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Reconsidering One Hundred Years of Solitude

A rereading of Gabriel García Márquez's famous book.

Alejandra Vega/AFP/Getty Images

For Gabriel García Márquez, the Columbian author of Cien Años de Soledad, (One Hundred Years of Solitude), first published in Buenos Aires in 1967, the world is a daedalian series of identical, connected rooms, one “door of which . . . open[s] into another that was just the same, the door of which would open into another that was just the same, and into another exactly alike, and so on to infinity,” all alike except for the first room, “the room of reality,” to which one must eventually return or be lost forever. To dwell too long in any room but the first is “to stay there forever,” trapped in a “gallery of parallel mirrors,” which leads to the loss of reality, to death literal or figurative, to immurement or captivity amidst insidious delusions and deceptions; to solitude. 

The characters of One Hundred Years of Solitude go from room to room in a damned house situated in the mythical city of Macondo, itself a “city of mirrors (or mirages),” trying, always too late, to “[walk] in reverse, going back over . . . [their] trail.” This house is the Buendía household: a symbol for and an anatomy of solitude. In this house, as in Macondo at large, reality almost always eludes us or else we flee it, the instrument of flight being our imagination. Reality and imagination are antipodal. Solitude is conferred by the imagination, by the deliberate embrace of hermeticism, by lust or passion, by a commitment to hatred, by the dedication to unswervable purity of purpose, by isolated, brittle pride, by fanaticism or private vision—these are the existential traps which snap shut on each generation of the Buendías. Hungering after reality in vain, they see in the mirrored walls infinite reflections of their fevered imaginations. 

José Arcadio Buendía, a “youthful patriarch,” along with some 20 other men and women, found the pristine village of Macondo, making of its initial years a model of order, harmony, sanity, and reality. But he is doomed to oscillate between periods of being the “most enterprising man ever to be seen in the village” and a solitary figure “whose unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius of nature,” who ultimately is “devastated” by the “wrath of his imagination” into taking leave of sanative reality. He is seduced by his imagination into becoming a spiritual questor, a man for whom “immediate reality” eventually pales beside the “vast universe of his imagination.” He is enthralled first by the discovery of magnetism, then by “dreams of transmutation” in an alchemist’s laboratory, then by the possibility of employing a daguerreotype laboratory “to obtain scientific proof of the existence of God.” This prolonged “torment of fantasy” at last drives him mad. He spends his last years sequestered beneath a chestnut tree in his orchard, “sunk in an abyss of unawareness,” having “lost all contact with reality,” muttering in medieval, misunderstood Latin against all conceivable proofs for the existence of God. Even after his death, with a sudden influx of inventions from the outside world into Macondo, Buendía’s ghost, still beneath the chestnut tree, remains uncertain “where the limits of reality lay,” convulsed by “an intricate stew of truths and mirages.” 

The son of José Arcadio, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, a “solitary and elusive character,” thrusts Macondo out of its isolation into political conflict. As the military leader of an ill-defined revolution against an amorphous dictatorial government, the colonel fights one losing battle after another, slowly being brutalized out of his commitment into a cynical belief that war is empty, to be fought only for “pride,” He gives strict orders that no one should come closer than 10 feet, not even his mother, and has his aides draw a “chalk circle” around him whenever he stops, and “which only he could enter,” from which he would decide “with brief orders that had no appeal the fate of the world.” Unable to break “the hard shell of his solitude,” and increasingly weary of the “vicious circle of that eternal war,” a circle symbolic of his physical isolation within the chalk circle, feeling more “scattered about, multiplied, and more solitary than ever,” he comes to realize, when the armistice is signed, that the secret of a good old age is “simply an honorable pact with solitude.” To this end he devotes himself to the casting and recasting of tiny golden fish, “an artisan without memories whose only dream was to die of fatigue in the oblivion and misery of his little gold fishes.” 

