One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the story of the town of Macondo, sticky with nostalgia, and the Buendia family who lived out those very years of solitude. Gabo’s work is written in a style known as magical realism, in which elements of the magical and the mundane are interwoven seamlessly, making it impossible to determine where reality ends and the extraordinary begins. The story is set in an otherwise ordinary world, with familiar historical and cultural realities, although events which occur are not always explained by universal laws or familiar logic. The story was originally written in Spanish, and has since been translated into thirty-seven languages. However, as any origins or bloodlines are important- it is equally as important to note that the birthplace of this masterpiece is Latin America.
Much of the magical and resonant elements come to a climax at the end of the book. As the last chapters surge into our hearts, we are presented with the line that both summarizes the story itself, and the extraordinary magic and mysticism that is artfully omnipresent within its pages. In reference to the Buendia legacy it reads, “The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by ants.” (Marquez) At the moment we read this, we realize that Aureliano Babilonia’s son, who is bloated and still damp with the dew of birth, is being carried away by all the ants in the world. Aureliano Babilonia, the last remaining Buendia’s, is reading the manuscript of the gypsy, Melquiades, the most significant character in the novel outside of the Buendia family, who wrote the prophecy of the family one hundred years before in Sanskrit, his mother tongue.
He leads us to the demise of Macondo, as it blows away in torrents of dust and whirlwinds of longing, and as the novel comes to a close we read, Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth (Marquez).
The novel plays with our sensibilities however it is not fantasy. It is something entirely different, because it was born from the womb of a culture that is comfortable with the mythical and the conventionally unbelievable. Magical Realism could not have been born from any other mother, than the slippery Spanish speaking, and catholic mother of Latin America: a women who wishes on saints and casts spells in the form of prayers.
Magical Realism is an art form, and represents an important aspect of Latin culture. Therefore, in order to understand the symbiotic relationship between this literary style and culture, we must have a working definition of culture. Edward B, Tylor, a British anthropologist defined culture as “a complex whole including knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capability or habit acquired by human beings as members of society.” (Danesi, 3) So, culture is a conglomeration of the creations by the members of the society. However, more importantly, according to semiotician Marcel Danasi, “Societies are simultaneously the geographical and historical ‘reifications’ (manifestations) of cultures: i.e. they have existence in time and space, enfolding the signifying processes that shape and regulate the lives of the people who live within them.” (3)
The logical process of the creation of culture is that culture manifests itself from the historical and ideological backgrounds of a given sphere. According to Eduardo Restrepo, “Culture is the deepest and most solid rock of our common sense.” (Grossberg, 169) Therefore, cultural sensibilities and norms are defined and framed by the culture itself. So, any art form, which we understand to be the child of a culture, can be traced back to a historical and or ideological element. In the case of Magical Realism and its importance in Latin American culture, we can trace both its creation and wide acceptance to Catholicism, and the mystical implications of Catholicism in the region.
The iron of the blood that flows throughout Latin America is arguably Catholicism, but not Catholicism in the traditional sense, a Catholicism that was born of conquest, but was not defined by subordination. One cannot understand Latin America without understanding the history of the Catholic Church in the region. Catholicism has been predominant in Latin America and it has played a definitive role in its development. It helped to spur the conquest of the New World with its emphasis on missions to the indigenous peoples. (Schwaller)
Now, Catholicism in the region is characterized by various practices that could arguably be considered associated with magic. This was due to the transcultural assimilation of the religion. It is a religion that was brought by the Spanish and Portuguese during the conquest of the new world, but as they introduced their religion, elements of religious cultures pushed through and created a new Catholicism. It was met by various cultures such as the Mayas, Aztecs, and even Caribbean voodoo, which are all more commonly associated with mysticism. (Schwaller) Now Catholicism is scene in multiple facets of daily life in Latin America. In nearly every home you can find a statue of the Virgin Mary. “Representations of saints take center stage in Hispanic religion.
We pray, light candles and talk to our patrons, which are saints. Each Latin American country has a patron saint or virgin they celebrate. Patron Saints are also assigned to towns and regions, and we celebrate “Las Fiestas Patronales” or the patrons’ festivities in many Hispanic countries.” (“Hispanic Culture Online”) In addition, the Spanish language itself is wrought with rhetoric that implies the existence of miracles, which in this case we equate to magic. For example words like ojala, which derives from Arabic meaning literally “Allah willing” but more frequently meaning “I wish” or “I hope”, and “si dios quiere” “if God wills it”, are abundant in everyday conversation.
From a semiotic point of view, in which we seek to understand the impact of this on the culture itself, we see that language of the sort creates a certain cultural framework. The words themselves, according to Jack Solomon, …Do mean what we want them to mean. Although a word and its meaning may appear to be one and the same, the truth is that words are only signs of meaning, arbitrary symbols whose significance, like the dots and dashes of the Morse code, is determined by cultural beliefs and social convention (2).
