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9 Magical Facts About 100 Years of Solitude

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To call Gabriel García Márquez a luminary is an understatement. When he died at 87 in 2014, his native Colombia mandated three days of mourning for the literary superstar popularly known as “Gabo.” Though he wrote many great works, he remains most famous for One Hundred Years of Solitude, which chronicles one unlucky, sometimes incestuous, always-fascinating family in the fictional village of Macondo. Here are 9 fascinating facts about one of literature’s indispensible masterworks, which was completed 50 years ago this year.

1. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE HAS BEEN A BLOCKBUSTER SINCE ITS RELEASE.

García Márquez finished writing One Hundred Years of Solitude in late 1966; the book was first released the following year. Since then, it has sold more than 50 million copies in 25 languages, reportedly outselling everything published in Spanish except for the Bible. "If I hadn’t written [the book], I wouldn’t have read it,” García Márquez told the Atlantic in 1973. “I don’t read best sellers.”

2. WE ALMOST DIDN’T GET THE BOOK.

The typewriter on which One Hundred Years of Solitude was written, on display at the National Library of Colombia in Bogota. Image credit: Getty Images

García Márquez had published four books in Spanish before One Hundred Years of Solitude, but became so discouraged that he gave up writing altogether for more than five years. However, he couldn’t get the idea out of his head. Once he decided to try again, his wife became their family’s sole breadwinner while he threw himself into the work, without any idea where the plot would take him. “I did not stop writing for a single day for 18 straight months, until I finished the book,” he told one interviewer. The manuscript was so large and his family’s savings were so meager that he could only afford to mail one half of it to a potential publisher. By accident, he sent the second half; the publisher was so eager to read the first half, he provided money for the postage. 

3. THE MAN WHO TRANSLATED GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ DESERVES HIS OWN BIOGRAPHIES.

Cuban-American literature professor Gregory Rabassa served as a cryptologist during World War II, breaking codes, visiting the White House, and dancing with Marlene Dietrich. With fluency in at least seven languages, he also interrogated high-level Axis prisoners. On a recommendation from a fellow writer, García Márquez waited a year for Rabassa to become available. When One Hundred Years of Solitude reached the Anglophone world in 1970, he was so happy with the result, he told his translator that the English version was better than his own. 

4. DESPITE HIS FAME AS A MAGICAL REALIST, GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ BEGAN HIS CAREER AS A JOURNALIST.

One of his biggest stories was an investigation into a shipwrecked Colombian naval destroyer. After talking to the sole survivor, García Márquez found that the official story about the ship’s distress—that it had encountered a storm—was inaccurate; the crew members had actually been knocked into the sea by badly packed contraband. Dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was so furious about the story that direct reprisals against the publisher culminated in the newspaper shutting down.

The writer remained deeply political his whole life, and also wielded his pen against capitalism. The colonial banana company described in One Hundred Years of Solitude was so clearly modeled on the massive United Fruit corporation, which Márquez had seen ravage his hometown growing up, that the book was part of the reason it eventually had to rebrand itself—as Chiquita.

5. BY ACCIDENT, GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ STUMBLED ONTO ANOTHER GENRE: MEDICAL REALISM.

García Márquez had his own conception of magical realism and where it came from (more on that later), but sometimes what he thought was imagination turned out to be something real. Early in One Hundred Years of Solitude, a plague of insomnia afflicts Macondo. Villagers begin forgetting the words for things and concepts; protagonist José Arcadio Buendía even meticulously labels everyday objects around town. This cognitive impairment was actually described in medical literature for the first time in 1975, eight years after the book’s initial release. It’s called semantic dementia, and García Márquez accurately describes the effects of certain kinds of degeneration in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes.

6. THE BOOK’S RECEPTION WAS A BIT LIKE BEATLEMANIA. 

The author with a commemorative edition of the book in 2007. Image credit: Getty Images.

Two days after the sometimes-psychedelic One Hundred Years of Solitude debuted, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band dropped. They each exemplified a similar zeitgeist: García Márquez rocketed to the forefront of a pan-Latin American literary movement called El Boom, which also included heavyweights such as Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa. Everyone from intellectuals to blue-collar laborers to sex workers bought and read and talked about the book. Its appeal across class lines fed into a heady period rocked by political and cultural upheaval. “It was seen as the first book to unify the Spanish-language literary culture, long divided between Spain and Latin America, city and village, colonizers and colonized,” writes Vanity Fair’s Paul Elie

7. GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ WAS DETERMINED THAT NO ONE WOULD EVER FILM ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. 

The book itself is massive, dense, and deliberately circular—many critics have pointed out that it follows the plot of the Bible—but that hasn’t stopped other adaptations of his work. Love in the Time of Cholera became a Hollywood film starring Javier Bardem and Benjamin Bratt. But when the producer Harvey Weinstein approached García Márquez about One Hundred Years of Solitude, there were conditions: "We must film the entire book, but only release one chapter—two minutes long—each year, for 100 years."

8. MAGICAL REALISM ITSELF WAS A POLITICAL ACT FOR GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ—AND FOR THOSE WHO FOLLOWED HIM. 

García Márquez in 2006. Image credit: Getty Images.

Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz called it a tool “that enables Caribbean people to see things clearly in their world, a surreal world where there are more dead than living, more erasure and silence than things spoken.” The British-Indian author Salman Rushdie recognized his experience in García Márquez’s Latin America. Ghanaian poet Nii Parkes said the writer “taught the West how to read a reality alternative to their own, which in turn opened the gates for other non-Western writers like myself and other writers from Africa and Asia." 

9. GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK WAS ALL THAT MAGICAL.

What others call magical realism, García Márquez simply calls lived experience. He once claimed that of everything he had written, all of it he’d known, experienced, or heard before he was 8 years old. “You only have to open the newspapers to see that extraordinary things happen to us every day, ” he said in 1988. “There's not a single line in my novels which is not based on reality.”

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LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
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As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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