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Even If Netflix’s One Hundred Years of Solitude Inspires Wonder, Will It Be Enough?

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“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,” reads the famous first sentence of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel has just begun, yet it is already extraordinary. We begin in the present’s future: not simply in the future, but “many years” after a certain point in time, and, once in that future, we are brought all the way back into the “distant” past. And the past we enter afterwards is distant indeed, if not primordial. García Márquez introduces Macondo, the marvelous village Aureliano Buendia is remembering:

At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built 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 world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet.

If the first sentence’s vertiginous whirl of timelines was not enough, it now seems that Macondo may exist in a kind of prehistory: a time in which things had not yet been named, a new Eden, with twenty houses of new Adams and Eves. The language is clear yet dense, almost biblical in its cadence. The ludic reference to “prehistoric eggs” suggests a world as old as the dinosaurs. Yet without missing a beat, we then enter time: there are now years and months, and it becomes clearer that Macondo lives in some kind of concrete time: the era when the magnet was still a novel discovery. Time is fluid and flexible here, a sea that rushes or stands still or swirls into a maelstrom. And reality, too, is protean; its rules can bend, such that the world can at once be recent and fixed in time, and the daughters of this clockless earth can float into the sky and men can be followed by swarms of butterflies and bullets can reach targets no normal gun could hit and the dead are as alive as the living.

It is a marvelous world, like the Caribbean one I grew up in—in interviews, García Márquez often declared himself a Caribbean writer—and to contain this outsized sense of reality, one needs a prose that is similarly larger-than-life, similarly hard yet dream-soft, similarly amorphous at its edges. “The problem,” he famously declared with a grin in a 1981 interview with The Paris Review, “is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

It was an assertion that made sense to me, as I’ve written before of García Márquez’s particular Caribbeanness. If my island was small, its dreams were not, and we lived with grand farcicalities that we simply came to accept as inextricable patterns of our home’s fabric. The shape-shifting jablesses lived in the trees at night, where you might see their eyes glow like fireflies or the sea’s phosphorescence, and there were things you might not want to throw sticks or stones at in the day, lest they come back, in more terrifyingly humanoid form, in the night. Obeah men and women existed in the shadows, and you could go to them for charms and protections and spiritual attacks, sometimes via pin-stuck dolls, on personages you did not care for. God was real, really real.

García Márquez received offers to adapt the novel, but always turned them down because they weren’t quite right.

Yet the unquestionably existent things were just as quietly miraculous. The brown or faintly orange beings we called donkey spiders, large as your hands, leapt incredible distances at you when enraged and moved with a preternatural speed up walls. (They were actually huntsman spiders; name notwithstanding, and despite their relative harmlessness, they made me check my bed each night to make sure none were under my pillow.) The fat geckoes we called mabouyas cackled in the night like delirious witches. Before the great flooding rains, little mothlike insects we called rain flies descended en masse upon our homes, and the world would soon be filled with the calls of mating frogs and the clicks of river crabs as they crossed the slick potholed roads. My father once swept, with a broom, an errant boa constrictor out of our laundry room.

The prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit lived, as he still does, as if he were more the emperor of the island than a mere elected official, in the way that small-island leaders can more easily believe that they truly rule an entire country due to its size, and the ridiculous things he did were just what we came to expect: flying in Dominicans on chartered flights to vote for him on election week, renaming “demonic” mountains to spiritually “cleanse” the island, erecting an obscene lavish government building only describable as a palace near to the abject poverty of zinc-roofed shacks in our capital city, entering restaurants with guards and telling its patrons they had to clear out, yes, I Roosevelt Skerrit am here and this is now my meeting room, all you have to go. If a woman knocked on your door on a rainy night wearing a long dress, you had to check to make sure one of her feet isn’t a goat’s, or you would have let in La Diablesse, a distaff demonic being. My cousins told me they saw her once in the forest, chests huffing from running, both amused and unnerved.

It was an attitude, not of gullibility, but just of ontological pliability. If you believed God could raise the dead and flood the planet at well, you could believe, as was once announced on the radio, that the presence of a “satanic” dancehall artist who was scheduled to perform in Dominica was the cause for missing goats and a car accident, or that two women who infamously passed each other and froze one afternoon were soucouyants, blood-sucking witches unable to continue walking unless one of them ceded power and allowed the other to go. (This latter incident drew a massive crowd and even appeared on the local news.) I retained this flexible attitude, at least while back home, even when I became an atheist—and many so-called magical realists or fabulists, like García Márquez, were similarly nonbelievers, from Salman Rushdie to Italo Calvino to Angela Carter.

