BY RON SPALLETTA
[Deserted Isle Books is our latest series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever.]
My choice for a deserted isle book was immediate, and so were my doubts. I read poetry every day. The bookshelves in my bedroom (not to mention the bedside tables and several stacks on the floor) are all poetry. I feel like a traitor to the cause at the mere thought of choosing a novel over Rilke’s Duino Elegies or Alan Dugan’s Poems 7. But there was no other choice; it had to be Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years Of Solitude.
Perhaps this is because I’m taking the premise literally. I’m not choosing a favorite book. I’m choosing the one book I think might best stave off madness and despair if I had nothing else to read (and little else to do) for the rest of my life. I would need intrigue, tragedy, politics, humor, mystery, romance, and violence. I would need memorable scenes, great dialogue, and some way to hang elements of my lost life and lost world on this one book.
An excellent book of poems will give you all of those things. But only the epics such as the Odyssey or the Aeneid (come on, David Ferry, we’re waiting!) give you a long, complex story with many characters to keep you company. And it is precisely those two things: company and a story, that are necessary. Left with nothing but the four walls of my mind to scratch against in an exile of unknowable, perhaps interminable, duration, I would need a sense of time passing, the this, then that of plot to give structure to my life.
I did think of the Bible, but I can’t choose it. Though it has many beautiful passages, great cultural resonance and lots of gory stories, I can’t escape the moral and prescriptive aspects of the book. 100 Years of Solitude describes a world free of any notion of the way things “should” be, and so allows a reader to inhabit it fully. It lays out its internal rule, though: strange things will come and will change you. On the very first page, gypsies come to town:
First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquíades, put on a bold public demonstration […] he went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs, and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge […] “Things have a life of their own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” José Arcadio Buendía […] thought it would be possible to make use of that useless invention to extract gold from the bowels of the earth. Melquíades, who was an honest man, warned him: “It won’t work for that.” But José Arcadio Buendía at that time did not believe in the honesty of gypsies.
This passage blurs the lines between true and false, honest and dishonest, even living and dead, and the rest of the book complicates them further. But as one doesn’t question a dream while sleeping, the book’s internal logic is ineluctable. The rapid swings back and forth through time, the many characters with the same names, and the family tree whose branches entwine on occasion create a sense of disorientation, but one that enhances the serpentine, mercurial story.
Complicated relationships run through the entire novel: Rebeca, the girl who compulsively eats dirt and paint from the walls, marries José Arcadio, whom she thought was her brother, and who returned home to work as a prostitute after travelling the world with the gypsies. Out of context, the situation seems ridiculous, but in the story these details eloquently depict part of a multigenerational struggle to understand the world at the moment when science, religion, desire, indigenous culture, and colonial culture are all competing for control.
100 Years of Solitude has been classified as magical realism, and many elements of the story could only be explained by magic. But just as “magical” is only the adjective defining the style “realism,” the fantastic details of the book attempt to present a realistic experience. In poetry and in conversation we turn to simile to describe complicated emotions. In Márquez’s world, though, nothing is “like” anything else. He goes further: his world is literal metaphor—not allegory, but the feeling made tangible. When a young man falls to his death while trying to climb into the Buendía house to meet with one of the daughters, Márquez writes an emotionally accurate portrait of unfulfilled love:
The foreigners who heard the noise in the dining room and hastened to remove the body noticed the suffocating odor of Remedios the Beauty on his skin. It was so deep in his body that the cracks in his skull did not give off blood but an amber-colored oil that was impregnated with that secret perfume, and they understood that the smell of Remedios the Beauty kept on tormenting men beyond death, right down to the dust of their bones.
Elsewhere in the novel a more conventional, but also doomed, love story emerges. Mauricio Babilonia, a mechanic who is at all times surrounded by yellow butterflies, also tries to enter the Buendía house:
Meme was waiting for him, naked and trembling among the scorpions and butterflies as she had done almost every night for the past few months.
What happens next is too sad to relate here.
Other moments remind me that supernatural ideas of the world are not so unusual in our own lives. The way Úrsula, Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s mother, learns of his death echoes an event in my own family history.
There he took off his shirt, sat on the edge of the cot, and at three-fifteen in the afternoon took his pistol and shot himself in the iodine circle that his personal physician had painted on his chest. At that moment in Macondo, Úrsula took the cover off the pot of milk on the stove, wondering why it was taking so long to boil, and found it full of worms.
While not dramatic as a pot of milk suddenly full of worms, my grandmother tells the story of how the portrait of her brother Sal fell from the mantelpiece at home in New Jersey at the precise moment he died overseas in World War II.
Indiscriminate slaughter for ideology, politics, or money (to name a few motives) has always been part of human history. A book without some reference to atrocity and how we respond to it could not be a thorough sounding board for reflection during long years alone. After most of the 100 years of the story have passed, Márquez draws a chilling scene:
When José Arcadio Segundo came to he was lying face up in the darkness. He realized that he was riding on an endless and silent train and that his head was caked with dry blood and that all his bones ached. He felt an intolerable desire to sleep […] he made himself comfortable on the side that pained him less, and only then did he discover that he was lying against dead people.
The quiet town in which the book began has seen the petty and cruel violence of civil war, and now the impersonal mass deaths of modernity. Before the book moves on to explore how the countryside responds, Márquez includes a line that I believe excuses me from choosing prose over poetry:
Several hours must have passed since the massacre because the corpses had the same temperature as plaster in autumn.
I prize poems that surprise with deft, unexpected connections, and here is one of many times Marquez’s prose does so. The specific, lived-in detail of plaster in autumn used to describe José Arcadio Segundo’s neighbors forces our hand onto the cool pallor of the walls, and then onto the faces of the dead; a domestic memory merged with the experience of the massacre.
These few examples barely graze the surface of 100 Years of Solitude and can’t address the beauty or the echoes in the book, the way new generations enact variations on the older ones’ mistakes and triumphs. This is why no other book would do. Barring any major medical malady on a desert island with access to food, clean water, and shelter, I’ve got, at best, fifty years left to live in solitude. With this novel, I’ll have fifty extra years of reading, just in case.