiely described it as an “astonishing novel”. In an attempt to come up with a summary of the plot he wrote: “The book is a history, not of governments or of formal institutions of the sort which keep public records, but of a people who, like the earliest descendants of Abraham, are best understood in terms of their relationship to a single family.” The seven generations of the Buendias lived in the mythological town of 300 called Macondo, a town that, before it was built, was the dream of a “noisy city with mirror-walled houses”, that of the patriarch Arcadio Buendía.
The name of the town had been in García Marquéz’s imagination since his days in Aracataca which is where he saw the word Macondo imprinted on a banana plantation’s property sign. For Carlos Fuentes, Macondo became a universal region where fictional history co-exists with”‘real” history. Macondo is the place where – as García Márquez once said – the reality of Latin America is “made credible.” In 2006 the former mayor of Aracataca, Pedro Sánchez, organised a referendum to change the name of of the town to Macondo. It was a resounding victory for the yes option; however, it was a flawed one; only 7,000 out of the 35,000 inhabitants of the town voted. To the mortification of the mayor the name Aracataca was kept.
The smell of guavas, the lyrics and the cadence of the music of the valley – the Vallenato – and the all year-round tropical heat and humidity of Aracataca gave One Hundred Years of Solitude its texture. The style of storytelling, however, came from García Márquez’s grandmother, Doña Tranquilina Iguarán. García Márquez was two years old when his parents moved to Barranquilla, in the north of Colombia. He was left with his grandparents.
Doña Tranquilina told him tales of ghost and premonitions. García Márquez recalled in a 1981 interview with Peter H Stone in The Paris Review, that his grandmother “told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness.” Doña Tranquilina – he said – “treated the extraordinary as perfectly normal.” And in his grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Ricardo Márquez Mejía who fought in the Thousand Days War – one of Colombia’s civil conflicts – he discovered Colonel Aureliano Buendia who, like his grandfather, spent his life fighting against the government.
But it is in the history of Latin America that the novel is anchored. For Latin Americans it gave us a sense of who we are and how we ended up to the neck in contradictions, dramas and unfullfiled dreams. The region’s history is – García Márquez said – “the summation of excessive and useless efforts, with doomed dramas destined beforehand to be forgotten.” In the characters of the novel – “all Latin America saw the vicissitudes of its history incarnated in the persuasive power of their characters,” wrote Colombian journalist and author Juan Gustavo Cobo-Borda in Nexos.
Fifty years on, One Hundred Years of Solitude is still providing profound insights into our evolving human tale where horrors co-exist with wonders, where absurdities don’t provoke a blink. The warning of the last lines of the novel has daily relevance in the twenty-first century: “...races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”
This article first appeared on Sydney Review of Books.