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Analysis of Gabriel García Márquez’s Novels

Gabriel García Márquez (1927 – 2014) denies that the fictional world he describes in his novels is a world of fantasy. In an article about fantasy and artistic creation in Latin America, he concludes: “Reality is a better writer than we are. Our destiny, and perhaps our glory, is to try to imitate it with humility, and the best that is possible for us.” Perhaps because García Márquez began writing as a journalist, this attitude permeates much of his writing, and this version of reality is reflected in his fiction. A deep-seated strain of antirationality underlies all of his fiction, which deals with Latin American “reality” in broad terms, rejecting the narrow regionalism of his literary fathers. The result is a type of fiction that transcends its regional base, a Faulknerian fiction that one critic of Spanish American literature, John S. Brushwood, called “transcendent regionalism.” A selfproclaimed admirer of Faulkner, García Márquez has worked toward a transcendent regionalism in nearly all his works, with varying degrees of success. His redefinition of realism implies a faithfulness to a higher truth, a mythical level of reality that a more pedestrian realism cannot comprehend. These three factors—antirationality, transcendent regionalism, and myth—are integral to the aesthetics of García Márquez’s fiction, aesthetics that balance journalistic depictions of historical events with fantastic stories and cultural myths.

Leaf Storm

García Márquez’s first published work of long fiction was the novella Leaf Storm. Asked in 1982 to judge how the young García Márquez wrote this tale, the mature writer had the following response:

With passion, because he wrote it quickly, thinking he wouldn’t write anything else in his lifetime, that that one was his only opportunity, and so he tried to put in everything he had learned up to then. Especially literary techniques and tricks taken from American and English writers he was reading.

As anyone who reads Leaf Storm recognizes immediately, the apprentice writer used techniques from Faulkner. The parallels between Leaf Storm and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) in structure and narrative point of view are blatant.

The setting of Leaf Storm is Macondo during approximately the first quarter of the twentieth century, and the action centers on an unnamed doctor, believed to be from France, who had lived in Macondo during this twenty-five-year period and who ultimately committed suicide. All of this is revealed through three narrators who attend the doctor’s wake, a nine-year-old boy, his mother, and his grandfather; the multiple points of view involve the reader in a process of discovery. The content of the boy’s narration tends to be limited to his immediate situation, revealing primarily what he sees at the wake and how he feels at the moment. The mother’s scope is broader; she relates information and anecdotes beyond the immediate circumstance, although limited primarily to her own friends. The grandfather’s narration provides a historical account of the doctor’s life and Macondo. The effect of this structure is a deeper penetration into the reality of Macondo than either a strictly personal or a strictly historical version would have allowed.

Leaf Storm is a point of departure in establishing elements basic to all of García Márquez’s fiction. The underlying antirationality of this structure lies in the fact that effects are often apparent before causes, or, in some cases, causes never surface. The reader can never rationally explain, for example, why the town’s priest reads from the Bristol Almanac or why the doctor eats grass for dinner. The novel has the formal elements of transcendent regionalism: García Márquez constructs a story of universal thematic scope—death, solitude—on a clearly defined regional base. One reason the novel does not have the universal appeal of his later fiction is the author’s relative ineffectiveness in creating a mythical level of reality. The portrayals of both the doctor and the grandfather make them characters with mythic potential, but neither their characterization nor any other aspect of the novel creates a true sense of myth in Leaf Storm. Consequently, Leaf Storm is an important, but not totally successful, step in the creation of the Macondo that later will blossom in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The next steps in García Márquez’s apprenticeship for the creation of One Hundred Years of Solitude were the novella No One Writes to the Colonel and the short novel In Evil Hour. Both are more firmly based on Colombia’s historical reality than most of the writer’s later work. This reality is la violencia, the period of civil war during the 1950’s. No One Writes to the Colonel is the story of a stoic retired colonel who waits fifteen years for a pension check that never arrives. In addition to the psychological portrayal of this colonel, the characterization and actions of other characters reveal a town suffering from corruption and repression. This backdrop is García Márquez’s subtle means of incorporating the social and political realities of life in Colombia during this period. For example, the colonel’s son is killed because of his political activism, but this matter never takes the form of direct political denunciation on the part of the author. A traditional omniscient narrator tells this story in a linear fashion.

