Sunday, January 07, 2007

One Hundred Years of Solitude and Absalom, Absalom!: a History and a Mystery

One Hundred Years of Solitude and Absalom, Absalom!: a History and a Mystery

It seems like every time I hear the name Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the name William Faulkner follows close behind and vice versa. For this reason I decided to take a look at Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude in comparison with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! to see if I could detect Faulkner’s influence. What I found were two novels that shared many features, but provided fundamentally different reading experiences. Both novels follow the history of a family against the backdrop of civil war, both share certain themes, and the author’s construction of the setting and characters is similar in both books. However, the stories are told in radically different ways. These differences are mostly a result of two things: the point of view, and how the movement in time is presented. The end result is that Solitude gives the reader an experience that is much like a journey through time in which everything that the narrator relates is accepted as reality, whereas Absalom creates an atmosphere of suspense and mystery in which nothing can be known for certain.

Absalom, Absalom! is a novel about a family living in the South before, during, and after the Civil War. It centers on the patriarch Thomas Sutpen. In the beginning we learn that Sutpen is a man who came out of nowhere and by sheer will built a successful plantation out of the swamp. He is considered by many of the inhabitants of Yoknapatawpha County to be a criminal or a demon. Still he is able to marry well and raise a family. A college friend of Sutpen’s son, Henry, comes to the house at Christmas one year. He decides, with Henry’s encouragement, to court Judith, Sutpen’s daughter. Suddenly Sutpen’s secret past comes back to haunt him and the results are tragic. We find that Sutpen has renounced an earlier wife and son due to their racial impurity. Henry’s friend, Charles Bon, turns out to be this earlier son who has been sent by his vengeful mother to destroy Sutpen’s family. The story combines elements of incest, miscegenation, lust, betrayal, revenge and murder, not to mention the Civil War.

The location of the events of Absalom, Absalom!, like that of One Hundred Years of Solitude, is fictional. Neither Macondo nor Yoknapatawpha County can be found on the map. In addition to creating a geographical place for their stories, Faulkner and Garcia Marquez provide the characters with ancestors, relatives, enemies, and even family trees. In both novels there is the sense of the main characters actually creating their own reality and identity, in part by creating the actual geographical place in which they live. In Solitude, the character of Jose Arcadio Buendia, with the help of a handful of others, carved Macondo out of the wilderness. In so doing he created a utopian village in which everyone was the equal of everyone else, and in which no one had ever died. In Absalom, Sutpen also changed wilderness into a home, but in a different way, and for altogether different reasons.

One difference in the way that the locations were created is that Macondo was built in a place that had almost no connection with the outside world. Sutpen’s Hundred (the name of Sutpen’s plantation) on the other hand was built just about twelve miles outside of the town of Jefferson, and about forty miles from Oxford, Mississippi. As a plantation, having slaves and all, it was obviously far from the ideal of Macondo. Rather than being a community unto itself, Sutpen’s Hundred was part of a larger established community. The reason that this difference exists lies in the motivations that drove each founder to create a new place. In the case of Jose Arcadio Buendia, the motivation was to escape from the ghost of a man he killed over an insult involving him, his wife, and a chicken. In order to escape from this ghost, it was necessary to found a new town in which no one had died yet and where the ghost would not be able to follow. In the case of Thomas Sutpen, the motivation was to “pass” as an aristocrat. As his intent was to create an identity for himself that would put him on an equal footing with the wealthy people who had snubbed him as a child, it was necessary to do so in a place where they could see him.

It is significant to note that both novels take place during times of drastic change and even outright civil war. In Faulkner’s work the changes are those brought about by the convulsion of the war between the North and the South, and the end of the way of life that the South had known for so long. Oddly, the war has little effect on Sutpen. Of course he endures terrible hardships, but when it is over Thomas Sutpen emerges ready to start all over again. In the Garcia Marquez novel the war has more mixed results. For one thing, there is not one single war, but a series of civil uprisings that span many decades with no clear winner or loser, and in which over time it begins to be difficult to tell which side is which. An example of this is when soldiers come looking for Jose Arcadio Segundo and they see a picture of Colonel Aureliano Buendia and one of them refers to him as “ . . . one of our greatest men” (Solitude 317). After a while it seems like the ongoing “revolution” has become part of everyday life.

