The history of literature is peppered with imaginary places, some more real than others, from L. Frank Baum’s Oz to Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput to Margaret Atwood’s Gilead and Hermann Hesse’s Castalia. Some are ideal, some dystopian. Some are places you’d like to go, others to keep a very wide distance from.
And then there is Macondo, the land invented by the Colombian journalist-turned-novelist Gabriel García Márquez in a book published a half-century ago: One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a big book, at a little more than 400 pages in its first American edition, but not too big; García Márquez later remarked that the first draft ran three times as long, and to make it he had to smoke 30,000 cigarettes.
Macondo is a place of wonder, of dreams, but also of dark events: people grow old and ill, jealousies erupt, the jungle devours the weak. It opens and closes on notes of death, beginning with the moment when, facing a firing squad, the head of the illustrious Buendía family recalls his first sight of that rare, precious thing that is ice. Ghosts walk across the dirt floors of Macondo and inhabit the treeline, made sorrowful by the fates of their living descendants and relatives: “He’s very sad because he thinks you’re going to die,” says the town’s matriarch of one ghost, to which Col. Aureliano Buendía replies, “Tell him that a person doesn’t die when he should but when he can.”
But death is not always death. Several Aurelianos and numerous colonels pop in and out of the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which borrows some of William Faulkner’s devotion to genealogy and runs it out to near-absurd lengths. The first person born in Macondo, Aureliano is a sensitive, farseeing man who once wrote poems and enjoys goldsmithing when not out fighting in wars pitting conservatives against liberals. Alas, politics will swallow him, too, and most of his bloodline will die at the hands of his enemies, even as an apocalyptic storm devours Macondo.
García Márquez made of Macondo a kind of fun-house mirror of his native Colombia, a land torn by war and the quest for wealth—and indeed, gold haunts the dreams of many of Macondo’s inhabitants, compelling them to stay in the perilous forest. Writes his biographer Gerald Martin, García Márquez also identified closely with that second Aureliano, a character who, though tragic in the end, is not entirely agreeable: he seeks his own prizes, he is not shy about overwhelming anyone who stands in the way of his ambition, and in the end he is every bit as ruthless as his foes.
Besides all the damage to his lungs, One Hundred Years of Solitude was a book that cost Gabriel García Márquez years of work—and, he said, 120,000 pesos that he owed to various creditors. The book retired his debt, and more. It was immediately successful everywhere it was published, winning prizes and honors. It was also immediately influential, setting off a so-called boom in Latin American literature. Its echoes, sometimes faint and sometimes loud, can be heard today, carrying news and wonder from the magical land of Macondo.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.