[So far I’ve read the first six chapters. I wrote about the first three before reading Chapters 4-6.]
9 January 2019
I first read this novel decades ago, and I remember finding it extraordinary. Marquez doesn’t make anything easy for us, so it’s some time before we realise that this isn’t some ageless fantasy world of the imagination, but a real country in the first half of the 19th Century. He wrong-foots the reader from the first page, opening with a phrase that suggests that somehow we’re already lagging behind—‘Many years later…’—and suggesting that ‘the world was so recent that many things lacked names.’ So is this a new creation myth? Is the whole of history going to be played out in this little world? I can’t pretend that I was asking such a question as I read this sentence, eight lines into the novel, but in the first chapter at least a lot of things that happen feel like this is all new. The endlessly curious Jose Arcadio Buendia is as full of wonder as Adam seeing the Garden of Eden for the first time—and I suspect that’s part of how Marquez achieves the myth-like effect. Jose Arcadio seems to have been born yesterday, for all his endlessly resourcefulness and stature as the true patriarch of the community. He has to make the rules up as he goes along.
And his name. Jose, the most popular name in the Spanish world, Arcadio, no comment, and Buendia, good day. He really is an Adam, seed of the family tree that prefaces my edition of the book. One thing I’m wondering is whether patriarchy is always going to be a main thread in this novel in the way that it is in the early chapters. Jose Arcadio is the unquestioned leader of the band of brothers who take their wives and children across the mountains to find the land which, as the narrator reminds us, they had not been promised. So if Jose Arcadio isn’t Moses, what is he? An unglamorous version of Moses perhaps—for all his alpha-male strength and pride, fallible and sometimes even a little bit ridiculous. If this is a mythologised history, it’s full of mistakes, absurdities and impulse-driven decisions that are immediately a source of regret.
Like every reader, I’m having to piece together what I think might be Marquez’s project as I read. Magic realism was already a recognised form in South American writing long before the 1960s, but I don’t know why Marquez uses its myth-making possibilities in the way he does. Inexplicable events, characters returning from the dead or strange afflictions miraculously cured are in the same realm as Bible stories—and yet these are ordinary lives, or lives of suffering so intense it verges on the surreal. A scarred adolescent girl is pimped by her grotesquely obese grandmother to be used by seventy men a night, every night for ten years, in order to pay for the house-fire she was injured in. So it goes, in this monstrous universe. A man is killed for a jibe about impotence, because…?
…because men’s vanity, it seems, is as timeless as everything else. But in one of several highly moral outcomes in the novel so far, both Jose Arcadio—for he is the killer—and his wife are so tormented by the dead man’s revenant form that they leave the ancestral town forever. They tell the dead man he might find peace now… but, really, this exodus is from something of Jose Arcadio’s own making, not oppression—unless it the oppression of guilt. Other men decide to go with him because… well, because men will follow a man with a reputation for strength and decisiveness.
I should talk about what’s happened so far. It’s told in episodes focused on the Buendia family, and they are often so fast-paced it’s hard to keep track. And they don’t come in chronological order. That open line beginning ‘Later…’ refers to a character who is five when the real narrative gets under way, and it’s some pages before we get to the incident he is remembering. He’s facing a firing-squad—fifty-odd pages in, we still don’t know why—and the narrator mentions this fact again from time to time. At first we wonder whether this might be the man’s whole life in retrospect, but no. More like, it’s how family sagas go, with key incidents given prominence and details filled in whenever they need to be. We’re not offered neatly placed points of view or the internal workings of individual psychologies. When somebody does something, we get to hear about it, and we might or might not get to know about why they did it. I realise I’m back to myth-making. What we get in myths, mainly, are events.
So, in no particular order…. As a young man Jose Arcadio, as expected, marries Ursula, a cousin from another big family in Riohacha. (This is a real city in Colombia, but Marquez incorporates it into his myth-making when he introduces the chapter about the marriage with a story about the bizarre accident suffered by Ursula’s great-great grandmother as she flees in terror from Francis Drake’s attack in the 16th Century.) But there’s some unease—there’s always been a lot of intermarriage going on, and Ursula’s family are superstitious. Cue the ridiculous story of the chastity belt of leather straps which guards her virginity for months, then a year…. Jose doesn’t hear the rumours about his own impotence at first, and when he does he’s OK about it—he knows the truth. Until, at a cock-fight, the owner whose birds have lost to Jose’s makes a joke, and Jose kills him. This tale of unrestrained machismo is what kick-starts the story of the journey and the founding of Macondo, their new village—by a river, after Jose gives up on ever finding the sea. On the journey, Ursula gives birth to their first son, also called Jose Arcadio… and there’s relief all round that not only is he human, he’s otherwise entirely normal. There are family stories of weird births, particularly one of a child born with a pig’s tail.
