It's About Time: Reading One Hundred Years of Solitude
In his seminal work of Magic Realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez documents the tragic genealogy of the Buendia family – a family in which the strengths and flaws of each generation are repeated, magnified, twisted, and reinterpreted by the next. The story traces the family from the founding of the town of Macondo by Jose Arcadio Buendia and his wife Ursula Iguaran until the death of the last of the Buendias, Aureliano Babilonia. Along the way, Marquez plays with the concepts of time and memory, as characters repeat, remember, and forecast the tribulations and triumphs of other members of the family history. Marquez achieves his twist on time through his narrative strategy as well. He makes an otherwise linear narrative seem cyclical by framing the story around several key moments and characters in the long history of the family’s genealogy.
Marquez uses some key scenes in his long narrative to achieve a few very important effects. These scenes serve to orient the reader by grounding the many occurrences that occur over the course of one hundred years. They also act as lenses through which to see the narrative, providing for the reader a way to interpret the rest of the many scenes in the novel. Finally, they act as pivot points through which Marquez creates the cycle of blessings, curses, super-human achievements, failures, and all the ancestral baggage that could ever be dreamed. A key example of one of how Marquez uses these important scenes is that of the combination of the attempted execution of Colonel Aureliano Buendia and the “discovery” of ice. The execution scene, from a linear standpoint, occurs nearly half way through the history of the Buendias, but the reader is introduced to the scene on the first page. The scene of the discovery of ice occurs much earlier, but is connected to the execution throughout the novel. The first line of the novel begins with this flash forward: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (Marquez 1). The firing squad scene (and the scene detailing the discovery of ice) is referenced many times throughout the narrative, notably on pages 107, 132, 272, and 333. Marquez comes back to the scenes time and again to keep the reader oriented, to provide a lens for interpretation (that time is a fragmented cycle), and to create a pivot point for the cycle of time.
Another device that Marquez uses to create the sense of a cyclical narrative is to use repetition of names and events that echo each other from generation to generation. The names of the characters are repeated, with key variations, over and over. Each generation has its own sets of Jose Arcadios and Aurelianos. Each name has a set of associated traits, so that with each new generation, the new Jose Arcadios and Aurelianos are bound to repeat the failures of their predecessors. Grandsons are even mistaken for their own grandparents. When Pilar Ternera first sees the last Aureliano (son of Aureliano), the narrator notes that she “felt that time was turning back to its earliest origins…she was seeing Colonel Aureliano Buendia once more as she had seen him in the light of a lamp long before the wars” (Marquez 400-401). This is the kind of occurrence that happens regularly in the world that Marquez has created. He uses this technique to create a sense of repetition, of fate, and of a family circling the drain of tragedy.
The cyclical nature of the narrative is clearly not a matter of happenstance. Marquez uses great care in creating the sense of a family history spiraling toward destruction over the course of the one hundred years. This is no small matter, for the themes of the novel are closely bound up in this pattern. Ursula, the most wise and aged of the Buendias, notes this herself in observing the family history as it passes before her. Midway through the story, she hears of Jose Arcadio Buendia’s plan to build a railroad from their village of Macondo to “civilization,” which reminds her of her husband’s earlier plan to blaze a trail to “civilization.” The narrator then adds that “Ursula confirmed her impression that time was going in a circle” (Marquez 226). Later, in yet another repetition, Aureliano Segundo attempts to build a canal from “civilization” to Macondo. Still further in the novel, Ursula has a perplexing conversation with Jose Arcadio Segundo in which she herself commits a repetition by saying something to him that her son (Colonel Aureliano Buendia) once said to her. She recognizes the pattern and the narrator comments that “once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle” (Marquez 341). Finally, near the end of the novel, Aureliano Segundo and Jose Arcadio Segundo meet the spirit of Jose Arcadio Buendia and after speaking with him, “they understood that Jose Arcadio Buendia was not as crazy as the family said, but that he was the only one who had enough lucidity to sense the truth of the fact that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room” (Marquez 355). All of this repetition of names and events, and the awareness of the characters that they are living in a fragmented circle of time, gives the narrative a cyclical feel that can be simultaneously dizzying, humorous, and foreboding.
One constant throughout the entire unsettling history of the Buendia family is the character of Melquiades, who is not a Buendia at all, but rather a family advisor. He is present on the first page and on the last, and is instrumental throughout the novel. In fact, one could argue that Melquiades, as the timekeeper of the story, is the primary actor in the plot. He introduces ideas and technologies (from ice to astrolabe to the tools of alchemy) that pave the way for the Buendias’ fates. He begins as a kindly teacher, then grows into a wise sage (back from the dead), then dies and becomes a guiding ghost, and finally turns out to be the author of the Buendia story. The translation of his mysterious parchments have provided a decades-long challenge to the men of the Buendia family, but in the last scene, Aureliano Babilonia (the last of the Buendia line) finishes the task. As he does, he realizes that “it was the history of the family, written by Melquiades, down to the most trivial details, one hundred years ahead of time…Melquiades has not put events in the order of man’s conventional time, but had concentrated a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant” (Marquez 421). Thus, Melquiades has written the Buendia fate that could only be achieved by the Buendia family trying to decipher what, in fact, he had written. Melquiades has set the time for the demise of the family and, as time keeper, has orchestrated the cycle of destruction that is the frame of the narrative.
By employing these “timely” techniques, Marquez is able to achieve a cyclical effect for the reader that mirrors the fate of the Buendias. He uses repetition, forecasting, flashback, and confusion of the past and present to reinforce this effect. In achieving this effect, Marquez not only achieves a powerful comment on the nature of time and its effects on memory and solitude, but he also shows of is impressive mastery over the elements of time in storytelling.