In Evil Hour

In Evil Hour also features a controlling omniscient narrator and basically linear development of the story, but here García Márquez employs a juxtaposition of scenes to create a montage effect. Someone puts up placards that undermine the town’s stability. These anonymous notes contain personal accusations that lead to conflicts: physical fights, people moving from the town, and even deaths. The mayor, who had been proud of the control he had established in the town before the appearance of the placards, is forced to repress the town’s inhabitants in order to maintain order. García Márquez captures the essence of the fear and distrust that pervaded the national consciousness in Colombia at the time.

The antirationality of these stories functions as the catalyst of the anecdotes. In No One Writes to the Colonel, it is the inexplicable hope that the colonel has that he will receive the important letter he awaits. The antirational element in In Evil Hour is the presence and effect of the placards. Neither of these phenomena is fully explainable in rational terms, although the reader’s speculation is invited. Both works transcend their regional base by capturing universal essences: the hope of the colonel and the fear of the town’s inhabitants in In Evil Hour. The only element that approaches mythic dimensions is the characterization of the colonel in the first of these two books.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

“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.” These are the opening words of García Márquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Most readers have found themselves swept from these lines through the discovery of ice, to the firing squad and beyond, unable to forget the enchantment of Macondo and the attractiveness of the novel. As a matter of fact, few critics have passed the opportunity to comment on the possible sources of this very attractiveness. Many have pointed to the author’s masterful synthesis of various literary traditions, from the individual biography to the epic. Other critics seem to contradict one another by attributing the novel’s attractiveness, on one hand, to its purely invented reality and, on the other, to its truthful depiction of Colombian history. Many readers are clearly attracted by the humor. In addition, the novel has other interesting characteristics: its people, its fantasy, its plot suspense, its craftsmanship, and its sense of wholeness. It is a novel that is difficult to capture—to describe appropriately or analyze—because of the intangible quality of much of the reader’s experience. Some critics have found the term Magical Realism useful in dealing with this novel, in which a narrator describes with perfect naturalness a scene of a character ascending to Heaven and in which no one seems to notice the massacre of thousands of striking workers. Paradoxically, despite the numerous difficulties such a novel presents for the critic, it is not at all difficult to read.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a family saga that tells the story of five generations of Buendías. It begins with the foundation of Macondo by José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Ursula. Despite their fear that the consummation of their marriage will result in the birth of a child with a pig’s tail (there is a family precedent for such an event), José Arcadio Buendía decides to challenge fate to protect his image as a man. A second Macondo is established after José Arcadio Buendía kills a man in the original town. In its early years Macondo is somewhat primitive, albeit a kind of paradise. Macondo’s only contact with the outside world is provided by gypsies, who bring items such as the ice and magnets, which the inhabitants find amazing. They suffer an insomnia plague that results in the loss of both sleep and memory.

Modern civilization finally reaches Macondo, along with its numerous institutions, and with the arrival of the national political parties come civil wars caused by their conflicts. The Americans bring economic prosperity and exploitation of the workers on the banana plantations. These intrusions of foreigners and modernity are eliminated by a flood that washes them away and returns Macondo to a state similar to its original paradise. In the end, Macondo is not a paradise, however, but a fiction:A member of the Buendía family deciphers a parchment written in Sanskrit that foretold the entire story of the family and Macondo from beginning to the end—that is, the story of One Hundred Years of Solitude. History is the completion of a fiction.

Part of the playfulness in the development of the plot of this novel involves following the intricate Buendía family line. The original José Arcadio Buendía engenders two sons, José Arcadio and Aureliano. The latter becomes identified as Colonel Aureliano. All their offspring also carry similar names—Arcadio, Aureliano José, Jose Arcadio Segundo, and so on—making following the Buendía family line an exercise in futility or a challenging game of identities. The English translation of the novel, unlike the original Spanish edition, includes a genealogical chart.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is ostensibly a traditional novel that tells a story in a basically linear fashion. It is also a product of technical mastery by a superb craftsman of fiction. The novel’s structure is cyclical, from the internal cycles of events that repeat within the novel to the broader cycle completed with the deciphering of the parchments.

