by Gabriel García Márquez
Reading this book has been a bit of a slog. It has been on my ‘to read – someday’ list for a few years, and when my mother gave me her copy, having struggled to read it for her book group, I took up the challenge and started reading.
The book is unusual, indeed remarkable. Its 430 pages pack so much in that you think you are reading a much longer book. The atmosphere and characters are confidently but mysteriously drawn, and the reader is transported to a distant, remote and slightly fanciful world, which the author deliberately omits to root in place or time. The reader is left to divine that the action probably takes place in the 19th and early 20th century, in a South American country on the Caribbean coast, such as Colombia (the author’s birthplace) or Venezuela. The point being that it doesn’t matter.
Márquez captures well the internal solitude of each of us, and indeed each of his characters struggles with his or her fate, ultimately alone. The narrative is mesmerising, almost in the way that Proust mesmerises the reader by dissecting everyday objects and situations and displaying them in excruciating and painstaking detail. Unlike Proust, Márquez hints at what is going on, rather than laying it bare. And so he is able to expose a hundred years in the life of a family and its members, telling you far more than you thought possible in an average-length novel, while Proust takes a great many pages to lay bare the innermost psychology of a brief moment’s reflection.
As a family saga, this story reminded me also of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. It is some years since I read that book, and I ask myself now whether the setting and the characters were actually more important than the plot – as they clearly are in Marquez’s book. Would I be satisfied, going back to Seth after 20 years, to read a long novel without an engaging storyline? I think my reading tastes may have changed, and nowadays I like a good story. (But perhaps my memories of the Seth book are distorted.)
This lack of a plot is where Márquez’s book fails for me. I kept on reading because the prose is beguiling, the characters fascinating, and I wanted to know I could finish the book. But the story did not compel me to keep reading, to find out “what happens next”.