I've been in a book club for the past five years, though it has lately become a very occasional thing now that we are all getting older and having children (among other grown-up things). Back when we all read avidly and met often to drink, eat, and talk about books, I had a reputation for being the staunch literary realist of the group. I resisted anything that didn't conform to reality as I felt it was lived, anything that was sentimental or magical or lacking in brutal truths about our world. I felt very strongly about this. I was a real jerk. So it would be no surprise to my book club pals that I didn't care for this novel. What surprised me, though, was how much I learned about myself, and my relationship with literature, from reading it.
What I've learned is that there is more than one kind of realism. The more obvious kind (which I always thought was the only, the legit, the capital-R Realism) is the one that slavishly imitates life as we know it. Think of Cormac McCarthy, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Books where you can imagine yourself as a visitor in some distant, but still coherent, part of the world. The characters might be the most vivid people you will ever meet, but they are still human beings who think and feel like you do. The events are all within the realms of historical possibility, and each chapter follows from the previous in an orderly sequence of happenings, each one building on the last one in such a way that feels not only possible but inevitable. The sense of inevitability is something I always crave in fiction — the feeling that the world just makes sense.
But when I read this novel (which was my second attempt at it — the first time I gave it up in frustration), I realised that there is a second kind of realism. Márquez is often called a Magical Realist, but I prefer to think of him as a chaotic realist. The places, events, and characters of this particular book only superficially resemble our reality. The people don't speak, think, or act like anyone you've ever met in your waking life. Frankly impossible things happen, with no apologies or attempts at explanation. Everything feels chaotic, incomprehensible, and unreal. And worst of all, it just keeps going and going and going without any structure or apparent meaning. But despite this, the novel captures an aspect of reality that capital-R Realism always struggles to portray, which is precisely the chaos and incomprehensibility of our reality.
It's as if the capital-R Realists are painting a portrait with painstakingly lifelike detail, and Márquez is throwing paint against the wall, creating a fresco of a landscape seen through sun-dazzled eyes, which is indistinct and hazy, lacking the fidelity of a portrait, but boldly conveying the indescribable feeling of being alive.
And I don't like that.
Márquez succeeds brilliantly in capturing the chaos and rudderless confusion of life, and it is overwhelming. There are so many questions that are never addressed. Who are these people? Why can't I tell one person from another? Where are we? Why do things just keep happening non-stop, one after the other, at such a rate that I can't keep up? Who and what am I supposed to care about? Which events are good, which ones are bad? Is it possible to judge? Why do people get away with doing such terrible things? Are they terrible things at all? Did the events of last year truly cause the events of now, or are they all just random (as they seem to be)? How do I know what to believe? Which of these wise observations upon the page are truly wise, and which ones are false or ironic? When the tale constantly contradicts itself, is there such a thing as truth? Why does everyone keep fucking all the time? Are these symbols meaningful, or are they merely for appearance?
These are the same questions that plague us all throughout real life, and none of them seems to have an answer.
So by reading this novel, I have learned something important about the literature I've read and enjoyed for a long time: That what I have always thought of as the true realism, the capital-R Realism, is perhaps more magical than Márquez's magical realism. Capital-R Realism performs the magic trick of making life seem orderly and comprehensible. It starts at the start, then it proceeds logically from one stage to the next, and then it ends. And it creates the illusion that real life can be seen that way too. This makes it enjoyable and comforting to people like me (despite how pessimistic or dark it often is), because grey orderliness is preferable to the chaos of incomprehensible light and colour - the chaos of reality.