García Márquez’s handling of narrative point of view is enormously subtle, although it is managed with deceptive simplicity. On one hand, the omniscient narrator tells the story with a perspective similar to a child’s view of the world. Consequently, this childlike narrator views and describes the world with freshness and innocence, taking for granted the incredible events of Macondo. Conversely, the narrator is surprised and amazed about things that are normally considered ordinary, such as ice and magnets. García Márquez’s style is based on a use of hyperbole, a constant source of humor. One of the most hilarious hyperbolic characterizations is of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, whose machismo is the target of García Márquez’s superb satire.

The antirationality of One Hundred Years of Solitude is not only a characteristic but also a fundamental principle of the entire narrative system. Entrance into the magical world of Macondo is an acceptance of the negation of rationality. It is soon apparent that everything is possible in Macondo. The work’s transcendent regionalism can be visualized as a series of concentric circles emanating from Macondo. The circles near the center inscribe a reality of the Caribbean coast and Colombia— both its historical reality and myths. Larger circles contain patterns associated with all of Latin America, such as the tradition of machismo. Finally, the novel’s connotations are universal; on this level one reads the work as a contemporary novelization of the biblical Creation and other universal patterns, such as the fear of incest that pervades the story.

Perhaps the most important achievement of this novel, however, is its expression of a mythic reality. One aspect of this is mythic time that negates linear time. The repetition of numerous cycles, such as the names of the members of the Buendía family, creates this sense of an eternal present. The characterization of Colonel Aureliano Buendía and Ursula makes them characters who function at a mythic level beyond the limits of everyday reality and the capabilities of persons in the everyday world. There is also a biblical level of reading that develops myth from Creation and Original Sin to the apocalyptic ending. García Márquez’s creation of a traditional yet fascinating story, his mastery of narrative technique, and his creation of myth make One Hundred Years of Solitude not only one of the most important novels from Latin America of the twentieth century but also a work appreciated by an international readership.

The Autumn of the Patriarch

Some critics were disappointed with The Autumn of the Patriarch when it appeared, as they found the work to have neither the accessibility nor the magical world of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Judged on its own artistic merit, however, The Autumn of the Patriarch is an outstanding novel marked by the superb craftsmanship and humor characteristic of almost all García Márquez’s fiction.

Several major Latin American writers published novels about dictators in the 1970’s. García Márquez’s novel deals with a dictator in an unnamed Caribbean nation. The dictator figure is a synthesis of many dictators, historical and fictional; García Márquez had spent many years researching these tyrants. The novel begins with the image of a dictator’s corpse rotting in his presidential palace. From the discovery of the corpse by an unidentified narrator within the story, the narrative moves away from the immediate situation to relating events from the dictator’s past. His life is bizarre and fantastic, as he is willing to take any measure—including serving one of his generals roasted on a platter—to intimidate others and maintain his power.

The structure and style of The Autumn of the Patriarch can present a challenge for readers; its consistently long sentences have caused some to question whether García Márquez bothered with punctuation at all. In reality, the author paid careful attention to even the lengths of the sentences in this prose poem. In each succeeding chapter, García Márquez uses progressively longer sentences, culminating in the last chapter, which is a single sentence. The use of multiple narrative voices within these extensive sentences creates a full portrayal of the pitiful dictator and is a source of much of the novel’s humor.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Although it is a relatively minor work in García Márquez’s oeuvre, the short novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold is an interesting tour de force. The story centers on the assassination of its central character, Santiago Nassar. A pair of brothers kill him to save the honor of their sister, Angela Vicario.

Fascinating occurrences abound in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but perhaps the most incredible of all is the series of events surrounding the assassination itself: Everyone in the town, including Nassar himself, knows that he is going to die; nevertheless, nothing is done to obstruct the seemingly inevitable series of events leading to his death. The novel consists of five chapters that relate the story in a generally chronological fashion. The time span is quite limited: The first chapter tells the events of the morning of the assassination; the second chapter relates the courtship of Angela Vicario by Nassar up to the evening of the marriage; the third chapter covers that evening. In the fourth chapter, the narrator moves ahead in time, telling of events after the assassination, such as the autopsy. The last chapter returns to the original chronology, providing the graphic details of the killing on the morning after the wedding. García Márquez’s major accomplishment in this work is having written a story that maintains the reader’s interest despite the fact that its denouement is announced in the first sentence.