As a child, though, I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear our stories. I just assumed my world was lesser than that of the Americans and Europeans I read books by. I didn’t yet know the language, the voice, of my home, even as I spoke it each day.

I discovered One Hundred Years of Solitude in a literature class. When I began it, I was astonished. Here was a book that captured, for the first time in my life, precisely the limber, luminous, ludic sense of reality I had felt growing up. It wasn’t a serious novel attempting to show a world overrun by plagues and dangerous magic; at the same time, it was precisely that, in the particular Caribbean way that we can chuckle at the Brobdingnagian absurdities we grow accustomed to expect as part and parcel of everyday life.

Life, García Márquez taught me, can be described in literature—but we each have to find the way of writing that fits the world we inhabit. There is no one-size-fits-all in writing; instead, some worlds can only be captured in certain ways. I have never forgotten this, and this is why García Márquez will always remain one of the brightest stars in my night sky.

*

I start with these sentences from the Colombian’s magisterial novel because they work so well precisely as that: sentences, in a book. Translating them to other languages is already trying, beautiful as the English version is; translating them to the screen is another story, one we will see played out when Netflix attempts to do just that in its recently announced adaptation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. This was long in the making. For years, García Márquez received offers to adapt the novel, but always turned them down because they weren’t quite right. (Fortunately, it seems the adaptation will be in Spanish, as García Márquez had hoped when he pondered adapting it, and Netflix has had some praiseworthy success in foreign-language productions for a global market, including Roma and Elite.) His sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo García, will be executive producer.

I can’t help but wonder about the Borgesian labyrinths that lead from books to films; it is never easy to fully capture the sort of magic a book can create on the screen, and vice versa, due largely to the difficulty of conveying the same tone on the screen as on a page.

To be sure, films and television shows can capture the marvelous and the fantastic in ways that recall García Márquez’s oeuvre. Amongst the earliest films ever produced were fantastical journeys, perhaps most notably Georges Méliès’ whimsical A Trip to the Moon (1902), in which men rocket up to a smiling moon and encounter lunar inhabitants called Selenites. The cartoons of the early twentieth century revealed a flexible reality where bodies could morph as easily as the rules of space and time. Even the very idea of projecting moving images onto a screen, in its earliest days, seemed magical. In his youth, my father saw one of his first movies in Dominica, an image projected onto a bedsheet hung across a wall; when a bull charged at the screen, my father got up and ran, thinking the bull would come clear through. Movies themselves are magic, even as too many of us have forgotten this, having grown so accustomed to their presence.

I discovered One Hundred Years of Solitude in a literature class. When I began it, I was astonished.

Some of my happiest memories of watching films are the ones that blur ontological lines. Hayao Miyazaki’s movies often do just that, blending the firmly real and the fantastical in striking ways, as in Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, and Princess Mononoke. Federico Fellini’s charmingly peculiar Juliet of the Spirits (1965) moves seamlessly between a woman’s dreamlike imagination and the reality of dealing with a philandering spouse. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) imagines a reality in which the tropes of video games seamlessly exist in this world: bursting into coins, health bars, one-ups.

I’m no fan of horror—I’m the one who covers my face and curls up in my chair before a jump-scare—but I’ve always been impressed by how The Blair Witch Project (1999) attempted to make a seemingly supernatural attack seem real by its choice of filmography: found footage. Netflix’s own recent series, Russian Doll, portrays two characters who keep coming back from their deaths, slightly but disquietingly altering their realities over time, until they seem to irrevocably create separate timelines—a magical, science-fiction-esque idea that occurs squarely in a contemporary version of New York City. In other words, I have little doubt that magic akin to García Márquez’s can work on the screen. And García Márquez himself loved the cinema.

But what makes One Hundred Years of Solitude, like many of his other works, magical, is more than just the levitations, dizzying Faulknerian family tree, and porous timelines. It is his extraordinary style and love of language, which cannot be translated directly to any screen, even if some of the novel’s sentences are read aloud. How does one convey the whimsical disorientation of that opening sentence onscreen? One can try, certainly, and I have little doubt that the adaptation may do wondrous things that make me smile. But the fact is that García Márquez’s masterpiece is untranslatable, at least to other mediums; it can be attempted, but something striking will be lost. At best, something unique to the medium of film or television will try to replace that, but it will be different. And all adaptations are distinct, of course, but this one is special, for it requires attempting to translate an entire language, the baroque maximalist idiolect of García Márquez, rather than mere words arranged on a page. The atmosphere of the novel comes in part from its breathless sentences and colossal paragraphs punctuated by quick snippets of simple but operatic dialogue.

