“Time is the longest distance between two places.”
– Tennessee Williams
So I’ve finally finished One Hundred Years of Solitude and there are no words for how I feel. I’m awed, slightly overwhelmed and amazed that it was actually written by a human being. It’s a spectacular novel. Somehow, in 423 pages, Gabriel Garcia Marquez manages to conjure the history of a town, a nation, a continent, through the story of a single family tree; he also creates a vision of the passing of time, and of the ultimate disintegration of matter, mind and body, a study in entropy that ends, literally, with nothingness. This may sound somewhat depressing, but it is far from that; instead, the book is a study of life, in all its forms, and the nature of death (all forms of death) as a simple continuation of existence.
In this post I’m going to pick out the three key themes that I think Marquez is trying to convey throughout the novel, and discuss them each briefly. The book is so complex and all-encompassing that it would be enormously difficult to encapsulate these themes completely (without creating the longest fucking blog post imaginable) but I’ll give it a try:
Like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Marque’s portrayal of the passage of time (and its effects in people) is the major structural motif of this novel. The circularity of time, its repetitions and reconstructions, is most evident in the names, characteristics and actions of the characters; far from a clever trick, the repetitive character names illustrate the futility of change, and the endless recurrence of mistakes and misfortunes within the family tree. There is a definite linearity to the novel; it begins with the founding of Macondo and ends with its destruction. Yet in the hundred years between, time becomes a knot, a snake eating its own tail, confused and twisted by its own machinations.
Characters throughout One Hundred Years of Solitude comment on the nature of time constantly; Ursula, the long-suffering grand matriarch of the Buendia family, ages irrevocably, seeing the countless generations of her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren perpetuating the same mistakes and actions as the last. Similarly, towards the end of the novel, the great-great-great grandson of the founder (called, of course, Aureliano) is left alone in Macondo, everybody dead or gone, and he begins to feel the weight of history:
“He sank into the rocking chair, the same one in which Rebecca had sat during the early days of the house to give embroidery lessons, and in which Amaranta had played Chinese checkers with Colonel Gerineldo Marquez, and in which Amarana Ursula had sewn the tiny clothing for the child, and in that flash of lucidity he became aware that he was unable to bear in his soul the crushing weight of so much past.”
The novel positions itself as circular in many ways, but none more obvious in the birth of the final Aureliano, the last descendent of the Buendia family. Throughout the book, the theme of incestuous relationships is continually raised; the Buendias, it seems, cannot help but be attracted to each other, though most often they fight these questionable urges. Ursula worries at the very beginning of the novel that if a Buendia procreates with a Buendia, the resulting child will be born with the tail of a pig. It is only the final sexual relationship of the novel, between aunt and nephew, that results in the prophesized ‘pig child’; ironically, almost tragically, this is also the only relationship in the novel shown to be one of ‘love’, despite its incestuous roots:
“In that Macondo forgotten even by the birds, where the dust and the heat had become so strong that it was difficult to breathe, secluded by solitude and love and by the solitude of love in a house where it was almost impossible to sleep because of the noise of the red ants, Aureliano, and Amaranta Úrsula were the only happy beings, and the most happy on the face of the earth.”
Every other sexual relationship within the novel is one of lust, necessity or infidelity; only the truly incestuous relationship displays love, the two of the intertwined in the dust of impending apocalypse. Yet even this child born of pure love is doomed, carried off by red ants and devoured.
2. MEMORY AND DEATH
Combined with this idea of time passing and the fluidity of time is the nature of memory. In the previous post, I discussed Marquez’s portrayal of real historical events, interwoven with his magical realism; I had, however, only read half of the book at that point, and hadn’t reached the most pivotal part of the book, in terms of true history: the banana massacre.
On December 6th 1928, workers from the United Fruit Company, a corporation sponsored and supported by the US Government, were massacred in the Colombian town of Ciénaga. The workers had been accused by US officials of ‘communist subversion’ due to strike action intended to improve their workers’ rights, and the United Fruit Company were pressured to solve the situation by any means, before the United States used military force. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez creates a fictional version of these events, witnessed by a member of the Buendia family, Jose Arcadio Segundo, who becomes the only man to remember the horrific event. He is haunted by the dead bodies, the train full of corpses, yet the Company insist that the massacre never happened. More absurdly, they insist that there never was a Fruit Company, and there never were workers. Jose Arcadio becomes ostracized and solitary, ridiculed by the townspeople, who accept the ‘official’ history of the massacre. He seeks solitude, hiding in his house.
Marquez here is obviously criticising colonial history, the actions of multinational companies in Latin America and the influence of the American capitalist system on ‘developing nations’ in the 20th Century. But he is also making a crucial point about the nature of memory, and how it becomes designated not by individual acts of remembrance, passed down from father to son, grandfather to father, but by the narratives of states and political unions, the machinations of ideologies. How we share communal history, how it is handed down to us from our forefathers, is essentially owned by those who survive to tell it. By the end of the book, there is nobody left in the town of Macondo who remembers its founder; equally, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who fought 32 wars and saved the town, is seen as a mythical figure, a moral story told to children. And the murder of 3000 innocent workers is wiped from history.
Eventually, even history must turn to myth, and become bastardised by the tellers. The entire book is a form of fighting this bastardisation, and is written in an anthropological style, as if were a true chronicle of Latin America.
I mean, this one’s pretty obvious, in a book called One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it’s still key to the novel’s understanding: each character illustrates a form of solitude, desperation and loneliness in one way or another, and each represents how acts of solitude can both hope and despair.
Some examples: Colonel Aureliano hides himself away, refusing to have sex, burying himself in ancient texts and scripture; Remedios the Beauty, probably autistic, cannot recognise or understand the fatal effects of her beauty on men (she eventually ascends to heaven, literally, to live with purely spiritual beings); Ursula becomes ever more blind, lost in a world of blackness and solitude, yet discovers the power of her other four senses; Jose Arcadio Buendia is declared mad and tied to the chestnut tree, where he is mostly forgotten about, and communicates in Latin with the ghost of the man he murdered; and Sofia de la Piedad, who, we are told, ‘barely existed’ and does not seem to have anything to offer to the novel.
Each child in turn is beget by solitude, and by misery, and by desperations. The only child created from love, after 100 long and sorry years, is the product of incest and bears the tail of a pig. All of this solitude leads, eventually, to forgetting, and to the destruction of the village by, we assume, a hurricane; a literal wiping away of the memory of Macondo:
“…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth”
A beautiful book. Read it.