When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude at age fourteen I wasn’t at all put off by García Marquez’ magic realism. Quite the contrary, I found it oddly familiar. I completely went for the flying carpet and the baby being born with a pig’s tail. The only thing I found completely unrealistic were the repeated names within the same family and the homes decaying into inaccessible labyrinths.
That is, until I came to live in Central America.
I’ve already written plenty about name antics in Latin America, so now a bit about family homes going wild.
I happen to live in one of those houses that started out, if not as a mansion, at least as an estate, right behind the Catholic Church on the central park. The original property occupies about a quarter of a city block. I guess in the old times land was cheap and available, money was plenty, so people built huge houses, often in the Spanish colonial style with rooms constructed around a big centre courtyard. The property where I now live has been divided between three brothers. One of them built a hotel, the next a house for his family and a corner store where he set up is agricultural business. Brother number three has over the years divided his share, just around the corner, into a number of small venues facing the street for business while he and his family live in a house on the back patio. I rent the house owned by the brother who still runs the agricultural business on the corner.
When he started to build his house he had only just finished his studies and had come back to town with his new bride, soon to be followed by two babies. Money was tight, as for any beginning entrepreneur, so there was only money to build two rooms and a bathroom around an open patio. In the front, they built a wooden storage room from where the family ran their business.
When money started coming in the family built a real store on the corner and the storage room became living room, kitchen and a garage attached to it. When the kids grew older, they built two more rooms on the second floor facing the street with a huge cement water tank on top. By then business was apparently flourishing, because the family built themselves a real nice house on a huge property on the edge of town. They started renting out their starters’ home and that’s how I came to rent it as an office for the cultural organization I was director of. The patio was divided in two by a wooden partition. The garage was turned into an art gallery; the living room became our office while the two original rooms were converted in art studio and video editing room. We rented the rooms upstairs out to friends to help cover the rent.
But my landlord wasn’t finished building. He added an apartment on top of the two original rooms (that was actually my idea) and then started building four more rooms on his side of the patio, on top of his store, a place that until that time served as a hangout for his goat (talk about magic realism!) and later his two vicious Rottweilers. A huge black plastic tank was built on top of the older one to provide water for the new rooms. Unfortunately renting out the rooms was not too successful because his tenants tended to be people very good at tearing the place down, but not at paying rent.
In the meantime I had given up my organization but kept the house on (because I liked it) and I moved into the apartment upstairs while renting out the other rooms to help pay the rent. A few months ago I decided to reopen the art gallery, combined with a store and a little café. I told the landlord about my plans and asked him if he could replace the wooden partition in the patio that by now was in such a bad state that even my cats stopped crossing it for fear of it falling apart under their feet. My landlord‘s reaction was: why not tear the whole thing down? And thus was decided that I would fix up the whole courtyard, the rooms and help renting those out. We closed off one wall, opened another, changed the entry to the courtyard and did a whole lot of much needed fixing up. The result is colourful and cute, but it feels like the whole place is hanging on my rubber bands and masking tape. But then again, I love the serendipity of the place, even though it makes no sense whatsoever and gives me a headache when trying to maintain it, all these odd corners, useless niches, tiny balconies but corridors. On “my” side of the building there are seven rooms on no less than six different levels! The steps of the three stairways are all different in height and oh! The water pipes! Since the house was built in different stages, some faucets are provided by one pipe, the faucet next to it by another while the drainage goes in opposite directions too. And let’s not get started about the electricity!!! Burned out equipment and showerheads are too regularly an unpleasant event to even mention it.
When I read One Hundred Years of Solitude that time long ago, I had a hard time picturing how a house could fall apart, be put back together and be divided into a million rooms, some long forgotten and rotten away. But now I have seen first hand how buildings change, how family homes become beehives of small rooms, every time a son or daughter is born or getting married. This doesn’t require major remodeling guided by an architect or engineer. Hell no, everybody can tear a wall down, add another, put some zinc laminas on top. It’s no big deal.