Since its publication in 1967, Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad has provoked throughout Latin America reactions far beyond those of ordinary critical approval. Indeed, this novel by a Colombian writer who has lived in Europe for the last fifteen years has been welcomed, written about, and discussed by Spanish readers with an almost relieved exuberance, as if to suggest that the style and sensibility of their history had at last been represented by a writer who understands their particular secrets and rhythms, by a writer who, moreover, presents these qualities with a classic lucidity and humor, and whose art is large enough to include the rough and the fastidious taste, to be epic at a time when so much of what is interesting in literature belongs to the idiosyncratic and consciously complex—certainly timely qualities for our fiction, but qualities not particularly suited to an imagination which wishes to span a century of narrative or catch the essence of an entire culture.
One has only to read a few pages of Márquez’s novel to understand the response it has occasioned. Immediately, the reader senses in its style a simple audaciousness which alerts him to the premise that he is attending to something more than an ordinary chronicle of fiction, that he is being presented, rather, with a work that presumes nothing, that starts from a beginning both in literary and historical time, as if existence itself had no previous records or memories. Although La Hojarascas (Dead Leaves) and Las Funerales de la Mamá Grande (Big Mama’s Funeral), earlier works by Márquez, used the town of Macondo and its people for their subject, Cien años de soledad (translated ably now into English by Gregory Rabassa as One Hundred Years of Solitude), while occasionally referring to events recounted in the two previous collections of stories, moves on to a new level of narrative, a level more inclusive and distant, more robust and magical, than the earlier tales about the inhabitants of this imaginary South American town.
Having examined the fictional reality of his characters in short, perceptive sketches, Márquez seems here to transport them into a literary myth, a myth which at once sets them permanently beyond the common laws of life and at the same moment dissolves them forever in a deliberate act of artistic obliteration. Cien años de soledad may indeed be a depiction of a time and a culture, but Márquez also makes it clear that his tale is more a dream of art than a collection of social and historical truths, and, at the work’s end, when this dream takes on the force of a metaphor for all the cycles of human life that have vanished, one realizes that the excellence of this book lies in its victory over the quaint and anecdotal, in its sustained vision of the vanities and futile passions with which humanity tries to forestall its fate of being, in art and actuality, comically impermanent.
I emphasize the formal aspect of Cien años de soledad only so that it will not be taken by English readers for a Hispanic Forsyte Saga, or a regional fairy tale stuffed with Latin whimsy and emotional outrageousness. Márquez, in following the rise and decline of the Buendía family, of course makes use of themes that have turned up often before in the literature of his continent. Futile revolution, Yankee imperialism, governmental lunacy, ludicrous machismo, doomed passion, voracious nature—Márquez boldly makes use of all of these old concepts of South American private and political history, but his method is to extend and inflate these notions until they become so grand that the reader feels that he has been presented with final configurations of things which have been only hinted at before, that he is encountering characters whose direct antecedents have been only tentative and inchoate and whose future descendants can never be more than epigoni. In short, Márquez has not only rounded out and fixed these motifs, but, by an extension of artistic logic, has made of them symbols by which subtle patterns of life can be forever held in our memory.
Cien años de soledad, first of all, is a novel in which event and time are conjoined, where straight chronicle is mixed with memory and a linear narrative is subject to the temporal capriciousness of its author. Márquez begins his book by the evocation of a distant and Eden-like epoch:
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. 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.
A pleasant and pristine world, but a world already shadowed by that firing squad in the first line, a world just about to be invaded by outlandish knowledge. At once, we know we are not only in the memory of a character but also in a historic and mythical moment. From this first paragraph, there is a continuous shift through time which gives the lively incidents and swaggering action in the succeeding pages the quality of seeming anticipated or mournfully recalled, and Márquez’s characters appear, even at their most rambunctious, as beings dreadfully mortal if not outright ghostly. This sense of the ironies of time deepens and qualifies the ebullient, carnival moments of Cien años de soledad, making them seem, for all their lust and strength, painfully fragile tokens of all that is forever dying with great human fuss and style.
Although there are many ways of approaching the structure of this novel, it is perhaps simplest to begin with the chronicle of the Buendía family. The patriarch of the clan, José Arcadio Buendía, with some twenty other young men and their wives, founds the village of Macondo and, though discontented with his achievement, makes of its initial years a nearly perfect community. This first Buendía is like a spiritual conquistador, a man hungering for new experience and knowledge, a man for whom no fact of science will ever live up to what he imagines can be found out about the world. A fine, compassionate leader, he nevertheless dreams further perfections of this world until these visions at last drive him mad and, deep in an amiable lunacy, he spends his last years tied to a chestnut tree in his orchard, babbling in a hyperbolic, medieval Latin arguments against all the imagined proofs for the existence of God.
The son of José Arcadio, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, moves Macondo out of its isolation into political conflict. As the military leader of a progressively vague and ill-defined revolution against a nebulous dictatorial government, the Colonel fights one meaningless battle after another, slowly being brutalized out of life in the process, so that when at last peace is signed, he has the will only to cast and recast tiny golden fish, in a stultifying reenactment of his futile military campaigns. He becomes one of those heroes whom a country would rather forget, and he dies in the peculiar solitude of those men who were once adored by thousands.
