Monday, January 20, 2020

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez was reread for me. First published in 1967, this novel has become very famous. This book is probably the most widely known example of the writing style  known as magical realism. During this go around I found the novel  to be very deserving of all the accolades that it has received over the years. I read the English translation by Gregory Rabassa. This may be the only English translation of this book as it was approved by the author.

This novel is a multigenerational story of the Buendía family who live in the fictional town of Macondo. The narrative of the tale actually runs for more than 100 years. Some sources indicate that the events of the novel run from 1790 to 1940. This seems about right. It is a bit difficult to write about the novel as it is filled with so many characters from the many generations. One aspect of the book that can be confusing is that many character names are repeated, or are similar, down through the generations. I found that having a list of character names and descriptions handy while reading.  This fits in with the book’s theme of things repeating themselves over the course of time. Much of the book is also episodic making it challenging to describe a coherent plot. 

Macondo  is founded in a South American wilderness by José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula Iguarán. Ursula is the most important character of the book. She lives to be approximately 130 years old and is present for most of the narrative. She is both enterprising and energetic in the early years. She is a moral center for the family as she is often trying to move people and events into moving the right way. The family begins to fall apart when she dies.

Melquíades is a gypsy who has a lot of technological and spiritual knowledge. He lives with the Buendía’s and leaves behind an enormous volume of prophecies that, because they are in code, no one can decipher after he dies. 

Amaranta is Ursula’s daughter who spurns several men throughout her life and becomes bitter over time. 

Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who is Ursula’s son, is a rebel commander who initiates a seemingly endless series of wars against the government. 

Remedios The Beauty grows up to be breathtakingly beautiful. She develops a personality that is removed from the world and it completely detached from life’s imperfections and the evils of the universe. 

Aureliano II is one of the last of the Buendía line. He attains great knowledge.  He also devotes much of his life to deciphering Melquíades prophecies which he finally does at the book’s end.

This style of magical realism here is characterized by a relatively traditional plot that is filled with seemingly supernatural or magical occurrences. The characters in the story take these occurrences as normal. The occurrences just happen within the narrative are not treated as  extraordinary in any way. These amazing events are not few and far between. Rather, they come at the reader very quickly, sometimes on every page. These occurrences range from Remedios The Beauty ascending to heaven on the wings of angels to a disease that creates insomnia for all of the  residents of Macondo to a rainstorm that lasts for over four years. Remedios's ascension is described, 

she said, “I never felt better.” She had just finished saying it when Fernanda felt a delicate wind of light pull the sheets out of her hands and open them up wide. Amaranta felt a mysterious trembling in the lace on her petticoats and she tried to grasp the sheet so that she would not fall down at the instant in which Remedios the Beauty began to rise. Ursula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identify the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.

The above passage is characteristic of much of the book. Though this is a translation, it seems so well written. The ascension is marvelously described, it seems absurd yet the characters are not amazed by it. The beetles and dahlias that are mentioned seem to be stand ins for the everyday doings of the world that most people experience. 

A lot of these amazing events are described in some detail and they sometimes seem to be symbolic of real life issues historical events. A fair amount of this symbolism went seemed to go over my head but I picked up some of it. 

While the style of the books seems to be playful, tragic things sometimes happen to characters and at time the brutality of the world is illustrated in executions and other forms of cruelty. One gets the feeling that Márquez is trying to comment upon the entire spectrum of life including the good and bad aspects of it all. 

There are several themes coursing through this work. As the book’s title suggests, solitude is explored. Almost every character is isolated from others in some way, some try to break out of this isolation with varying degrees of success. For instance, Aureliano II starts life out as a scholarly hermit, but he eventually gets out into the world develops a meaningful relationship. However, complications and tragedy ensue.  Amaranta spurns suiters her entire life and ends up bitter and resentful. It seems that Márquez is playing with this theme and exploring it in its many permutations. It is interesting that through much of its history, Macondo is isolated from the rest of the world. 

Repeating history also seems to be an important theme. Similar events seem to happen over and over the years. This includes the tendency for several characters to almost commit incest. Other people, often separated by generations, become rebels and run afoul of the government. As noted earlier, characters with similar names abound in this book through the generations. 

There is also a political theme. Throughout the story, the conservative authorities are shown to be brutal and corrupt. However, while the liberal rebels sometimes start out with good intentions, they are shown to descend into the same corruption and brutality engaged in by the government. This slippage characterizes the life of Colonel Aureliano Buendia. American imperialism is also examined and is shown to be harmful. As exemplified by both the plot and themes the Buendia family and Macondo are microcosms of the world at large.

This is an extraordinary book. The magical realism bursts from nearly every page and it is both creative and entertaining. This novel is alternately fun, serious and tragic. Though this style is at times strange, it does not get in the way of complex character development. Though generally episodic, the story is also creative and holds a reader’s attention. I am glad that I reread this, it is a book that deserves its reputation as a modern - day classic. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia by Willa Cather is the third book in author’s The Great Plains Trilogy. I found that this was another near brilliant novel that had complex characters and magnificently described landscapes. Though Song of the Lark was my favorite book of the three, I thought that this novel was almost as good. These books are called a trilogy but there no connection between the plots or characters.

This story is told in first person by Jim Burden. Jim is a New York lawyer. The vast majority of the book is supposedly a manuscript written by Jim detailing his youth growing up in and around Black Hawk, Nebraska in the late 1800s.  Jim is living with his grandparents who are initially famers living outside of Blackhawk but who eventually retire and go live in the town. Jim is intelligent and thoughtful. He befriends a Bohemian immigrant girl named Antonia Shimerda. Like the women characters in the other Cather books that I have read, Antonia is high spirited and shows a degree of physical toughness. She does heavy farm work including heading cattle and seems to enjoy doing so. She is also intelligent and tends to be very optimistic. 

