How One Hundred Years of Solitude Became a Classic

How One Hundred Years of Solitude Became a Classic

When Gabriel García Márquez’s most famous novel was published 50 years ago, it faced a difficult publishing climate and baffled reviews.

By Alvaro Santana-Acuña 

In 1967, Sudamericana Press published One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad), a novel written by a little known Colombian author named Gabriel García Márquez. Neither the writer nor the publisher expected much of the book. They knew, as the publishing giant Alfred A. Knopf once put it, that “many a novel is dead the day it is published.” Unexpectedly, One Hundred Years of Solitude went on to sell over 45 million copies, solidified its stature as a literary classic, and garnered García Márquez fame and acclaim as one of the greatest Spanish-language writers in history.

Fifty years after the book’s publication, it may be tempting to believe its success was as inevitable as the fate of the Buendía family at the story’s center. Over the course of a century, their town of Macondo was the scene of natural catastrophes, civil wars, and magical events; it was ultimately destroyed after the last Buendía was born with a pig’s tail, as prophesied by a manuscript that generations of Buendías tried to decipher.

But in the 1960s, One Hundred Years of Solitude was not immediately recognized as the Bible of the style now known as magical realism, which presents fantastic events as mundane situations. Nor did critics agree that the story was really groundbreaking. To fully appreciate the novel’s longevity, artistry, and global resonance, it is essential to examine the unlikely confluence of factors that helped it overcome a difficult publishing climate and the author’s relative anonymity at the time.

In 1965, the Argentine Sudamericana Press was a leading publisher of contemporary Latin American literature. Its acquisitions editor, in search of new talent, cold-called García Márquez to publish some of his work. The writer replied with enthusiasm that he was working on One Hundred Years of Solitude, “a very long and very complex novel in which I have placed my best illusions.”

Two and a half months before the novel’s release in 1967, García Márquez’s enthusiasm turned into fear. After mistaking an episode of nervous arrhythmia for a heart attack, he confessed in a letter to a friend, “I am very scared.” What troubled him was the fate of his novel; he knew it could die upon its release. His fear was based on a harsh reality of the publishing industry for rising authors: poor sales. García Márquez’s previous four books had sold fewer than 2,500 copies in total.

The best that could happen to One Hundred Years of Solitude was to follow a path similar to the books released in the 1960s as part of the literary movement known as la nueva novela latinoamericana. Success as a new Latin American novel would mean selling its modest first edition of 8,000 copies in a region with 250 million people. Good regional sales would attract a mainstream publisher in Spain that would then import and publish the novel. International recognition would follow with translations into English, French, German, and Italian. To hit the jackpot in 1967 was to also receive one of the coveted literary awards of the Spanish language: the Biblioteca Breve, Rómulo Gallegos, Casa de las Américas, and Formentor.

This was the path taken by new Latin American novels of the 1960s such as Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier, The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, and The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes. One Hundred Years of Solitude, of course, eclipsed these works on multiple fronts. Published in 44 languages, it remains the most translated literary work in Spanish after Don Quixote, and sa survey among international writer ranks it as the novel that has most shaped world literature over the past three decades.

And yet it would be wrong to credit One Hundred Years of Solitude with starting a literary revolution in Latin America and beyond. Sudamericana published it when the new Latin American novel, by then popularly called the boom latinoamericano, had reached its peak in worldwide sales and influence. From 1961 onward, like a revived Homer, the almost blind Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges toured the planet as a literary celebrity. Following in his footsteps were rising stars like José Donoso, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, and Fuentes. The international triumph of the Latin American Boom came when the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Miguel Ángel Asturias in 1967. One Hundred Years of Solitude could not have been published in a better year for the new Latin American novel. Until then, García Márquez and his work were practically invisible.

In the decades before it reached its zenith, the new Latin American novel vied for attention alongside other literary trends in the region, Spain, and internationally. Its primary competition in Latin America was indigenismo, which wanted to give voice to indigenous peoples and was supported by many writers from the 1920s onward, including a young Asturias and José María Arguedas, who wrote in Spanish and Quechua, a native language of the Andes.In Spain during the 1950s and 1960s, writers embraced social realism, a style characterized by terse stories of tragic characters at the mercy of dire social conditions. Camilo José Cela and Miguel Delibes were among its key proponents. Latin Americans wanting a literary career in Spain had to comply with this style, one example being a young Vargas Llosa living in Madrid, where he first wrote social-realist short stories.Internationally, Latin American writers saw themselves competing with the French nouveau roman or “new novel.” Supporters, including Jean-Paul Sartre, praised it as the “anti-novel.” For them, the goal of literature was not narrative storytelling, but to serve as a laboratory for stylistic experiments. The most astonishing of such experiments was George Perec’s 1969 novel A Void, written without ever using the letter “e,” the most common in the French language.

