Monday, April 12, 2010

One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude
By Gabriel García Márquez, Translated by Gregory Rabassa
Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006
(Originally Published in 1967)
ISBN: 9780061120091
448 pages

An ancient archetypal symbol, the Ouroboros represents the inevitability of cyclical return. This is a universal concept, and one we often see it in literature, be it in the form of the sins of the father revisited upon the son or in the Freudian concept of the return of the repressed.

The spectre of the Ouroboros casts a shadow over the proceedings of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. A chronicle of the Buendía family’s history over a century, the events of this novel cycle around again and again, presenting a family that is haunted by its past, even in its genesis.

The novel begins with a flashback: “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.” This introduces the reader immediately to Gabo’s style throughout the novel: Events of the past, present, and future comingle on the page, oftentimes sharing the very same sentence.

Beginning with the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendía also introduces the theme of fate’s inevitability; As the remainder of the chapter shifts back in time to the founding of Macondo—long before the first Aureliano was born—glimpsing his future at the novel’s start implies that history is already written. This idea is underlined by the Buendía family tree printed in the front of most copies of the novel; The reader is essentially given an outline of the novel’s plot with which to follow along. This sentiment of inevitability is later echoed near the end of the novel by the second to last Aureliano’s refrain of “everything is known.”

José Arcadio Buendía is the paterfamilias of both the Buendía clan and the town of Macondo, and he passes on his lonely, haunted legacy to both. José Arcadio ends up fleeing his hometown with his cousin-wife Úrsula in order to escape the ghost of a man he killed out of pride. Both Macondo and the Buendía clan are thus formed in an attempt to escape the past. Unfortunately, they both become defined by their inability to escape the past.

José Arcadio is the first of the Buendías to fall victim to fate. The ghost of the man he killed appears to José Arcadio in Macondo, signaling his descent into madness. Throughout the novel, each of José Arcadio’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on will meet their doomed ends. Macondo—which began as a simple, happy town—becomes a helpless pawn to the desires of national politics and international commerce.

The tie that binds everything together, across generations of change in politics, technology, economy, and all the rest is the inevitability of loneliness. Despite all living together in the family home, each of the Buendias feels an intense and inescapable solitude. Be it the first José Arcadio’s banishment to the backyard in his delirium, Colonel Aureliano Buendía throwing himself into the country’s endless revolutions, Amaranta devoting her life to resenting another’s happiness, or Remedios the Beauty’s disconnection from civilized life, each of the Buendías is utterly isolated despite being entrenched in an endless cycle of recursion. And as the second to last Aureliano discovers near the novel’s end, perhaps that is the way it was always meant to be.

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” In that sense, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a chronicle of one family’s insanity. This insanity is wrought in carefully-crafted prose that often utilizes imaginative metaphors and playful language that represents the height of magic realism as an artistic movement. Yet, despite its innovations, the novel also evokes an acute sense of the past in its embrace of folklore and realistic depictions of history’s effect on the common man.

If Gabo can be faulted on any front, it is in the depiction of his female characters. Essentially, it is the women of the family that hold it together; They both literally give birth to the next generation and keep the men going through their ministrations. Despite the fact that they provide the skeleton that keeps the family on its feet, the women are largely relegated to the “classic” (i.e. stereotypical) literary roles for women: Fernanda is the bitch, Meme is the victim of patriarchy, Amaranta is the virgin aunt, Santa Sofia de la Piedad is the angel of the hearth, and Petra Cotes is the whore with a heart of gold. The depictions aren’t so blunt and stereotyped, but there isn’t much innovation in their characterizations either.

The two central women of this epic also represent stereotypes, but they nevertheless provide much of the novel’s narrative backbone. Úrsula is the matriarch of the family who does her best to keep everyone together. She is described as small and wrinkled, yet she has the strength to stand up to her sons, nephews, grandchildren, and even husband when necessary. If Úrsula represents a stereotype, it would be that of the “mammie”; She is a fiercely strong woman whose portrayal is vaguely sexless, despite having given birth. She is a delight to read in any of her iterations over the course of the novel, from the young mother determined to make her husband give up his directionless dreams to the older woman charged with raising her grandchildren to the elderly crone who can barely walk who still manages to know everything that is going on in her home despite her blindness. She is representative of that group of women who abides; The men may run off to this adventure or that, but she stands by the hearth, stoking the fires, raising the children, and simply surviving.

In many ways, Pilar Ternera is Úrsula’s opposite: She is the most prolific whore in Macondo who occasionally divines the future from her deck of cards. However, Pilar Ternera also occupies a critical role in the Buendía family. She fathers children with both of Úrsula’s sons, thereby giving birth to the next generation of Buendías for Úrsula to raise. Throughout the novel, Pilar Ternera appears again and again to advise different generations of the Buendía family. She is essentially a sibyl, and a dark reflection of Úrsula. Near the end of the novel, she is revealed to have her own “family” of young whores, again reiterating that she is a “dark mother” and a twisted reflection of the maternity embodied in Úrsula.

Perhaps these central women represent another aspect of the overarching Ouroboros: Pilar Ternera is the darkly sexual, Oedipal version of the mother to Úrsula’s de-sexed, yet nurturing mother. For though the Ouroboros represents eternal return, it is also a grotesque image that illustrates an unsustainable existence.


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