With the death of the Colonel, Macondo begins to decline, battered by history. Its government’s collusion with foreign imperialism begins to corrode the community, distending it unnaturally through the importation of cheap labor, and dispiriting it by handing to an insatiable banana company power over its people, who at first do not understand the company’s intentions and, only too late, discover that they have been cajoled into bondage. Two grandsons of the Colonel, the twins Aureliano Segundo and José Arcadio Segundo, reflect the town’s melancholy transition: the former, caught between the easeful sensuality of his mistress and the social delusions of his bourgeois wife, becomes a genial orgiast, someone always in need of company, continually arranging feasts and revels that continue for days; the latter, having witnessed an execution as a child, has a sense of human viciousness which makes him less receptive to the sportive in life. He finally becomes an organizer in a workers’ strike against the banana company and is forced into a stunned and isolated retirement after government troops massacre his followers and their families in the town square. No one, except himself, will admit to having seen the slaughter or even to the fact that such an event ever took place.
The last Buendías spend their days in passionate incest. Aureliano Babilonia, an illegitimate member of the household, and his aunt Amaranta dart naked through the crumbling family house, seeking each other out in bursts of lovemaking, indifferent to the insects and plant life that are gradually reclaiming all of Macondo back from the human will that created and sustained it. These lovers live in an erotic dream that permits them to return to the pure and pleasurable life of instinct, a life without a past or a future to question the delight they discover again and again in their bodies. They produce the last Buendía, a boy, who, at the base of his spine, sprouts a small “pig’s tail,” a twisted, cartilaginous growth that is a sign not only of a genetic breakdown but of the terrible fulfillment of an old prophecy: that the coupling of the Buendías would produce just such a deformity. For over a hundred years, the family has struggled through aspirations, dreams, war, birth and death to avoid ending in aberration, but has at last ended with a monstrosity, the melancholy sign of all that it has created. Not a day after his birth, the ultimate Buendía is carried off and devoured by an army of ants, and the line comes to an end.
So far, I have emphasized the men of the Buendía family, for it is they who provide the extravagant action of the book. The women, however, provide the dignity, and, in the long line of their lives, hold the work together, preventing it from becoming a mere joining of fragmented incidents. The will and spirit of Úrsula, especially, the wife of the first Buendía, José Arcadio, gives structure to the entire book. Úrsula’s demands in the world are small: to endure, to keep life moving on with some degree of honor and respect, to keep a natural sanity about things that can only be shaken when those she loves prove themselves brutal. Through generation after generation of her family she lives on, overcoming grand and petty calamities, growing blind and wizened, finally dwindling to nothing but a bent little toy for her great-grandchildren’s amusement, yet never giving up her sensible notion that there must be some decent goal to be reached after all the frenzy and passion she has witnessed. And then there are Amaranta, Úrsula’s daughter, who, because of a bad moment of love as a girl, spins out the rest of her long existence doing embroidery, held to life only by the desire to outlive the women she hates; and Pilar, the village whore, who populates Macondo with bastards fathered by the young men of three generations while waiting for the perfect man promised by her Tarot pack. It is no wonder that Márquez gives his women long lives, for they seem far more able to make a pact with life than the men. When Colonel Buendía dies, one feels the poignancy in the death of a single being; but when Úrsula is buried, one understands that life itself can be worn down to nothing.
At the heart of Cien años de soledad is its magic, a magic that moves from the simply phenomenal—a levitating priest, a flock of yellow butterflies that flit ominously about a young seducer, plants that bleed when cut, countless ghosts that are accepted as part of the natural landscape—to the core of Márquez’s world. In this world, as I have said, beings shuffle back and forth in time, and the ordinary has been so clearly seen and relentlessly followed to its conclusion that the world itself becomes more than natural, becomes, instead, a wild conjuring of things which may seem to be set in reality but which slide imperceptibly into the fantastic.
As we reach the last pages of Cien años de soledad we discover, when Aureliano Babilonia deciphers a stack of old papers, that we have been reading the history of Macondo and the Buendías as recorded by one Melquíades, the chief of the gypsy band whom we encountered on the first page in the memory of Colonel Buendía. It is Melquíades who, in his skeptical, creative gypsy mind, has held the past, present, and future of Macondo as if they were but an instant of thought, he who has told the story, with wild embellishments and excesses, he who has made the magic of the whole enterprise—a magic which, once discovered, eases, allowing all the feats of imagination and sleight of hand to fade away. As a hurricane sweeps down upon the town, Aureliano reads both his own end and that of Macondo, sees, perhaps, the obliteration of the very book that created him. In a final stroke of magic and of art, Melquíades-Márquez not only ends the story of the Buendías, he eradicates it forever in one luminous moment.
In Cien años de soledad Márquez forces upon us at every page the wonder and extravagance of life, while compassionately mocking its effusions; and when the book ends with its sudden self-knowledge and its intimations of holocaust, we are left with that pleasant exhaustion which only very great novels seem to provide; for they allow us, in a moment of exquisite balance, to hold a vision—to be sure, in some fear, but also with humor—of the beginnings and ends to all the enterprises of living. Márquez, with his tale of Macondo and the Buendías, strikes such a balance and makes us feel as if we had survived his century of articulate dreams only to awaken and discover that they must finally all come true.
March 26, 1970