The book chronicles the early life of both Jim and Antonia. We initially see them as children. As they move through adolescence the story portrays how they make friends with and socialize with their peers. The story takes Jim through his collage years and through some rough times for Antonia. The young woman becomes pregnant from the man who she is supposed to marry who runs off on her. Later Antonia marries someone else. Throughout the story there is a little romantic tension between Jim and Antonia but they never pair off together. The book ends twenty years into the future when Jim and Antonia renew their friendship. 

Both Antonia and Jim are very well - crafted characters. The story is also populated by interesting minor characters that range from colorful farmhands and malicious businessmen. Jim is a great storyteller and he likes to integrate all these diverse personalities into the narrative that centers upon himself and Antonia. Throughout the tale he observes that even though he has not seen these people in years, their memories continue to influence him.

The issue that is still debated by critics and regular readers of this book is the real nature of the relationship between Antonia and Jim. A few times in the narrative they seem to edge towards a romantic connection but then back off. During Jim’s collage years it seems that he would actually ask Antonia to marry him. Instead, he realizes that he is becoming a cosmopolitan person who will spend his life in the big cities, Antonia is very much tied to the land of rural Nebraska. 

When Jim and Antonia reestablish contact years later he tells her.

‘Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister— anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.’

Like Thea Kronborg in Song of the Lark, Jim becomes a person who goes beyond small town plains life. As noted above, also like Thea, at several points he mentions that throughout this time he is reminded of his younger days on the plains. He takes rural and small - town Nebraska with him wherever he goes.  Throughout the book Antonia is tied to the land. Thus, it is no surprise that thoughts of Antonia have also stayed with him. 

Throughout the story Jim is a very passive person. He is not passionate. He is not the kind of character one would find in an emotional love story. He never feels an intense love for Antonia. Yet he feels a lifelong connection with her, even after he has not seen her for years. As mentioned above, at several points in the book he does seem like he will try to initiate a relationship with Antonia but he just does not do it. At the end he seems very satisfied with just the reestablished friendship. He shows no jealousy towards Antonia’s husband who he genuinely befriends. 

Despite this, I think that Cather meant this to represent a missed opportunity. A clue to what she was trying to get at comes fairly early on the book. A young Jim and Antonia are told a story by a dying Ukrainian. The story seems to be implausible in a realistic book of this type. The story goes as follows: After the nuptial celebrations, a wedding party is traveling home on multiple sleighs through the Ukrainian countryside. The party is heading back to their native village when wolves descend on the sleighs. In an effort to fend off the wolves the bride and groom are thrown off one of the sleighs and to their deaths to lighten the load and allow the others to escape.  A Google search shows that there is no consensus as to what this story means in the context of this book.  However, some suggest that this tale is symbolic of Jim throwing away his chance to marry Antonia. This seems plausible to me. 

Like in O Pioneers! This work is filled with wonderfully crafted prose describing natural features and phenomena. In the below passage a thunderstorm that Jim and Antonia experience as children is described,

Antonia and I climbed up on the slanting roof of the chicken-house to watch the clouds. The thunder was loud and metallic, like the rattle of sheet iron, and the lightning broke in great zigzags across the heavens, making everything stand out and come close to us for a moment. Half the sky was chequered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear: in the lightning flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction. Great warm splashes of rain fell on our upturned faces. One black cloud, no bigger than a little boat, drifted out into the clear space unattended, and kept moving westward. All about us we could hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyard.

It is not surprising that as Jim gets older and travels the world, he feels that the locale and experiences of his youth are always with him. As the above passage indicates, Antonia is connected to these experiences. 

This book is a great read. Though not a lot of dramatic things happen, both the characters and their interactions are fascinating. The descriptions of landscapes are sublime and meld very well into the story. I have just recently discovered Cather but look forward to reading a many more of her books. 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

8 Years Old!

Babbling Books is eight years old today! The term often used for these milestones is blogiversary. Time seems like it is passing so quickly. It feels like it was just yesterday that I started the blog. 

Every year I thank the blogging community. I think that it is very important to do so. What makes my blog worthwhile is the people who read it and who comment here. I want to that everyone who spends time at my site. I especially want to thank the people who leave comments. My commenters are fantastic. So that you everybody who reads and comments here. 

It is also the New Year. In the past, I have never been one to make resolutions or change directions at this time of year. If I wanted to change something, I usually would do so whenever I thought to do it. However, this New Year has gotten me to thinking. Over the past year I have been reading more than a few books that focused on current social issues and the debates that surround them. While this has not been a bad direction to go in, and I feel that I gained knowledge and insight from these books, reading time is very precious.  Personally, I place greater value reading books that will be applicable ten years from now, or even one hundred years from now, over books whose ideas have a shorter shelf life. I cannot read everything that I want to so I have to pick and choose. Thus, I will likely read and post about less of these current – issue works and instead concentrate more on books that I deem to be more centered upon universal themes. That does not mean that I will completely refrain from reading books on current topics. In fact, there is one in particular, that will be published in the coming months, that I want to read and will likely want to post about. However, I will likely read less of them. 

In addition, I would like to read more books. However, I have a busy life and limited time will make this goal a little more difficult to attain. In past years I have also set out to read more and have done so. I managed to succeed in this by being more efficient with my time and devoting more time to reading. Because of these past efforts I have already plucked a lot of low hanging fruit in terms of wasted time.  Thus it will now be more difficult to increase my reading time. With that, I will try to read at least a little more in  2020. Those are my bookish thoughts and goals for the coming year. 

I hope that everyone has a fruitful and enjoyable reading year in 2020. I am looking forward to further reading adventures myself. Happy reading everyone!