How's this for an awesome origin myth? In 1966, a moderately successful journalist is driving his family to Acapulco. All his life, he's wanted to write about growing up in his grandparents' house, but he's never really gotten a handle on just how to get across the weird mix of superstition, knowledge, religion, personal stories, and global history that surrounded him. Suddenly, the idea hits him full-on: a dead-end town; an endlessly repeating, cyclical, completely self-involved family; and above all, a narrator who doesn't give any kind of overarching ethical commentary on the insanity of the characters or on the supernatural and fantastical things being described.
The journalist turns the car around, drives home, and sells the car for money. He begs his landlord and local stores for credit to keep him and his family going. Nine months later, out comes One Hundred Years of Solitude – one of the most important books of the century. It wins him the Nobel Prize for literature. It gets translated into a bazillion languages. And just like that, Gabriel García Márquez becomes one of the world's most famous living authors. Pretty cool, right? You try writing a world-renowned masterpiece in nine months and let us know how it goes.
So what exactly makes this book so universally admired? There's probably a long list, what with the beautiful use of language, the amazing imagery, and the peculiar style. But right up there is the incredible way that García Márquez takes the complicated history of Colombia – all the way from just after Bolivar liberated the colony from Spanish rule to the middle of the 20th century – and conveys it to us through the eyes of one crazily outsized, doomed family, and an equally messed up fictional town.
It's not really historical fiction, the genre where made-up characters are plopped into the middle of actual events in the past (think Saving Private Ryan or A Tale of Two Cities). It does have elements of historical fiction (e.g., Colonel Aureliano Buendía's involvement in the Colombian civil wars in the second half of the nineteenth century). But it's much more than just "watch Joe Shmoe interact with George Washington." The history is mixed in (sans commentary) with the very complicated personal lives of various members of the Buendía family and various magical and supernatural phenomena. When the book came out, it was unlike anything anybody had read before.
One last thing: if you don't read Spanish and you're worried that you won't be able to really get a feel for the original, get a load of this. The novel was translated into English in 1970 by Gregory Rabassa, and Gabriel García Márquez has said that he prefers Rabassa's translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude to the Spanish original. Pretty impressive.
Nobel Prize anyone?
Okay, okay, there's more to it than that. On the surface, this novel is all about family. Not just any family, but a family that puts the fun in dysfunctional and the mental in fundamentally flawed. Mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts, nephews, grandparents – everyone is a special Buendía version of crazy.
Do members of your family make you feel a little bonkers? Gabriel García Marquez will cure that. Sure, Mom and Dad may not approve of your dating life, but have they ever had your significant other shot? And you've probably squabbled a bit with your siblings, but has one of those fights ever morphed into a multi-decade death feud? On that level alone, One Hundred Years of Solitude is great for a dose of it-could-be-worse.