One Hundred Years of Solitude is many things; it is, above all, a fiction, set within the microcosmic universe of Macondo, concerning the lives of seven generations of the fictional Buendia family. As I already laid out in the last blog post, Marquez’s use of magic, fantastical happenings and extraordinary events heighten the knowledge of the reader that this is, indeed, fiction, all the while presenting these events without ceremony. This creates a kind of post-fictional narrative, wherein everything, fact and otherwise, is presented with the same po-faced lack of urgency. It is as if Marquez were writing the history of the family next door.
However, nothing is so simple. The style of writing that Marquez adopts throughout is lyrical, beautiful and deeply factual; not in its content, but in its inherent style. The novel is essentially an anthropological study of a fictional family, set within the confines of wholly non-fictional events. Marquez charts over 400 years of Central American political and social history, mixing it with the rapid technological developments and globalization of the international community, as seen through the prism of a tiny village in Northern Colombia. Furthermore, Marquez uses classical mythology, both South American and Indo-European, to create a foundation myth, centred around Macondo, from which Colombian history is changed, altered and directly affected. Furthermore, he uses Macando as a microcosm of the wider Colombian state, and uses the Colombian state as a representation of the political dreams and ambitions of developing nations in the modern era.
Placing the events of One Hundred Years of Solitude on some kind of historical scale is incredibly tricky, not least because Marquez often writes in the fuzzy language of myth. For example, at the beginning of the novel, we are never given a date for Macondo’s founding:
“The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
Some historical allusions are given early in the novel to ground us in fact; we are told that Ursula’s great-grandfather was cursed on the day that Francis Drake attacked Riohacha, an event that occurred in 1586. It is therefore sensible to imagine that at least a century has passed since this event, since Ursula is not a young woman at the beginning of the novel. Furthermore, the telescop shown to Jose Arcadio Bundia, the founder of Macondo, by the travelling gypsy Melquiades, was invented in 1611, with the first ‘practical’ telescopic appliances being created by Sir Isaac Newton in 1668; ‘commercial telescopes’, ready to be shipped and developed in greater numbers, were not available until around the 1750s. With these general facts, we can assume that the novel begins, with the founding of Macondo, somewhere from the beginning, to the middle of the 19th century.
The first concrete dates we have for events in the novel come around 100 pages into the book, when Colonel Aureliano Buendia heads off to war. In the 1800s, there were two civil conflicts in Colombia, fought between the Liberals and Conservatives of the nation; the first began in 1860, and lasted two years (though guerilla Liberal factions, such as the one shown in the novel, continued to fight for at least twenty years, ending in the 1000 day war of 1899-1902). It is these conflicts which comprises much of the central portion of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the concerns of the people of Macondo. It is explained quite explicitly on page 98 by the Conservative magistrate of Macondo, Apolinar Moscote:
“The Liberals were determined to go to war. Since Aureliano at that time had very confused ideas about the difference between Conservatives and Liberals, his father-in-law gave him some schematic lessons. The Liberals, he said, were Freemasons, bad people, wanting to hang priests, to institute civil marriage and divorce, to recognise the rights of illegitimate children and to cut the country up into a federal system that would take power away from the supreme authority of the state. The Conservatives, on the other hand, had received their power directly from God, and were defenders of the faith of Christ, public order and family morality.”
In this general description, we have an allegory for the majority of civil conflict in South and Central American throughout the 19th and 20th century, and a representation of many of the national myths of Colombia. This section of the novel is a scathing dissection of the machinations of different political groups, who claim power but seem only to care about the enforcement of arbitrary lawmaking; Marquez does not show any political affiliation, recognizing that both sides of the argument are equally impotent, and lampooning both sides of the conflict. Towards the end of the war, he illustrates the futility of activism, in the guise of Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who transforms from Liberal freedom fighter to violent revolutionary, executing friend and foe in hastily established kangaroo courts. As a friend about to be executed by firing squad reflects:
“What worries me is that out of so much hatred for the military, out of fighting them so much…you’ve ended up as bad as them. At this rate, you’ll…be the most despotic and bloody dictator in our history…”
Aureliano finally comes to be an empty shell of himself, broken and amnesiac; his actions against the government and military powers and his degradation of self leave him doomed to a life of decrepitude. Meanwhile, Macondo goes on around him, life continuing, every repeating.
The important thing to note is Marquez’s enormous skill in weaving all of these stories and various fictions and realities together into a seamless whole. Next time I will be looking at Marquez’s treatment of time and the circular repetitious nature of time.