The words used are vital within the culture, because without cultural context they would not have significance. Therefore, a culture is the sum of it’s language, and historical background. This summation is commonly known as a paradigm. Michel Foucault, who did extensive studies on paradigms and their application, asserts, “ that for a given type of action, there are different possible ways to ‘conduct oneself’.” (Harrer, 79) A paradigm is defined as “a set of associated signifiers or signifiers which are all members of some defining category, but in which each is significantly different.” (Chandler)
Cultures inevitably exist within a paradigm, and in simplistic terms a cultural paradigm can be considered the intricate web of what is significant, acceptable, and understood within a culture. The paradigm is perpetuated by language and practice. In practice we see how traditions and artistic expressions are simply mirrors that reflect the cultural paradigm as it is actively and continuously being defined by the peoples of that culture. Art must exist within a cultural paradigm, and therefore understanding those very paradigms allows us to contextually understand the significance of the art form.
As for understanding One Hundred Years of Solitude, and its use of magical realism, we can look to various religious practices in Latin American Catholicism and how the normalize the abnormal. A prime example is the patron saint San Antonio. It is common in Latin culture for a person who is single and wants love to place a statue of this saint face down. They will pray to this saint, and only once their love is found will they turn the saint face up. What we see in this example is that mythology, and beliefs that have no basis in science or fact are practiced because of their religious ubiquity, and the magical adherence to the catholic religion that most Latinos are accustomed too. This is not the only example that can be found. Another pertinent example comes from the Virgin Mary.
Latin Americans will pray to the Virgin Mary, for example, when their child falls ill. If the illness is cured, whether or not they can truly attribute this to their prayers, they will commemorate their devotion to the saint by naming their child after him. Many people even take pilgrimages to honor the importance that the saint made in their life. These instances of belief in the supernatural are commonplace, and allow us to understand how an entire culture of people could read in Marquez’s work, upon the death of Jose Arcadio Buendia: Then they went into Jose Arcadio Buendia’s room, shook him as hard as they could, shouted in his ear, put a mirror in front of his nostrils, but they could not awaken him. A short time later, when the carpenter was taking measurements for the coffin, through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling.
They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by. (Marquez) and accept that the flowers are falling from the sky, but we are not transported to a world separate from reality. We understand that their metaphoric existence is one of honoring the dead, and commemorating a life. As we read this we are living in the reality that has been constructed by Latin America herself, a culture where often times the most unbelievable and magical occurrences serve better to explain reality than the dry and lifeless recitation of reality itself.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in December of 1982 on account of his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Within his speech he recounted tales of madness and fantastical occurrences in the region. He emphasizes the fact that to him his novel resembles reality, as he understands it: A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude. (Marquez)
The solitude he describes comes to represent the unique roots of the Latin American cultural paradigm, one that renders the region lonely, because no other culture can quite believe the ‘unbridled reality’ that shaped the culture. He is but one cipher more because the creation of magical realism was prophesized hundreds of years before, when the conventionality of European society collided with the ebb and flow of the immense sorrows and beauties in Latin America. History and language led to a cultural paradigm which laid the very foundation for a book like One Hundred Years of Solitude to be written, and to answer to the resounding question, which we have been exploring throughout this essay, what’s the significance of magical realism in the cultural paradigm? we needn’t look any further than the immortal pages of the novel.
Melquiades, the gypsy who wrote the prophecy within One Hundred Years of Solitude says so poignantly “Things have a life of their own, it’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” (Marquez) The pinnacle is that Melquiades does not just say that people have a life of their own, but things. The inanimate is granted animation and soul, and it is accepted because the cultural paradigm grants importance to that which cannot necessarily be tangibly explained or experienced.
Latin America, rich with history of conquest, built from the alchemy and melding of various cultures to create a new identity, and alight with Spanish that linguistically reinforces the existence of God and the supernatural, had to be the birthplace of magical realism. Latin America is a region in which the lines between the magical and real are blurred. So, the creation of the genre of magical realism simply represents the acceptance that in telling a story as resounding as one of one hundred years of solitude in a sleepy, fictional town of Macondo, metaphor and magic become more truthful than even the truth itself, just as in Latin American culture the spiritual is granted more importance and potency than the literal.
Chandler, Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners.” . N.p., 26 2002. Web. 27 Nov 2012.<http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem03.html>.
Danesi, Marcel. Analyzing Cultures: An Introduction & Handbook. Indiana: IndianaUniversity Press, 1999. Print.
Grossberg, Lawrence. Cultural Studies in the Future Tense. Durham: DukeUniversity Press, 2010. Print.
“Hispanic Religion The Catholic Traditions, Meaning & Celebrations AmongHispanics.” Hispanic Culture Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov 2012.<http://www.hispanic-culture-online.com/hispanic-religion.html>.
Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Harper, 1970. Print.
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. “The Solitude of Latin America.” Nobel Prize AwardCeremony. Sweden, Stockholm. 08 1982. Speech.
Schwaller, John Frederick. The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America. NewYork: NYU Press, 2012. eBook.