Love in the Time of Cholera

In Love in the Time of Cholera, García Márquez accomplishes quite a different objective, exploring the various facets of romantic love, including both those that are readily observable and those that exist solely in the imaginations of those involved. This novel begins with the death of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, husband to Fermina Daza. Daza, in turn, is the long-standing love interest of Florentino Ariza, whose reappearance shortly after the death of Urbino prompts a reexamination of Daza’s romantic history. Rather than the guiltily quixotic recollection one might expect under such circumstances, what follows is an examination of the incredible range of passion and tedium experienced during the course of a long marriage. Although criticized for being overly sentimental, this book continues García Márquez’s tradition of mixing the real and the imaginary, the extraordinary and the commonplace, this time in the domestic sphere rather than a broader historical or political context, but with similarly effective dramatic results. By focusing such intense attention on what would be insignificant events from an outsider’s perspective, García Márquez effectively portrays the self-referential world of love, in which each couple exists as the center of their own universe.

The General in His Labyrinth

In his next novel, García Márquez returns to the overtly rather than the personally political. The General in His Labyrinth relates the final days of General Simón Bolívar, who, having wrested his people from Spanish rule, subsequently struggled (and failed) to save them from themselves and each other. Unlike Love in the Time of Cholera, in which the intricacies of romantic relationships are the focus of the story, The General in His Labyrinth centers on political intrigue and malfeasance, with romantic dalliances playing a subordinate (though discomfiting) role. More disturbing, however, is the notion that because this novel treats Latin American history in greater depth than do any of García Márquez’s previous works, it is less susceptible to embellishment because of the inflammatory nature of the events on which the novel is based. In this story, the facts themselves are the stuff of myth, blurring the line between factual, journalistic telling and García Márquez’s trademark

Of Love and Other Demons

The contrast reemerges in García Márquez’s next novel, Of Love and Other Demons. This story has its roots in an event that García Márquez witnessed when he was a reporter, in which the coffin of a young woman was exhumed from a grave in which it had lain for two hundred years. When the casket was opened, it was found to contain not only the body of the woman, long dead, but also yards and yards of her hair, still attached to her skull and as vibrant as that of a living person. From this factual event, with the addition of select details of a story his grandparents had told him of a girl who was killed after having contracted rabies, García Márquez contrives the story of Sierva Maria, a character who, like her real-life counterparts, seems to be defined by the circumstances of her death rather than by those of her life. In this story, as in The General in His Labyrinth, the most notable dangers are not from the supernatural or the fantastic but rather from ordinary human passions channeled toward violent (but human) ends.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

The setting of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, García Márquez’s return to long fiction after a ten-year absence, is an unknown city in Colombia. The principal character is a ninety-year-old retired man who still writes musical critiques for the local newspaper’s Sunday editorial page. He decides to give himself a present for his ninety-first birthday: a night spent with a young virgin (in this case, the fourteen-year-old Delgadina). This novel presents the reader with a sharp juxtaposition of sexual extremes. The protagonist has spent a lifetime insisting on paying for any sexual act, thereby maintaining a posture of physical intimacy without any love. The work is somewhat reminiscent of Vladmir Nabokov’s well-known novel Lolita (1955), but the expected gender roles—of an older man psychologically dominating a teenage girl—are reversed. That is, the elderly journalist never physically consummates the relationship; instead, he finds himself unable to wake the sleeping Delgadina and comes to realize that love is not a product of sex but rather of emotional connection with another human. While Delgadina continues her innocence through her sleep, the journalist awakens to the simplicity of romance.

Here, García Marquez’s Magical Realism is also inverted. Instead of the author presenting irrational and fantasy acts to produce a rational structuring of everyday reality in the mind of the reader, the simple existence and common wishes of a young girl produce an irrational state of fascination and adoration in the protagonist. This duality of realities forces the reader to confront societal and individual preconceptions about sexuality, love, prostitution, age, and obscenity. Through this work, García Márquez brings the reader to question the moral and aesthetic points of love and sex. Could it be that nobody can live a complete life succumbing to some obscene temptation?