With the passing of the Colonel, Macondo enters into decline. Its government’s involvement with foreign imperialism begins to corrode the community by handing it over to an insatiable banana company whose power is total. Two grandsons of the Colonel, the twins Aureliano Segundo and José Arcadio Segundo, mirror the town’s pitiless transition. Aureliano Segundo, caught between the sensuality of his mistress, whose “love had the virtue of exasperating nature” into a “disorderly fecundity,” and the solitary delusions of his bourgeois wife, a woman “lost in the world” whose “circle of rigidity” and isolation closes completely as she takes control of the destiny of the family, becomes an orgiast unable to free himself from “the bitter solitude of his revels,” someone always in need of companionship, always arranging for feasts and amusements. The latter, having witnessed an execution as a child, is imprinted with a sense of sin which makes him receptive to a more solitary existence. He finally becomes an organizer in a workers’ strike against the banana company and is forced into a stunted retirement after government troops slaughter his followers in the town square. He ends his days in a world of shadows “as unreachable and solitary as that of his greatgrandfather.” Except for himself, no one, out of fear or cowardice, will admit to having witnessed the slaughter or even that it ever took place. 

As Macondo declines, a “voracity of oblivion” undermines “memories,” wiping out the very history of its rise and fall, and sinking it into “a kind of idiocy that had no past.” The last Buendías spend their days in a delirium of incest. Aureliano Babilonia, an illegitimate member of the family, and his aunt Amaranta flit naked through the decaying family house, clinging to each other in bouts of unbridled love, oblivious to the ants and tropical life that are reclaiming the mansion and all Macondo back from the fortitude and endurance that created it. They live in an erotic dream, and produce the last Buendía, a male, conceived in love to cleanse the race of “its pernicious vices and solitary calling,” but sprouting, at the base of his spine, a small “pig’s tail,” a “cartilaginous” protruberance “in the shape of a corkscrew with a small tuft of hair on the tip” in fulfillment of an old prophecy: that the incestuous coupling of the Buendías would eventually produce such a deformity. Hence the Buendía line, begun in hope over a century ago, ends in monstrosity. Less than a day after his birth, the last Buendía is carried off and devoured by an army of ants, and the line comes to an end. For the Buendías time was always “turning in a circle”: its history was a “machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.” 

Reality, García Márquez said in an interview in Barcelona, is not restricted to the price of tomatoes. He asserts that life is filled with the miraculous lying dormant at the heart of the quotidian, adding that for him the key to writing One Hundred Years of Solitude was the idea of saying incredible things with a completely unperturbed face. The ideal novel should “perturb not only because of its political and social content, but also because of its power of penetrating reality; and better yet, because of its capacity to turn reality upside down so we can see the other side of it.” Hence ghosts wander disconsolately through the household, priests levitate in proof of God, and a hauntingly beautiful young girl, Remedios the Beauty, ascends to heaven in body and soul while cleaning sheets out of doors, “waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her.” García Márquez’s narrative surface echoes the phrase used by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier to describe his own work: lo real maravilloso, the marvellous in the real. 

A gypsy magus named Melquíades, the tutelary spirit of the Buendía family, discovering the solitude of death intolerable, returns periodically to give instruction to those select members of each generation of the family able to see him. His coded parchments, deciphered, in the end, by the last Buendía, turn out to be the book we are reading, since Melquíades, as the book’s narrator, is able to see backward and forward in time. Melquíades’s parchments contain the “history of the family . . . down to the most trivial details, one hundred years ahead of time.” Melquíades had eschewed the linear chronicling of events according to man’s conventional time, and instead “had concentrated a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant.” For Melquíades, time exists as a simultaneous whole, a simultaneity, in which the future, as well as the past, shows “through in time as one sees what is written on the back of a sheet of paper through the light.” Melquíades’s parchments constitute, in other words, an “eternalized fragment” of time, whole and complete, absolved of serial linearity. Hence the form of the parchments becomes the form of the novel, and “everything is known,” as Melquíades iterates throughout the book, for both gypsy and omniscient novelist. Hence the form of the book partakes of the magic of these parchments, as a work of art becomes a self-contained world. The distant past arises in the running present; the cycles of the Buendías mirror one another, past and future. The final passage of the narrative celebrates this coming together of art and life: 

It was forseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.