You can put the scenes onto a screen; I just don’t know that you can put the intangible atmospherics there, too, in quite the same way. I wonder how one might adapt a significantly shorter but perhaps even more challenging work by García Márquez, the short story “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” which is all one long remarkable sentence that jumps across time and space and life and death from comma to comma; like One Hundred Years of Solitude, it relies, in part, on its maximalist prose to convey something that can’t quite translate to any other medium. Some things come close, to be sure; I think of the exaggerated proportions in the paintings of Henri Rousseau or Fernando Botero, the dreamscapes of Leonora Carrington, or the erotic surrealism of Leonor Fini. But there is nonetheless something special—not better, just different—in García Márquez’s prose that can’t fully be done in any other form.

To be sure, I look forward to the adaptation, even as I’m wary of it. And perhaps my unease is simply because I love the book so much that I can only imagine an adaptation will lessen it, cheapen it, burnish it (and not in the way that burnished objects can hold their own special splendor, as Tanizaki Junichiro knew). I almost feel possessive. It was a book, after all, that taught me how to do my own kind of translation: capturing the baroque marvelousness of Caribbean life on the page. It validated my experience.

Still, it’s spectacular that García Márquez’s novel still has enough power to command an adaptation on such a visible platform. It will be a worthwhile test for Netflix to see if they attempt to be faithful to the novel—whatever that can mean, given the multilayered complexity of the book—or if they will simplify plot points for a global audience. It will be a directorial and visual test, too, of cinematic atmospherics, to see if Netflix can do the seemingly impossible: do on screen what this book does on the page. I have deep doubts, but I’m intrigued. And if this leads new readers to the novel and to his Collected Stories, Collected Novellas, Love in the Time of Cholera, Of Love and Other Demons, The General in His Labyrinth, and/or Strange Pilgrims, that alone will be enough. García Márquez’s world is simply too beautiful and memorable—even in its most funereal, devastating moments—not to share.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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How I Began to Write

Gabriel García Márquez delivered the following speech at the Athenaeum of Caracas, in Venezuela, on May 3, 1970.

Gabriel García Márquez. Photo: Patrick Curry.

First of all, forgive me for speaking to you seated, but the truth is that if I stand, I run the risk of collapsing with fear. Really. I always thought I was fated to spend the most terrible five minutes of my life on a plane, before twenty or thirty people, and not like this, before two hundred friends. Fortunately, what is happening to me right now allows me to begin to speak about my literature, since I was thinking that I began to be a writer in the same way I climbed up on this platform: I was coerced. I confess I did all I could not to attend this assembly: I tried to get sick, I attempted to catch pneumonia, I went to the barber, hoping he’d slit my throat, and, finally, it occurred to me to come here without a jacket and tie so they wouldn’t let me into a meeting as serious as this one, but I forgot I was in Venezuela, where you can go anywhere in shirtsleeves. The result: here I am, and I don’t know where to start. But I can tell you, for example, how I began to write.

It had never occurred to me that I could be a writer, but in my student days Eduardo Zalamea Borda, editor of the literary supplement of El Espectador, in Bogotá, published a note in which he said that the younger generation of writers had nothing to offer, that a new short-story writer, a new novelist, could not be seen anywhere. And he concluded by declaring that he was often reproached because his paper published only the very well-known names of old writers and nothing by the young, whereas the truth, he said, was that no young people were writing.

Then a feeling of solidarity with my generational companions arose in me, and I resolved to write a story simply to shut the mouth of Eduardo Zalamea Borda, who was my great friend or, at least, became my great friend later. I sat down, wrote the story, and sent it to El Espectador. I had my second shock the following Sunday when I opened the paper and
there was my full-page story with a note in which Eduardo Zalamea Borda acknowledged that he had been wrong, because obviously with “that story the genius of Colombian literature had emerged,” or something along those lines. 

This time I really did get sick, and I said to myself: “What a mess I’ve got myself into! What do I do now so Eduardo Zalamea Borda won’t look bad?” Keep on writing was the answer. I always had to face the problem of subjects: I was obliged to find the story before I could write it.

And this allows me to tell you something that I can verify now, after having published five books: the job of writer is perhaps the only one that becomes more difficult the more you do it. The ease with which I sat down one afternoon to write that story can’t be compared to the work it costs me now to write a page. As for my method of working, it’s fairly consistent with what I’m telling you now. I never know how much I’ll be able to write or what I’m going to write about. I hope I’ll think of something, and when I do come up with an idea that I consider good enough to write down, I begin to go over it in my mind and let it keep maturing. When it’s finished (and sometimes many years go by, as in the case of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I thought over for nineteen years)—I repeat, when it’s finished—then I sit down to write it, and that’s when the most difficult part begins, and the part that bores me most. Because the most delicious part of a story is thinking about it, rounding it out, turning it over and over, so that when the time comes to sit down and write it, it doesn’t interest you very much, or at least it doesn’t interest me very much, the idea that’s been turned over and over.

