Warning: This article spoils the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Well well well. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad) is a big piece. The kind of novel in which you can get literally bogged down or delighted to drop into. Issued by Gabriel García Márquez* in 1967, it narrates the adventures of the Buendía family, founders of the village of Macondo. To keep these 200 pages short, after 20 characters, 7 generations and 32 wars, the lineage goes extinct as the village of Macondo is destroyed by natural elements. The novel ends after Aureliano Babilonia, last member of the family, discovers that Melquíades, a gypsy friend of the first Buendía generation, had prophesied in an encrypted parchment the adventures of the whole lineage and foreseen its final extinction.
For the ones who would know more about the story, you can check this link summarizing the novel. It’s actually impossible to list in a relevant way the enormous amount of events imagined by García Márquez. You’ll see quickly that the list of all these facts appears incoherent and pointless without the proper style and micro-context of the narration. One Hundred Years of Solitude is like a building: no matter how many bricks you have, you need some precious cement gluing all of them together to make the whole stand. Good news today: we’re going to talk about the cement.
A Colombian saga
García Márquez is known for having defined his own style called “magic realism” (realismo mágico). The principle is thus: you’ve got a realistic environment in which you put some irrational phenomena. Characters regularly interact with these phenomena but rarely put them into question. Irrationality is then fully shown as a part of reality**.
Conversely, some events described in the novel, such as a worker’s massacre or the liberal-conservative wars are part of the real History of Colombia where García Márquez comes from. He said “To all people reproaching me of having left Colombia, I have a prepared answer. I say that I write Colombian novels”.
These references to Colombian history also feed the purpose of García Márquez to build his novel as a true saga. Throughout the pages, the reader follows the fate of several generations. Some characters are long lasting – say “Hi” to Pilar Ternera, who’s 145 years old at the end of the novel! Thus he does have the time to get familiar with their personalities, their behaviours and their aspirations. As the story is always mentioning events and elements from past generations, there is a constant connection between the present and the past. And at a certain point, the reader feels that this past they experienced through reading is also slightly theirs.
During the last quarter of the novel, García Márquez skilfully orchestrates the end of his saga: the reader feels that this abundant and monstrous universe they got to grips with during several weeks is gradually closing in front of their eyes. Just have a look at the family tree here to be aware of how many characters the reader will follow (and these are only the main ones!).
For these three reasons, it is often said that García Márquez wanted to create a proper Colombian original “mythology” that could stand as a common fictional story for Colombian people, as the Odyssey could have such a role for ancient Greeks for instance.
Out of control
Characters of the Buendía family do have a thing in common: they don’t belong to themselves. From their original ancestor José Arcadio Buendía, obsessed by scientific experiments to his very last grandson crazily fallen in love with his aunt, most the family members seem driven by some unknown power. Here, some parallel with the thoughts of Hegel may be interesting to dig. According to Hegel, men think they determine their own ideas but the truth is that ideas themselves are actually determining men without their knowledge. The Buendías are a good illustration of this thesis.
They are constantly obsessed by ideas, projects or specific behaviors which determine a significant part of their life. Here are some other examples: the Colonel Aureliano Buendía triggers 32 wars with the conservative government to establish liberal ideas, his son Aureliano “Segundo” is a die-hard partygoer and Aureliano “Segundo”’s wife Fernanda is highly devoted to religion. But here ends the comparison. In Hegel’s philosophy, some men are possessed by what he calls “the Spirit”, i.e. a concrete manifestation of rationality which leads Humanity to progress. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the characters lose themselves in their own obsessions. José Arcadio Buendía becomes ill, the Colonel Aureliano Buendía retreats into his regrets after the defeat, Aureliano “Segundo” dies in poverty, and Fernanda shuts herself away in superstition. Therefore, conversely to Hegel, characters’ ideas don’t lead the lineage to progress but to decadence. Here’s some eloquent extract:
There was no mystery in the heart of a Buendía that was impenetrable for her [our 145 y.o. Pilar Ternera] because a century of cards and experience had taught her that the history of the family 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. (Chapter 19, p.191, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Avon Books Edition)
The quest of meaning through obsession
In this respect obsession appears as a central topic of the novel. It is constantly illustrated by characters’ actions and connected to other topics such as time, love, science or solitude. But there’s more: obsession isn’t only a topic, it’s also a literary tool used by García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a very eccentric work. Half of the novel is built on a long series of anecdotes, and the reader gets lost in these various small stories interlocking with each other. Just like his characters lost in their obsessions, García Márquez literally drowns the reader in irrational stories; constantly inventing and focusing on random stories as an obsessed person would focus intensely on a random topic:
In the meantime, Melquíades had printed on his plates everything that was printable in Macondo, and he left the daguerreotype laboratory to the fantasies of José Arcadio Buendía who had resolved to use it to obtain scientific proof of the existence of God. Through a complicated process of superimposed exposures taken in different parts of the house, he was sure that sooner or later he would get a daguerreotype of God, if He existed, or put an end once and for all to the supposition of His existence. (Chapter 3, p.32, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Avon Books Edition)
This endless flow of anecdotes helps then to let emerge the question of the meaning: through the continuous experience of pointless stories, the reader is better able to foresee the meaninglessness of Buendías’ obsessions. Characters’ diverse obsessions are sources of meaning for them because they are passionate, but they are also the source of their loss. The whole novel is actually built on this tasty paradox showing obsession both as a creation and a destruction principle. García Márquez won’t answer the question on whether his characters’ obsessions are good or bad, he will simply highlight this perspective during the whole story, such as in this part:
“They could hear Úrsula fighting against the laws of creation to maintain the line, and José Arcadio Buendía searching for the mythical truth of the great inventions, and Fernanda praying, and Colonel Aureliano Buendía stupefying himself with the deception of war and the little gold fishes, and Aureliano Segundo dying of solitude in the turmoil of his debauches, and then they learned that dominant obsessions can prevail against death […]” (Chapter 20, p.198, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Avon Books Edition)
Inception music incoming
Let’s now come back to the prophecy prophesying the fate of this whole family. The following extract takes place at the very end of the novel, when Aureliano Babilonia decodes the prophecy written by Melquíades one century before:
Aureliano skipped eleven pages [of the text of the prophecy] so as not to lose time with facts he knew only too well, […] Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen 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 […]. (Chapter 20, p.201, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Avon Books Edition)
A quite seducing theory tells that the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is actually the text of the Melquíades’ prophecy. Why not? Both tell the story of the Buendía lineage, and both stop at the same time (the novel actually ends on the prophecy’s final words). At the beginning, the text of the prophecy is a source of meaning for the family, because it contains a secret teaching from the wise Melquíades. But in the course of the novel, several Buendías from different generations (José Arcadio Buendía, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, Aureliano “Segundo”, José Arcadio “Segundo”, Aureliano Babilionia) spend months and years of their lives trying to decode it. It then becomes a source of obsession and meaninglessness.
When Aureliano Babilonia finally decodes the prophecy after seven generations, he is able to read what the reader has been reading so far. It becomes thus again a source of meaning: this whole enormous bunch of anecdotes, crazy adventures and characters were part of a global fate. All of this didn’t happen by chance, because it should happen. A tragic turn occurs however in this last extract above, as the prophecy (or the novel, depends if you’re a reader of a character!) says that the Buendía’s story will be erased “from the memory of men” as soon as someone would be able to read the whole story itself. At this precise moment, the whole family’s fate is vowed to absurdity: a forgotten and self-destructed parenthesis in time. As the obsession topic before, the Melquíades’ text appears both a source of meaning and as a source of absurdity. Most importantly, it shows that the fate of the Buendías is closely linked to the question of meaning through time, as ending the written story of the family is destroying the family itself***.
No one could say the contrary: One Hundred Years of Solitude is a tough one. Once you start this book, you may often think about leaving it. But the more you read, the more you get obsessed by this huge jungle of characters and memories. What I could have highlighted more is the poetic style of García Márquez, and the footprint of his “magic realism”, which can turn random stories into mini fairy tales. Love is also a salient topic of the novel, and it’s maybe better to leave you with this final extract describing the love between Aureliano Babilonia and his aunt Amaranta Úrsula:
“And yet, while she was singing with pleasure and dying with laughter over her own inventions, Aureliano was becoming more and more absorbed and silent, for his passion was self-centered and burning. […] One night they daubed themselves from head to toe with peach jam and licked each other like dogs and made mad love on the floor of the porch, and they were awakened by a torrent of carnivorous ants who were ready to eat them alive.” (Chapter 20, p.196, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Avon Books Edition)
*Gabriel García Márquez has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.
**Interesting to note that it is different from the fantastic movement. “In the fantastic domain, the transgression of logic is heartbreaking: it generates fear” while in magic realism, this unexplainable events can transfigure the reality in a neutral, negative of positive way, that characters don’t put into question (link to source).
***A funny and eloquent parallel can be made with “Impossible Mission”. Just replace the famous “This message will self destruct” by “This message containing all your family story will be self-destruct as you as well”.
Co-written with Elsa Blareau.