Ascent to Glory:

How One Hundred Years of Solitude was Written and Became a Global Classic

by | Apr 6, 2021

Alvaro Santana-Acuña, Ascent to Glory: How One Hundred Years of Solitude was Written and Became a Global Classic (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020)

When, at the age of seventeen, I heard that Gabriel García Márquez had won the Nobel Prize, I was surprised, not that he had won it, because I knew of him at the time as a writer of world eminence, but that he was so young. He  was 54, someone with apparently a good deal of life ahead of him—as was happily the case. But One Hundred Years of Solitude, as Alvaro Santana-Acuña notes in this provocative book, was already a world classic.

Santana-Acuña is not cynical about García Márquez’s success. He believes that One Hundred Years of Solitude is a great book and delights in showing the granularities of how the book was conceived, revised, marketed and received. He does not, in other words, believe the book is a ploy, a gimmick, or overrated. He does, though, insist that certain aspects of the author—that he was male, of the right generation, and  had the right politics, authorial self-image and international networks,  contributed to the book’s extraordinary acclaim.

One of these factors was the presence of a predecessor “hybrid generation” (22) of writers like Julio Cortázar and  Juan Rulfo. Another was a publishing infrastructure, largely in  still Franco-ruled Spain, of “key gatekeepers”  such as Sudamericana publishers and the Carmen Balcells literary agency, with the capacity to distribute and publicize the novel transnationally  and translingually. This part of the story has been told before, by William Marling and, much earlier, Emir Rodríguez Monegal. But Santana-Acuña tells it in maximal detail, including a highly helpful map (123) of García Márquez’s literary networks among the “cultural intelligentsia” (271) as of 1967.

Santana-Acuña conjectures that García Márquez’s novel, originally imagined as an elegiac treatment of a vanished town, was galvanized into being a “literary imagination of cosmopolitanism” (18)  by the Colombian writer’s reading of Alejo Carpentier’s El siglo de las luces. More specifically, an internal revision made very late in the game were crucial to the novel as we know it. Originally, there were “precise references” (149)  to the Magdalena River in the novel which would have connoted a sort of costumbrismo. But, at the last minute, García Márquez excised them. This left Macondo as a place obscure and conjectural, whose (as Harvard Romance and Literatures Professor Mariano Siskind has termed it) “hyperlocal” aspects extend Macondo to the world through its very remoteness and imaginariness. Small decisions have big impacts.

Those who have read and cherished the book have relished the world of Macondo.  But Santana-Acuña intriguingly shows that the most salient index of canonical status is the visibility of the work to those who have not read it. Arguing somewhat along the lines of the U.S. literary critic  E. D. Hirsch’s model of cultural literacy or the French essayist  Pierre Bayard’s image of the intellectual flaunting the books they have not read, Santana Acuna speaks of  “indexicals” (300) emerging from a book. Even those who “have not read” (300)  the novel know what Macondo is, are familiar with magical realism, and can say that García Márquez was a left-wing, Castro-supporting writer. These references seep into a culture much as there are scores of seafood restaurants named after Melville’s Moby-Dick whose customers have seldom read it. Macondo has become culturally trademarked.

Santana-Acuña gives much detail about the Latin American literary world of García Márquez’s generating and his predecessors, enabling the book to serve as a primer for the modern history of the Latin American novel. He seeks to tell how one book won out over the rest, ascended to glory like Remedios the beauty soaring to heaven while the others were moored down to earth. But there is also the power of the literary field. Santana-Acuña positions the Chilean novelist José Donoso as a sort of Salieri to García Márquez’s Mozart,  a frustrated and envious rival who in his own mind, and that of some of his backers could well have assumed the mantle of “the” Latin American novelist.

