Earlier this year there was a paper published explaining that scientists found ‘a bubble of’ bacteria surrounding the earth at around 30,000 feet up. Another paper from about a year ago described the Halicephalobus mephisto, the demon worm, a tiny multicellular worm that lives about 3km beneath the Earth’s crust. To me these two discoveries seemed relevant to this novel in that the whole world is, in a way, Macondo. Maconodo is a microcosm of and a fun-house mirror of the real world where life teems in every possible corner but because the world is only so big it will eventually begin mating with and end when it finally starts eating itself.
This is not an ‘easy’ novel and it most certainly was not what I was expecting. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting – maybe something more like a realistic Latin American fairy tale with a singular cast of characters – however, this far exceeded my expectations and my imagination. In fact were I had taken notes as I read this novel on every thought that popped into my mind that Marquez seemed to inspire or dredge up from some ancient, reptilian depth, I would still only be about 10% and probably would have resorted to writing everything down in Sanskrit inside a sealed off room while kind neighbors brought me plates of rice and meat as my beard grew, my eyes dimmed, and my heart ever more nostalgic for a simpler time.
What this novel is, at least to me, is as if some fevered mural artist were given a canvas the size of an entire country and spent his every waking moment interpreting the bible through brightly colored iconic Latin American, green-brown-gold imagery. The whole biblical history of the world is here from warm dewey Eden, to the endless flood, to Christ the Liberal’s Generalissimo, to Revelations and the whole ending of the world. But it’s not just the physical, but also the supernatural too that the works share. Here ghosts walk among the living, the entire history of Maconodo is written down in an ancient language 100 years prior by gypsies, events that did happen are then forgotten and people fight just as hard to keep forgetting them. And the novel is both epic in scope while also being intensely personal.
There are, of course, some rather obvious references to Latin and South America’s history – the banana plantations, the endless wars, government corruption, fierce religious conviction – but it’s as if this one section of the world is the breeding ground, the test-tube, the microcosm for the whole of the world. It’s life speed up to 11. Anywhere else in the world and life moves slower, but in the jungle everything is hot, life teems on every surface, passions are fierce (both love and hatred). It’s a candle burning at both ends.
A lot is said of the novel’s circular structure, however, I found it to be more of an arc or a wave. The novel begins idyllic, grows to a fever pitch and then everything comes crashing down and it’s all swept back out to sea – a sea with no memory (as the Indians called the Pacific Ocean). A lot less seems to be said about the humor of the novel. The idea of constantly struggling against some inevitable force or another or the notion that a good education will somehow make a difference is poked fun at. Ursula can get by totally blind and nobody is none the wiser, men spend years locked up in the same room deciphering texts or making little gold fish that eventually leads to nothing. Yes, in a way it’s all very tragic and sad, but it’s also comic too.
And this is where the novel diverges from the Bible. The Bible is deadly serious and always has a god hanging over everyone in final judgment. Here, there really is no god, it’s just the jungle taking back what belongs to it – the creeping of life, meaningless of anything beyond its desire to continue living. There is no judgment, everything just ‘is’. ANd through that lens the whole of existence seems rather funny and comical and makes you believe that maybe it would be best just to destroy your home all day long in the passionate act of having great sex and coating the walls with a wallpaper of real money and bathing in pools of champagne because, well, why not? Nobody is going to remember it all anyway, right?
Well, except for all the ghosts. And therein lies a small niggling issue I have with the novel and that is in the idea that in time everything will be forgotten, both good and bad. The massacre of the 3000 is eventually forgotten by the town and the bodies are all dumped into the sea (the only memory is perhaps all those rotting shoes in the pool), and so the novel, in a way, is giving permission to also be as cruel as you want too because in the end of the world it won’t really matter. The only consequences are that eventually all your children will bear the mark of incest (a pig’s tail), but even that is sort of funny too.
Someday I will revisit this novel because it demands a second, a third, a nineteenth reading. I’m sure I will see something different every time, feel different each time, and take away something different each time. However, I’m sure I’ll always put it down knowing I’ve read an incredibly unique, challenging, dense, and unexpected novel.