If we were to rank the first lines of every novel ever written, the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude would still be hard to beat.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
If, after reading that sentence, you’re not at least a little curious about what comes next, you should check your pulse.
Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist who died Thursday at 87, wrote a shelf full of excellent novels and stories. He nearly singlehandedly ignited the Latin American literary movement known as El Boom—that great late 20th-century flowering of Latin American fiction. And if he was not the father of the style known as magical realism—did not Borges do something similar decades earlier?—he was certainly a master at blending closely observed reality with fantastic elements in his fiction.
Like his idol William Faulkner, García Márquez gets a lot of credit for literary experiments and narrative breakthroughs. That’s all true, but if the innovations are what get our attention initially, they are not what make us keep turning pages.
Whatever else they were, García Márquez and Faulkner were both great storytellers. And in at least one respect, García Márquez went Faulkner one better: He could write great love stories—love stories full of passion but absolutely lacking any trace of sentimentality.
That, though, was just one of his skills. He could create whole families, generation after generation, that seem more real than your own. He could fabricate myths that did not seem manufactured but felt real enough to explain the mysteries of your own existence.
More than anything, however, he seemed to have been born knowing how to make you wonder what was coming next.
In that first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude, there are two mysteries: the firing squad and the ice. García Márquez takes his time explaining the firing squad, but the whole first chapter of his greatest novel—hell, anybody’s greatest novel—is spent leading us, in a roundabout tale, to the business of the ice. It is a story full of roving Gypsies, the tragicomic alchemical experiments of Aureliano’s father, and ultimately a town fair where the exhibition of a block of ice does seem, in the context so painstakingly and expertly constructed, altogether magical.
Then he begins the second chapter with the same sort of infallible hook (it is not the least trivializing to point out that the truest points of comparison with this author are not other writers but popular songwriters, who live and die by the musical or lyrical hook that makes you punch repeat again and again).
“When the pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked Riohacha in the sixteenth century, Ursula Iguaran’s great-great-grandmother became so frightened with the ringing of alarm bells and the firing of cannons that she lost control of her nerves and sat down on a lighted stove.” Again, how can you not keep reading after that?
Like all top-drawer authors, García Márquez possesses magnificent authority. He makes you believe his story because he believes it. Aureliano’s discovery of ice, the founding of the town of Macondo in some trackless corner of South America on the “bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs,” the rise and fall of generations of Buendías and the fierce whirlwind that ends it—not once in all that do you ever get the feeling that the author is making things up, or that there even is an author. On the contrary, part stenographer, part recording angel, this “author” is simply the conduit for a story that seems always to have existed.
When interviewed about One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez often adopted a sort of aw-shucks tone by way of deflecting some of the greatest-novel-of-our-time praise hurled his way (although to be fair, what writer wants to hear that he wrote an unbelievably good book and then spent the rest of his life trying to live up to it?). But once in a while, he would say something piercingly insightful about that novel.
The tale of its gestation is by now fairly famous—how he hit one false start after another, until one day when he was driving the family on vacation and experienced a moment of clarity so shattering that he simply turned the car around, went back home and began to write and didn’t stop for 18 months. That’s dramatic, but it’s the realization he had in that road-to-Damascus moment that matters—not how he dreamed up the town of Macondo or the Buendías or any of the rest of it, but the way he discovered how to tell the story.
“The tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude was based on the way my grandmother used to tell stories,” he said. “She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. … What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories… In previous attempts to write, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.”
The result is a book that never loses its magic, or its reality—it is a novel that you believe in utterly, no matter how many times you pick it up. It reminds you why novels are written, and why we read them—the best of them—so ravenously, and how we inhabit them and how and why they live in us, like history, like family, like the face in the mirror brought to startling clarity.
So be thankful for García Márquez. But be even more thankful for that grandmother.