Geez louise, everything I’m learning lately seems so connected. I think of this post as a sort of continuation of the last one, though I’m not sure I will be able to express how they are related in my head very clearly.

I just finished One Hundred Years of Solitude (finally), and I am tempted to just go back to page one and read it all over. And then again. It is without a doubt the densest novel I have ever read—so dense, in fact, that I found the experience of reading it a lot more enjoyable than trying to talk about it.  Not because there isn’t anything to talk about, but because there is just too much. I walked away from almost every conversation we had in class feeling like we never got to the root of what Marquez is saying.

One concept we kept coming back to was the idea of cyclical time. By following the same family, the Buendia’s, through six generations, Marquez is able to present a pattern of familial habits impossible to ignore. The family not only recycles names (there are literally five characters named Aureliano, not counting the 17 sons of one Aureliano, all named Aureliano…), they also recycle obsessions and vices.

Ursula, the matriarch of the family, seems to be the only one that recognizes that time is repeating itself, that the same mistakes are being made by each generation. But since she has too vague a grasp on the past to retell it, the most she can give are subtle warnings. She warns her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren against incest, but they refuse to listen—aunts are impregnated by nephews, sisters by brothers. It’s all a physical manifestation of a deeper problem: the family’s inability to break out of itself.

In interviews about his book, Marquez says he is not trying to make general statements about humanity through the Buendia family, but rather illustrate problems brought about by the colonization of Latin America. Still, I think we have something to learn from the Buendias.

In Torrey, we just finished up the semester with the book of Ecclesiastes. This book used to really intimidate me, but the more I learn about it, the more I love it. I’m still pretty confused about a lot of it, but One Hundred Years of Solitude has actually helped me understand bits and pieces.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon (or the narrator, who most scholars believe to be Solomon) reflects on the vanity of “life under the sun” and the cyclical nature of human actions:

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun…No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11)

I am finally beginning to understand one reason my Torrey mentors think reading primary sources is so important. Instead of reading 21st century commentaries on Aristotle or Locke, we read Aristotle and Locke, because intellectual history is important. It helps me see what parts of my worldview are just products of the culture I live in, and what parts are essential.

And though I am thankful for my education, there are some days I find myself relating a little too much to Aureliano Buendia. In the last few pages of the book, Aureliano finds himself sitting in a chair that was occupied not only by his recently deceased lover, but also by his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. And, for the first time in his life, “he was unable to bear the crushing weight of so much past.” Just like I felt when I was little and began to learn just how big the world is, there have been many times over the past year or so when I have felt overwhelmed by how big the past is. It sounds silly, but there is even a loneliness that comes with an awareness (however small) of the past, because our world seems so present and future-minded.

But instead of being ignorant of the past or crushed by its weight, Aureliano chooses to look at the present worlds for clues telling him how to keep living: “he admired the persistence of the spider webs on the dead rosebushes, the perseverance of the rye grass, the patience of the air in the radiant February dawn.”

Magic words

April 27, 2011

Magic realism has been one of my favorite genres for years. I’m not sure what initially turned me on to it, but stories like Aimee Bender’s “Tiger Mending” and Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Ceiling” have fueled my enthusiasm.

Scholar Scott Simkins describes magic realism as a genre that creates a reality “in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality.” Yah, he does a better job than I could. Basically, I love magic realism because it dares to express realities deeper than those we see in the material world. It makes the intangible tangible without losing the wonder and mystery of the universe and human experience.

Lately I have been reading Jorge Luis Borges’ collection of short stories, Labyrinths, for one of my classes. Initially, I loved the stories. They challenged me and made me want to explore Borges’ created worlds and learn something from them. But after reading several more of his stories, I started to catch on to a pattern. Every story, while beautifully written, ends with the same sort of mind-flipping trick (it was all a dream, the narrator isn’t who he thinks he is, etc.). I came to expect these Inception-like plot twists, and they began to frustrate me. I found myself wondering if Borges was trying to show me a truer truth by deconstructing my view of reality, or if he was just trying to entertain me by formulaically plugging in surprise endings to his stories.

Entertainment is good, but only in the moment. When I read People magazine, I am happy to have something pass the time, but that’s all it does. Since it doesn’t carry over into the way I live my life, I think it’s probably a waste of time (though I’m definitely not saying I never indulge).

I wasn’t until a class discussion that I realized I’m not giving Borges nearly enough credit if I think his stories are only meant to entertain. It took a few people to comment on how they didn’t really connect with Borges’ stories for me to realize how much I did connect with them. Despite not really understanding the big picture of any of his pieces, it is the magic of Borges’ sentences—the passing descriptions or the momentary reflections of a character—that convince me there is much more to his writing than I realize. Though the “connection” to the work I feel is vague and difficult to verbalize, I know Borges has taught me something.

And reading probably the most famous work of magic realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, is helping me learn how to decipher the magic (or perhaps embrace the undecipherable). I tried to read Marquez’s masterpiece years ago but quit somewhere along the way because I kept confusing characters (this time, I keep a handy-dandy list as a bookmark so I can actually follow what is going on). Like with Borges, I am finding Marquez’s sentences more meaningful than the narrative itself, but I’m almost positive that’s because I don’t understand the big picture yet (I’m only about one fifth of the way through). Still, I have loved reading the book so far, and I am determined to stick with it this time.

p.s. Two beautiful sentences.

Borges on surprises:

“Years of solitude had taught him that, in one’s memory, all days tend to be the same, but that there is not a day, not even in jail or in the hospital, which does not bring surprises, which is not a translucent network of minimal surprises.” (The Waiting)

Marquez on eating dirt:

“The handfuls of earth made the only man who deserved that show of degradation less remote and more certain, as if the ground he walked on with his fine patent leather boots in another part of the world were transmitting to her the weight and the temperature of his blood in a mineral savor that left a harsh aftertaste in her mouth and a sediment of peace in her heart.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude)