The One Book That Showed Me How to Break the Rules

The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that when he read the first line of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” he didn’t know people were allowed to write sentences like that, and immediately began writing short fiction. Well, I had the exact same experience—with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Specifically, with his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I was not a big genre reader growing up. I liked horror quite a bit, but I rarely ventured into the science fiction and fantasy sections of the library. That is not to say I disliked science fiction—I was a huge Star Wars fan, I watched The X-Files religiously, and I attended midnight showings of the Lord of the Rings films. I just didn’t dabble much in speculative literature. There were a few exceptions, but by the time I was in college I was largely reading literary fiction, and not much else.

I find the literary versus genre debate tedious at this point in my life, and I’m not keen on reproducing it here. But I will say this much: I love language. I love that words can create rhythm like musical instruments, and I love how figurative language can push a description of an ordinary or mundane experience into transcendence. Plot is always the least interesting part of writing to me, and I have happily written stories full of gorgeous sentences in which not much happens. In college I read poetry as well as fiction, particularly the Imagist poets, who would strip away ordinary objects and images with sparse diamond-sharp verse to reveal the true essence of a thing.

So this is where I was when I first discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a poetry-reading, clove-cigarette-smoking hipster who wore Star Wars shirts while I scribbled angsty verses for my latest ‘zine. I was also playing Dungeons and Dragons on the regular during this period. Like all of us, I contained multitudes.

One Hundred Years of Solitude was assigned for my Modern Literature course. I bought an old paperback copy from Half-Price Books, the pages yellowed and crumbling. The cover was some kind of 1970s abomination. All of that fell away, though, the moment I read the first line:

“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.”

I was gobsmacked: by the compression of time, by the casual mention of death by firing squad, by the idea of someone discovering ice. Who starts with the idea of someone facing down their own death, only to flash back years later? Why tell us about the firing squad in the first place? What is time? What are rules?

I think that was the thing that stood out the most to me about One Hundred Years of Solitude. Because it is a Colombian novel, originally written in Spanish, it does not follow the “rules” that I had come to expect from literary fiction. The novel is a family saga, but it moves fluidly through time, introducing characters, dropping them, bringing them back. The characters’ names—Aureliano, Amaranta, Remedios, Úrsula, Jose Árcadio—repeat like a leitmotif, a reminder of the cyclical nature of history that the book explores so beautifully.

Of course, what One Hundred Years of Soltitude is most well-known for is its blending of the everyday with the surreal and the mythic. This gave way to the term “magical realist,” which like so many super-specialized literary genres has become diluted and meaningless. But in the novel, those magical realist elements serve a specific purpose, a way of exploring the effects of imperialism on the town of Macondo—and Latin America in general. The ice that Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembers in the moments before his death is treated as a near-unimaginable fantasy, a object of whimsy. (I’m writing this in Houston in late June, and every time I step outside, ice becomes a near-unimaginable fantasy to me, too.) However, folk beliefs and what the industrialized world would call “magic”—such as the blood of a fallen son winding its way through the countryside toward his mother—is treated as ordinary and every day. The idea, of course, is that magic is in the eye of the beholder, and it is colonialist thinking which says ice is science and therefore natural, whereas a flock of yellow butterflies following one man is simply superstition.

When I read One Hundred Years of Solitude for the first time, I had been mired in realist fiction. Even the poetry I was reading was quite realist in its approach. But here was a book exploring complex and horrific realities—capitalistic imperialism, colonization—through the use of the extraordinary. I could never write a book like One Hundred Years of Solitude, as it is tied completely to a culture and time period I am not a part of, but it showed me that the “rules” I had been taught about literature were capricious. The mythic can inform the ordinary. The beauty of magic can reveal the ugliness of mundanity. I don’t have to choose Star Wars or Middlesex; I can have them both.

And I have Gabriel Garcia Marquez to thank for that.

Cassandra Rose Clarke is the author of Star’s End, and one of the co-authors of the serial The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, originally published by Serial Box and now available in a collected edition by Saga Press. She grew up in south Texas and currently lives in a suburb of Houston, where she writes and teaches composition at a local college. Cassandra’s first adult novel, The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award, and her YA novel, The Assassin’s Curse, was nominated for YALSA’s 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction.

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