In 1967, the book market was finally ready, it seemed, for One Hundred Years of Solitude. By then, mainstream Latin American writers had grown tired of indigenismo, a style used by “provincials of folk obedience,” as Cortázar scoffed. A young generation of authors in Spain belittled the stories in social-realist novels as predictable and technically unoriginal. And in France, emerging writers (such as Michel Tournier in his 1967 novel Vendredi) called for a return to narrative storytelling as the appeal of the noveau roman waned.

Between 1967 and 1969, reviewers argued that One Hundred Years of Solitudeovercame the limitations of these styles. Contrary to the localism of indigenismo, reviewers saw One Hundred Years of Solitude as a cosmopolitan story, one that “could correct the path of the modern novel,” according to the Latin American literary critic Ángel Rama.Unlike the succinct language of social realism, the prose of García Márquez was an “atmospheric purifier,” full of poetic and flamboyant language, as the Spanish writer Luis Izquierdo argued. And contrary to the formal experiments of the nouveau roman, his novel returned to “the narrative of imagination,” as the Catalan poet Pere Gimferrer explained. Upon the book’s translation to major languages, international reviewers acknowledged this, too. The Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg forcefully called One Hundred Years of Solitude “an alive novel,” assuaging contemporary fears that the form was in crisis.And yet these and other reviewers also remarked that One Hundred Years of Solitude was not a revolutionary work, but an anachronistic and traditionalist one, whose opening sentence resembled the “Once upon a time” formula of folk tales. And rather than a serious novel, it was a “comic masterpiece,” as an anonymous Times Literary Supplement reviewer wrote in 1967. Early views on this novel were indeed different from the ones that followed. In 1989, Yale literary scholar Harold Bloom solemnly called it “the new Don Quixote” and the writer Francine Prose confessed in 2013 that “One Hundred Years of Solitude convinced me to drop out of Harvard graduate school.”

Nowadays scholars, critics, and general readers mainly praise the novel as “the best expression of magical realism.” By 1995, magical realism was seen as making its way into the works of major English-language authors such John Updike and Salman Rushdie and moreover presented as “an inextricable, ineluctable element of human existence,” according to the New York Timesliterary critic Michiko Kakutani. But in 1967, the term magical realism was uncommon, even in scholarly circles. During One Hundred Years of Solitude’s first decade or so, to make sense of this “unclassifiable work,” as a reviewer put it, readers opted for labeling it as a mixture of “fantasy and reality,” “a realist novel full of imagination,” “a curious case of mythical realism,” “suprarrealism,”or, as a critic for Le Monde called it, “the marvelous symbolic.”

Now seen as a story that speaks to readers around the world, One Hundred Years of Solitude was originally received as a story about Latin America. The Harvard scholar Robert Kiely called it “a South American Genesis” in his review for the New York Times. Over the years, the novel grew to have “a texture of its own,” to use Updike’s words, and it became less a story about Latin America and more about mankind at large. William Kennedy wrote for the National Observer that it is “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (Kennedy also interviewed García Márquez for a feature story, “The Yellow Trolley Car in Barcelona, and Other Visions,”published in The Atlantic in 1973.)

Perhaps even more surprisingly, respected writers and publishers were among the many and powerful detractors of this novel. Asturias declared that the text of One Hundred Years of Solitude plagiarized Balzac’s 1834 novel The Quest of the Absolute. The Mexican poet and Nobel recipient, Octavio Paz, called it “watery poetry.” The English writer Anthony Burgess claimed it could not be “compared with the genuinely literary explorations of Borges and [Vladimir] Nabokov.” Spain’s most influential literary publisher in the 1960s, Carlos Barral, not only refused to import the novel for publication, but he also later wrote “it was not the best novel of its time.” Indeed, entrenched criticism helps to make a literary work like One Hundred Years of Solitude more visible to new generations of readers and eventually contributes to its consecration.

With the help of its detractors, too, 50 years later the novel has fully entered popular culture. It continues to be read around the world, by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Shakira, and by politicians such as Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who called the book “one of my favorites from the time I was young.”

More recently, with the aid of ecologically minded readers and scholars, One Hundred Years of Solitude has unexpectedly gained renewed significance as awareness of climate change increases. After the explosion of the BP drilling rig Deepwater Horizon in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico (one of the worst accidental environmental catastrophes in history), an environmental-policy advocate referred to the blowout as “tragic realism” and a U.S. journalist called it the “pig’s tail of the Petro-World.”

What was the connection with One Hundred Years of Solitude? The explosion occurred at an oil and gas prospect named Macondo by a group of BP engineers two years earlier, so when Deepwater Horizon blew up, reality caught up with fiction. Some readers and scholars started to claim the spill revealed a prophecy similar to the one hidden in the Buendías manuscript:  a warning about the dangers of humans’ destruction of nature.

García Márquez lived to see the name of Macondo become part of a significant, if horrifying, part of earth’s geological history, but not to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his masterpiece: He passed away in 2014. But the anniversary of his best known novel will be celebrated globally. As part of the commemoration, the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, where García Márquez’s archives have been kept since 2015, has opened an online exhibit of unique materials. Among the contents will be the original typescript of the “very long and very complex novel” that did not die but attained immortality the day it was published.

The Atlantic