I’m going to tell you, for example, about the idea that has been turning over and over in my mind for several years, and I suspect I have it pretty rounded out by now. I’ll tell it to you because there’s no doubt that when I write it, I don’t know when, you’ll find it completely changed and be able to observe how it evolved. Imagine a very small village where there’s an old woman who has two children, a boy seventeen and a girl not yet fourteen. She’s serving her children breakfast with a very worried look on her face. Her children ask what’s wrong and she replies: “I don’t know, but I woke up thinking that something very serious is going to happen in this village.”

They laugh at her and say those are an old woman’s misgivings, just something that will pass. The boy goes out to play billiards, and as he’s about to shoot a very simple cannon, his opponent says: “I’ll bet you a peso you can’t make the shot.” Everybody laughs, he laughs, takes his shot, and doesn’t make it. He gives a peso to his opponent, who asks: “But what happened? It was a really simple cannon.” He says: “It was, but I’m worried about something my mother said this morning about something serious that’s going to happen in this village.” Everybody laughs at him, and the one who won the peso goes home, where he finds his mother and a cousin or a niece, or some female relative. Happy about his peso, he says: “I won this peso from Dámaso in the simplest way because he’s a fool.” “And why is he a fool?” He says: “Oh man, he couldn’t make a really simple cannon shot because he was worried about his mother waking up today with the idea that something very serious is going to happen in this village.”

Then his mother says: “Don’t make fun of old people’s misgivings, because sometimes they come true.” The relative hears this and goes out to buy meat. She says to the butcher: “Give me a pound of meat,” and just as he’s cutting it, she adds: “Better make it two, because people are saying that something serious is going to happen and it’s best to be prepared.” The butcher hands her the meat and, when another woman comes in to buy a pound of meat, he says: “Take two, because people are coming in and saying that something very serious is going to happen and they’re preparing for it, buying things.”

Then the old woman replies: “I have several children; look, better give me four pounds.” She takes her four pounds and, to make a long story short, I’ll say that in half an hour the butcher sells all his meat, slaughters another cow, sells all of that, and the rumor spreads. The moment arrives when everybody in the village is waiting for something to happen. Activities grind to a halt and, suddenly, at two in the afternoon, it’s as hot as it always is. Someone says: “Have you noticed how hot it is?” “But in this village it’s always hot.” So hot that it’s a village where all the musicians had instruments repaired with tar and always played in the shade, because if they played in the sun the instruments fell apart. “Still,” one person says, “it’s never been so hot at this time of day.” “Yes, but not as hot as it is now.” And, without warning, a little bird flies down into the deserted village, the deserted square, and the news spreads: “There’s a little bird in the square.” Everybody goes to the square and is frightened when they see the little bird.

“But, my friends, there have always been little birds that fly down.” “Yes, but never at this time of day.” It is a moment of such tension for the inhabitants of the village that they are all desperate to leave but lack the courage to go. “Well, I’m a real man,” one of them shouts, “and I’m leaving.” He gets his furniture, his children, his animals, puts them in a cart, and crosses the main street, where the poor villagers are watching him. Until the moment when they say: “If he has the courage to leave, well, we’re leaving too,” and begin literally to dismantle the village. They take away things, animals, everything. And one of the last to abandon the village says: “Let no misfortune fall on what remains of our house,” and then he burns his house and others burn other houses. They flee in a real and terrible panic, like an exodus in wartime, and among them is the woman who had the misgiving, crying out: “I said something very serious was going to happen, and you told me I was crazy.”

—Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

 

Gabriel García Márquez was born in Colombia in 1927. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Autumn of the Patriarch, The General in His Labyrinth, and News of a Kidnapping. He died in 2014. Read his Art of Fiction interview.

Edith Grossman, the winner of a number of translating awards, most notably the 2006 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal, is the distinguished translator of works by major Spanish-language authors, including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mayra Montero, and Alvaro Mutis, as well as Carlos Fuentes. Her translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was published to great acclaim in 2003.

From I’m Not Here to Give a Speech, by Gabriel García Márquez. Copyright © 2010 by Gabriel García Márquez. Translation copyright © 2014 by Edith Grossman. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review