This can go both ways, though. In the early 1980s, I saw, wandering in the old Barnes and Noble Sales Annex on Fifth Avenue in New York, two novels by Donoso, piled high on a table of deeply discounted books. Two equally salient outcomes emerge from this. First of all, José Donoso did not sell as well as García Márquez; therefore he was on the remainder table. But secondly,  the visibility of García Márquez had created a field in which José Donoso could be translated into English and have his books prominently displayed, so that readers—in this case, me as a teenager—would buy and read them. Similarly, García Márquez’s predecessor as Nobel laureate, the Guatemalan novelist  Miguel Ángel Asturias, was vexed that the younger writer stole  his thunder and disdained Asturias’s  dictator-novel as an impediment to his own. Asturias “retaliated” (189)  by, amusingly, accusing the younger writer of plagiarizing—Balzac!  But beneath the iceberg—to allude to the young (not-yet)  Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s discovery of ice—of the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude is a literary field both suppressed and ventilated by the visibly famous novel. This literary field includes women writers such as Mexican screenwriter Elena Garro and Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector who could have, but did not, receive the acclaim of the male writer. Notably, García Márquez’s successor as designated Latin American world writer, Roberto Bolaño, makes this literary field visible in his fiction, whereas in the earlier writer it is submerged. But I would argue in both cases this field is manifest.

Santana-Acuña’s sociological approach largely attends to the internal dynamics of the literary and publishing worlds. He is not a historical materialist, nor is he politically deterministic. Santana Acuña is right to say that García Márquez’s reading public was disappointed in that no other novel of his was “just” like One Hundred Years of Solitude. But The Autumn of the Patriarch, particularly coming when the Southern Cone dictatorships were at the height of their menace, did keep García Márquez in the public eye, and though Chronicle of a Death Foretold might have been anticlimactic, its brevity makes it an ideal teaching text for a survey course that could not include the longer, greater “total novel.”  Love In The Time of Cholera, which Santana-Acuña  barely mentions, achieved its own public in the Anglophone world and may well have been “actually” read by more people.

As somebody who was alive, though young, at the time, and whose parents were involved in with Latin America and literature respectively, I have my own path through the early  U.S. response to García Márquez. That García Márquez’s major novels were published first in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution and then  the 1973 Chile coup, but that he was neither (like Donoso) Chilean or (like Carpentier) Cuban, gave him both a proximity to and a negotiability regarding these Latin American upheavals. Notably, Colombia was not a particularly newsworthy country in the 1960s and 1970s. It only became so in the era of the FARC insurgency and narcoterrorism, chronicled by the next generation of writers such as Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Héctor Abad Faciolince. Yet Colombia was a major country, unlike, as Santana-Acuña points out, the “secondary” (257) Ecuador of the overlooked novelist  José de la Cuadra. One Hundred Years of Solitude incarnated applicability, pertinence and distance with respect to the convulsive changes in Latin America that made it apt for a global audience.

Santana-Acuña raises the issue of “literary counterfactuals” (301): what would the situation have been if the novel had never been published? Would a book like Paradise by the Cuban novelist  José Lezama Lima, touted at the time as a “new genius” (263), have replaced it? I would argue that this work was too Cuban and too modernist to fill the gap. Santana-Acuna speculates that the Stuart-era English playwright Thomas Middleton might have been ”as good as” (301) Shakespeare. But perhaps, without Shakespeare, English drama would have been seen as beginning only after the later influence of French neoclassicism. Middleton would be shunted  to a period of only antiquarian interest, much like Latin America before the Boom.

Another intriguing moment in this book is Santana-Acuña’s discussion of the original reviews. These emphasized some aspects not dominant in subsequent criticism, for instance that it was “humorous” (167), seeing the story of the Buendías like the British critic  Peter Russell  saw Don Quixote, as a funny book. Others saw it as ”traditionalist” (168), signaling that the book went beyond modernism into postmodernism by sampling the premodern. Reading about the reviews conjures  the intimacy of primary relation to the book. One of the reasons I enjoy rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude is that each time I begin it, I recover this intimacy. Santana-Acuna has achieved the great feat of networking and historicizing this intimacy without annulling it. Ascent to Glory is that rarest of things, a readable and enjoyable scholarly book.

Nicholas Birns teaches at New York University. He is a contributor to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Gabriel García Márquez and co-editor of Roberto Bolaño  as World Literature (Bloomsbury, 2017).

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