Jose Arcadio. He really is the leader, and it sounds as though he has the complete respect of everybody. He has designed his own house, and the whole village, so that every family has a fair share of morning and evening sun and shade, and access to the river. He’s a one-man municipal council, which is great. But he’s also impulsive and stubborn. A band of gypsies comes to Macondo, and makes annual appearances from then on. Jose Arcadio buys magnets the first year, convinced that they are the greatest invention on earth. Another year it’s an alchemist’s laboratory—and not only does he promise that Macondo will soon be a town paved with gold, he also persuades Ursula to give him the few gold coins that are her inheritance so he can increase them. He creates a useless mess out of them instead.
Years later, when a different troupe of travellers passes through, he takes his sons—there are two of them, so years have passed by now—to see another phenomenon. It’s a block of ice, which he knows is the greatest invention of… etc. He dreams of a city of ice in which they will never again have to suffer from the heat. It is the memory of this moment that strikes Aureliano, the second son, as he faces the firing-squad. But the details of the story have come many pages later, because that’s the circling narrative style of this novel. Aureliano, the first child to be born in Macondo, turns out to be very different from his brother. The younger Jose Arcadio is like his father, but Aureliano is quiet, methodical, and clever. He is the one who, when his father decides to show his sons the alchemist’s laboratory—Ursula has finally taken him to task for ignoring their education for years—is able to help him extract the gold out of the mess. The older boy—he’s reached puberty by the time Aureliano is five—takes only a polite interest.
Why am I telling you this? Maybe because I don’t know what’s important yet. Aureliano, as he grows into adulthood, is the opposite of his brother in other ways. Jose Arcadio is blessed with a monstrous sexuality and an impressive penis—it impresses at least one woman who sees it anyway—and soon he is led wherever it takes him, notably to a series of highly clandestine nightly assignations with the woman, Pilar the tarot-card reader. Meanwhile, Aureliano is shy, and his brother’s drives fill him with a mixture of fascination and horror. Whatever. Jose Arcadio and Pilar’s secret nights lead to the birth of a boy, Arcadio. The first Jose Arcadio acknowledges him as his grandchild… but by then, the younger one has gone away with the travelling show. Ursula leaves to look for him, and for months Jose Arcadio fears he will never see her again. He’s wrong—and when she returns, she’s brought new settlers from a town which her husband failed to reach on an abortive journey of discovery undertaken with the men of Macondo some years before. If he’s any kind of Moses he’s one with no sense of direction—he completely missed the well-used trading routes.
This all feels like satire. The people Ursula brings with her are ‘Indians,’ fleeing an affliction that causes chronic, total insomnia. Of course, one of them is carrying it, and soon everybody in the town is permanently awake. It seems quite useful at first—the narrator tells us that this was a busy time in the town, and they can get more done. But soon the boredom sets in—and so does a secondary effect of the insomnia bug, progressive amnesia. Aureliano is the one who invents some ingenious remedies for forgetfulness. First, he labels everything with its name, then writes ridiculous-sounding instructions about how to use things, like what cows are for—and his father makes the whole town do the same. It’s a fundamental aspect of being human: how on earth do we remember our history, and pass on our knowledge? Answer: we write it. As far as his little society is concerned, he has invented history—and what is culture if not a passing on of society’s knowledge?
For a while, it works. But Marquez doesn’t end it there. The narrator has already warned us that these methods will only last as long as people remember how to read—which itself could, of course, be a comment on how easy it is for human beings to forget the lessons of history. And then, luckily, Melquiades returns from the dead. Literally. He’s the gypsy who first brought the magnets and alchemy set all those years ago—and, like all good magicians, he has a potion. Jose Arcadio’s memory returns, and he is immediately appalled by how crude the remedies now seem. For now, I’ve decided to interpret this as Marquez’s sardonic comment on the efforts of human beings to write history. We’re terrible at it, as we are with most things.
But I’d been writing about Aureliano. Unlike his brother, whose sexual exploits he knows all about, he remains a virgin into his twenties. He is urged to visit a prostitute but it comes to nothing, and he decides he will just have to live without women. But then, there’s another arrival, a girl of only seven, who makes a big impression on him. She’s the daughter of the newly-appointed magistrate, Don Apolinar Moscote, who had arrived to uphold some national laws in what has now grown into a town. Jose Arcadio, in his usual way, tells him they can manage perfectly well without the new man’s laws, and makes a sworn enemy of him some time before he brings his family. The problem with his daughter, Remedios, is that she is only seven….
And, while I’m thinking of arrivals, a girl called Rebeca has arrived some time before, carrying the rattling bones of her parents that seem to be destined not to lie still until they are buried. But there’s no cemetery to bury them in—even after all these years, nobody in the town has died yet. Jose Arcadio and Ursula adopt her because a letter tells them they knew her parents in Riohacha. They can’t remember them, in fact, but hey. They bring her up like a sister to their daughter Amaranta—I’d forgotten about her among all the other noise. And I see from the family tree that Rebeca, with her bizarre compulsions (earth- and whitewash-eating, thumb-sucking, speaking no Spanish at all until, suddenly, she does) will marry one of the main characters at some future time.
What else? Plenty, but I really ought to be reading on. It isn’t really possible to keep track of all this stuff… but I guess that’s the point. Marquez’s version of Colombian history in microcosm is unknowable, a mish-mash of confusing names and unexplained events. Who knows what’s true and what isn’t? If Marquez knows—and I can’t see that it matters one way or the other—he isn’t telling.
