Sunday, January 31, 2010

One Hundred Years of Solitude + The White Castle

Reviews of a couple of books I've read recently.  Both authors have won
the Nobel Prize for literature.

1. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel García Márquez

This is an epic novel by Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez.
Unlike most novels, there doesn't appear to be a central plot.  Instead
it is the chronicle of the lives and times of several generations of a
pioneering family, the Buendías, and the town where they lived.

There are too many subplots to give justice in a brief review.  However,
I will set up the start of the story.  The patriarch and matriarch of
the family, José Arcadio Buendía and Úrsula Iguarán, are forced to flee
their home.  Together with some other pioneers, they help found the town
of Macondo.  This secluded town is visited annually by gypsies who bring
news from the outside world and the latest innovations.  One of the
gypsies, Melquíades, becomes an important influence on the family.
Among other things, he introduces them to alchemy.

Across several generations of the family there are many intriguing
characters.  The town itself can be considered a protagonist: it
evolves, through periods of novelty, war, industrialisation and
decadence.  The following Wikipedia page provides a reasonably good
and brief overview of the major characters and episodes in the novel:
More comprehensive details are provided by Spark Notes:

The family lineage is rather complicated.  This is in part due to the
repetitive use of certain first names.  It doesn't help when adoptions,
affairs and illegitimate children enter the mix.  Fortunately, the book
provides a family tree, which helps remind the reader who begat whom.

Several ideas recur throughout the novel.  Solitude, as mentioned in
the title, is represented not only at the big-picture level by the
isolation of the town, but also by its inhabitants.  Throughout the
novel various characters experience solitude, often deliberately, even
when apparently surrounded by other people.

The book is also concerned with the flow of time.  Flashbacks and
premonitions blur past, present and future.  While the history of
Macondo is mostly presented in a linear way, repeated traits across the
generations suggest a cyclical nature of time.  I don't want to give
away too much about the ending, but it also emphasises the idea of

The novel's style is often described as an example of "magical realism":
supernatural events are treated as normal occurrences by the characters.
For example, talking to ghosts is accepted as part of everyday life.
There is some debate about how this style differs from fantasy, but
proponents argue a distinction, however subtle, does exist.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book.  I look forward to reading
some of the author's other work.

2. "The White Castle" by Orhan Pamuk

This semi-historical novel, by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, is set in the
17th Century.  The narrator, a Venetian sailor, is captured after his
ship is involved in a skirmish with Turkish pirates.  He is taken to
Istanbul, and thanks to a timely display of basic medical skills, his
life is spared.  He becomes the slave of an ambitious intellectual
referred to as the Hoja (master).  The Hoja wants to learn as much as he
can from his Italian slave.  Intriguingly, the two men look very similar.

After some initial suspicion, they begin to gain each other's trust.
They start working together on projects in various fields, including
medicine, science and philosophy.  The pair gains prestige from a series
of achievements.  However, beneath the surface, there is tension between
the two men.

Eventually, after several attempts, the Sultan agrees to the Hoja's
ambitious proposal to build the ultimate war machine.  Unfortunately,
this project is the beginning of the end of the pair's long streak of

The book covers the changing nature of the relationship between the two
men.  The end of the story is ambiguous.  There is a strong suspicion
that the two men have actually swapped identities.  If this is the case,
was it by mutual consent?  How did it happen?

I found the basic story quite intriguing.  I liked the East-meets-West
backdrop, the psychological aspects of the relationship, and the
investigation into identity.  But somehow I felt the execution didn't
quite work.  Having said that, it's a relatively short novel, so I may
revisit it in the future.