The most striking difference between the two novels, and the difference that affects the reader’s experience the most, is the point of view from which it is told. Faulkner’s story is told in bits and pieces from differing and often hard to pin down narrators. Sometimes we are in the novel’s present and are witnessing a dialog between two people, but most of the time we are listening to retold accounts of events that occurred over the course of almost a century. The driving force behind the novel is the figuring out, to the extent that it is possible, what was in Thomas Sutpen’s past and the past of Charles Bon that caused the family to self-destruct. At each phase of the story’s unfolding we learn something new that sheds more light on the mystery. What makes things more difficult is that the reader can never be sure that what is being said is reliable or not. It is often second or third hand information about what someone thought must have happened. Each character’s perspective is somehow incomplete, and even with all the parts put together we really only get an educated guess as to what probably took place. This seeming vagueness serves an important function in the novel. It relates the modernist view that the reality of events is in some way relative to the perspectives from which they are experienced.

The narrator of Solitude, on the other hand, is more consistent. The voice is not assigned to a particular character, but maintains a kind of detached third person perspective. The voice is not really omniscient, though it does drop in and out of various characters’ conscious and sub-conscious minds at random. Still, there are limitations and blind spots, some of which may help to explain the supernatural occurrences that are so common in Macondo. An example of this is when Remedios the Beauty ascends to heaven. The only witnesses to the event are Amaranta, Ursula, and Fernanda, yet the narrator seems to accept their account of the incident without question. It is as if the narrator is saying, “Well, she’s gone, so she must have ascended like the women said.” Sometimes the events are related in what seems to be a type of alternative reality. For example, Mr. Brown says the changes will go into effect when it stops raining, then it rains constantly for almost five years. Perhaps what this is really saying is that the changes didn’t occur for a long, long time. In this way Garcia Marquez’ style creates a feeling of orality, as if the narrator is relating stories that have passed down by word of mouth and have gone through the convolutions that go along with oral transference. Another aspect of the point of view that differs from the Faulkner work is that since there is a single viewpoint instead of several varying ones, the reader does not have to be concerned with the relative reliability of each source, nor with how each differing account fits in with the others. Instead of being driven to find something out, the narrator instead accepts whatever it sees as truth without having to probe any further. There is no figuring out as there is in Absalom. The readers experience is more like a journey than a hunt, with the reward being the experience itself instead of finding the elusive answer to a mystery.

The way that each novel deals with the passage of time marks another important difference. In Solitude time follows a mostly linear course with only occasional flashbacks or jumps forward. The first events of the story are related at the beginning of the book and the last ones at the end, spanning a century. It is a historical novel in much the same way that War and Peace is, told as a series of non-autonomous moments.

In contrast, the events that actually take place in Absalom only span about three or four months. The bulk of the novel is dedicated to speculated flashbacks, accounts of what might have or must have been. Most of the active characters are long since dead, most of the critical events forty to fifty years in the past. As the narrator changes, the time period and the motion through that time changes also. All of this helps to create an atmosphere of suspense that drives the reader to want to find out more. The work centers around crucial moments as remembered by different characters, and subject to those characters’ interpretations. The end result is that we only know what must have happened, not necessarily what did happen.

Based on these two novels, Faulkner’s influence on Garcia Marquez seems to be limited to the manner in which they each created a mythical time and genealogy in which to place their stories. When the similarities in historical backdrop, both ancestral and political, are compared with the differences in the treatment of the movement of time and the point of view, it is clear that the latter two elements are the causal factors in determining the kind of reading experience each work affords. Considering the highly divergent perspective and time sense that is found in each novel, the similarities seem coincidental. Each work has its own attraction: One Hundred Years of Solitude fascinates us with the magical and twisted family tree of the Buendias, while Absalom, Absalom! challenges us to make sense of the self-destruction of the Sutpen family.

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