Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
- The opening lines of Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Surely one of the most gripping opening lines ever committed to paper, these words launch One Hundred Years of Solitude, the acknowledged masterpiece of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez1. Written in Spanish in 1967 and first translated into English three years later, One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of 100 years in the lives of the Buendía family, who live in the coastal jungles of an unnamed South American country. Or it could equally be seen as the story of the town they found, Macondo. Yet another interpretation would be that it is the story of the life of Úrsula Buendía; all these things are tied intrinsically together. Were it not for the title, it might pass unnoticed that it also contains examples of almost every type of loneliness and isolation that it is possible for humans to suffer, from literal incarceration through blindness to the spiritual emptiness of repeated sexual conquests, or the happiness of isolation with the one you love. Even Macondo is deliberately isolated from the rest of the world.
It is a novel full of miraculous, bizarre and supernatural happenings, a world in which it is usual for ghosts to sulk in the garden, or for people to foresee their own deaths. The reader is dipped slowly into this folk-tale world. Within the first few pages, still searching for the meaning of those puzzling and dramatic opening words, we are greeted with acts of carnival magic performed by the gypsy tribe of Melquíades. Though one might disregard these earliest as stage trickery or the misinterpretations of superstitious observers, holding on to the promise that the book always seems to give of a later explanation, it quickly becomes apparent that Macondo works not by the rules that the real world does, but rather by rules that seem almost to make more sense than those of reality. In this way, Macondo works the way we would like to think our world works.
One of the earliest incidents is the plague of insomnia that sweeps Macondo. Marquez takes us through the citizens' initial delight to have extra hours in the day, through the worrying amnesia that accompanies the insomnia (which José Arcadio Buendía, the family patriarch, counters by pinning name-tags and explanatory notes to everything from doors to cows - 'This is the cow. She must be milked every morning.') and its eventual, equally mysterious passing.
In describing all of this, Marquez's style remains clear. He is never given to excess description - in fact, there is barely a word in the entire book that does not develop the plot further, usually in some bizarre new direction. Despite the proliferation of murders, hauntings, vendettas and wars, and the absence of any obvious overall plot line, this is not a difficult book to read, never heavy-going. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes and characters that are easily accessible to the audience. In light of the book's brisk style, a plot summary is almost impossible without producing something approaching the length of the novel itself. A family tree of the Buendías is provided with most editions, and is indispensable for keeping track as generation after generation is born and married, while the oldest characters survive for over a century. Even so, further confusion is caused by the Buendías' family trait of naming their children after relatives - Aureliano has over 20 sons, all named after their father, most of whom never enter the story - at least, not between their births and their massacre, which causes their father to launch a revolution.
The closest that the book has to a central character is Úrsula. Already adult when we meet her for the first time, fleeing with her husband and the other settlers through the jungle, she will survive almost to the end of the book, outliving all her children and most of her grandchildren, ending her days so shrunken with age that she has to be buried in a baby's coffin. In a manner typical of One Hundred Years of Solitude, although she is blind for the last decades of her life, she manages to conceal this from even her family by learning the rigid routines of the household.
Her two sons, Aureliano and Arcadio, will also be significant throughout the book. Their almost diametrically opposed characters will be reflected in all the subsequent generations named after them. Aureliano will become a revolutionary leader, fighting some fairly unspecified battles against tyranny, before retiring whilst on the brink of victory to spend his last days making little golden fishes. Arcadio, on the other hand, represents the corporeal, running away with the gypsies and returning as a gluttonous, tattooed sexual giant.
Subsequent generations of Aurelianos and Arcadios seem somehow to lose the vitality of their ancestors. The town palpably decays. Less and less time is devoted to each of the increasing numbers of descendants, so the reader will know each of them less well. This aptly induces an aura of dilution and decay, a sense Marquez is clearly aiming for, without making the characters themselves any less remarkable. Mauricio Babilonia, for example, is permanently followed by a swarm of butterflies, which perfectly compliments his relationship with the most beautiful girl ever born. The more familiar, older characters remain as echoes, either physically reduced, like Úrsula, or as more literal fading ghosts, like her husband José Arcadio. His death passes almost unnoticed, as his spirit continues to live under the tree in the garden where he has been tied. Ultimately, the reader cannot help but feel that it is Úrsula's death and the extinction of her family line, rather than Melquíades's prophecy or the great gale, that causes the final destruction of Macondo.
One Hundred Years of Solitude works on so many levels, from childlike fantasy to exploration of the grief or happiness that solitude can bring, that it can be re-read without any reduction in enjoyment - in fact, each reading brings a wealth of forgotten or previously unnoticed details to the reader, wrapped in a lightness of style that gives this novel a charisma that assures its appeal.