By the end of the work, the journalist realizes that it is not money or material wealth that must be constantly renewed in life. Instead, love must be maintained intact from the first moment it is acquired. The protagonist, at an advanced age, discovers that in matters of love, age and time are irrelevant. In the novel’s final scene, it is revealed that romance is timeless and that the journalist is condemned to die from a joyous suffering of his only true love—someday after he reaches one hundred years of age.

Each of García Márquez’s novels highlights the conflicts that have defined Latin America since the beginning of the twentieth century—the tensions between centuries-old myth and modern rationalism, between authentic and imagined dangers, between the fantastic and the ordinary. These negotiations take place in all arenas, from the domestic sphere to the upper echelons of government. In each case, the relationship between the real and the fantastic must be constantly redefined in relationship to the circumstances of the characters through whom the tale is told. It is this ability to capture the perceptual chaos that arises from such ideological clashes that makes García Márquez one of the greatest authors of all time.

Major works
Short fiction: Los funerales de la Mamá Grande, 1962 (Big Mama’s Funeral, stories included in No One Writes to the Colonel, and Other Stories, 1968); Isabel viendo llover en Macondo, 1967 (Monologue of Isabel Watching It Rain in Macondo, 1972); No One Writes to the Colonel, and Other Stories, 1968; Relato de un náufrago, 1970 (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor:Who Drifted on a Liferaft for Ten Days Without Food or Water, Was Proclaimed a National Hero, Kissed by Beauty Queens, Made Rich Through Publicity, and Then Spurned by the Government and Forgotten for All Time, 1986); La increíble y triste historia de la Cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada, 1972 (Innocent Eréndira, and Other Stories, 1978); Leaf Storm, and Other Stories, 1972; El negro que hizo esperar a los ángeles, 1972; Ojos de perro azul, 1972; Todos los cuentos de Gabriel García Márquez, 1975 (Collected Stories, 1984); Doce cuentos peregrinos, 1992 (Strange Pilgrims: Twelve Stories, 1993).
Nonfiction: La novela en América Latina: Diálogo, 1968 (with Mario Vargas Llosa); Cuando era feliz e indocumentado, 1973; Chile, el golpe y los gringos, 1974; Crónicas y reportajes, 1976; Operación Carlota, 1977; De viaje por los países socialistas, 1978; Periodismo militante, 1978; Obra periodística, 1981- 1999 (5 volumes; includes Textos costeños, 1981; Entre cachacos, 1982; De Europa y América, 1955-1960, 1983; Notas de prensa, 1961-1984, 1999; Por la libre, 1974-1995, 1999); El olor de la guayaba: Conversaciones con Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, 1982 (The Fragrance of the Guava: Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in Conversation with Gabriel García Márquez, 1983; also known as The Smell of Guava, 1984); La aventura de Miguel Littín, clandestino en Chile, 1986 (Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín, 1987); Noticia de un secuestro, 1996 (News of a Kidnapping, 1997); Por un país al alcance de los niños, 1996 (For the Sake of a Country Within Reach of the Children, 1998); Vivir para contarla, 2002 (Living to Tell the Tale, 2003).

Bibliography
Bell, Michael. Gabriel García Márquez: Solitude and Solidarity. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Bell-Villada, Gene H., ed. Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.
_______. Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Gabriel García Márquez. Updated ed. New York: Chelsea House, 2007.
García Márquez, Gabriel. “Gabriel García Márquez (1981).” In Latin American Writers at Work, edited by George Plimpton. New York: Modern Library, 2003.
McMurray, George R., ed. Critical Essays on Gabriel García Márquez. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.
McNerney, Kathleen. Understanding Gabriel García Márquez. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Martin, Gerald. Gabriel García Márquez: A Life. London: Bloomsbury, 2008.
Minta, Stephen. García Márquez: Writer of Colombia. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

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Categories: Experimental Novels, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Magical Realism, Novel Analysis, Postmodernism

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