Chapters 4-6—to the death by firing-squad…
…not that it’s Aureliano’s death. Marquez tells us his life-story in the long paragraph that opens Chapter 6, and one surprising event is his survival of the firing-squad that features at the start of the novel. So the death is somebody else’s, in the war that makes Aureliano an army colonel, at a time when Colombia’s history has begun to reach even the backwater that is Macondo. It’s taken its time. The magistrate, Moscote, appeared maybe 50 pages into the book. Colombian politics, with its factionalism and corruption, has otherwise stayed away almost as far as page 100. But it’s here now.
I’m having a lot of trouble staying interested in this book. Maybe it’s because, over 50 years since it was written and 30-odd since I first read it, the world has moved on such a long way. Nearly two decades into the 21st Century, it seems dated and not always interesting. And, just as bad, the baroque melodrama of events that treat the concept of plausibility as an irrelevance doesn’t feel subversive, it feels like a soap opera. The main difference is that in Marquez’s hands, any chance that we might get to engage with any of the characters is eliminated by the flat neutrality of his delivery. The return of Melquiades from the dead, Jose Arcadio’s swift descent into raving madness, Aureliano’s inexplicable infatuation with a girl who still wets the bed… stuff happens, take it or leave it. Motivation? Psychology? Move along, nothing to see here.
Do I worry that I’m being bourgeois in my expectations of a well-made plot and characters I can care about? Maybe. Despite some extraordinary narrative cleverness—the way that Chapter 6 circles and re-circles on itself is highly impressive—I find it impossible to stay interested. Oh, more stuff happening? Oh, has the prodigal Jose Arcadio the younger returned covered from neck to toe in tattoos, with the strength of ten men, literally, and the sexual appetites of another ten? Are the increasingly grown-up Amaranta and her adopted sister Rebeca infatuated by the same musician—to the extent that Amaranta plots to poison Rebeca before she can marry him? Is the plan only foiled by the death of Remedios, only slightly less childlike than before, by way of a bizarre medical mishap in pregnancy some months after the marriage Aureliano had to wait so long for? Does Rebeca, exasperated by the increasingly absurd delays to her longed-for wedding, opt for a quick marriage and boisterous sex with the prodigiously well-endowed Jose Arcadio instead, taking the musician aback somewhat but leaving him to court Amaranta—who plays him along before dropping him? Does he slash his wrists? Are we nearly there yet?
Nah. It’s all like this, and the comic-book antics of the Colombian political factions come as something of a relief. Marquez doesn’t make the politics difficult. He has Moscote the magistrate explaining to his son-in-law (Aureliano—try to keep up) that the Liberals would, basically, smash up the moral core of everything. The clergy hate them, of course, whereas they love the Conservatives. There’s an election, and Moscote doesn’t keep it any sort of secret from Aureliano when he has the ballot box opened and all the pro-Liberal votes except a token handful destroyed. Aureliano—the man that Moscote has taken for a political ingenu, locked in his room with his beloved silversmithing—decides that in the war that’s already happening, he’s going to fight for the Liberals. Beneath his quiet manner lurks a leader, and he’s soon got most of the young men of the town on his side…
…and so on. It’s gung-ho stuff, and Aureliano decides the cause is big enough for him to leave the town and leave Arcadio in charge in his absence. He’s that son that Jose Arcadio the younger had with Pilar, now grown-up and full of himself. Cue that Chapter 6 that I mentioned, the one beginning with a short description of the key events of Aureliano’s future life. Being the novel it is, the fact that he will father seventeen children with different women is given some prominence—they’re there in the family tree, now I think of it, as ’17 Aurelianos’—and it’s no surprise at all to hear that all of them will be executed. It seems to run in the family—except, as I also mentioned, no. Aureliano must manage to escape execution after all—we don’t know how—but, after Arcadio has been running Macondo as his own private fiefdom for some months, he’s found guilty of fraud. At the end of the chapter, bookending it with the potted biography of Aureliano presented in fast-forward at the start of it, we get Arcadio looking backward instead, regretfully, on his own short life. Like the surreal chronologies of the novel, life-stories in it have a habit of being both interchangeable and circular.
Next. The women. Ursula is the kind of domestic force of nature you get in family sagas. As her husband languishes in his madness, speaking only Latin and kept in chains under a tree—in most novels, such a development would raise an eyebrow, but not in this one—she project-manages the expansion of their house. It becomes a kind of stately home, a status symbol fit to house the extended family and any important guests who might arrive…. But that’s the limit of her power. Women don’t do the really interesting things, because the men do them. Except for the soap opera elements, that is. Rivalries in love, crushes on men—you should see the competition for the attention of the returned Jose Arcadio before his marriage—and sewing. Amarata prefers the latter to Cresi, the Italian musician who’s been part of the scenery since assembling the new high-status pianola—and re-assembling it, after Jose Arcadio the elder takes it to pieces and can’t do it himself. It’s enough to make anybody cut their wrists.
That’s enough for now. Time to read on, if I can bear it.