We were about a month into this thing last year when I was laid up in the hospital. It wasn’t Covid-related but I was imprisoned long enough to learn what that disease was doing to people, to the people who seemed to love them, and to the people who did what it took to care for them.
On my way in I thought I might not be back for a while, so I grabbed a long book and it happened to be this one. Some smart person gave it to me 40 years ago but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. I figured if nothing else it would help me sleep.
“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.” That is the first sentence, off at a gallop that doesn’t stop for 400 pages.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” tells the story of six (maybe seven) generations of the Buendía family in the village of Macondo, founded by José Arcadio Buendía (the colonel’s father) while fleeing the ghost of his murder victim when he has a vision of living in a city of mirrors (or is it mirages?). He builds a village on the spot in a jungle on a peninsula somehow surrounded by water. The ghost pursues José but turns out to be just one of many who inhabit these pages and settle down to comfortable afterlives haunting Macondo, our first hint that running from the past means bringing it with you.
Over the next century, the Buendía family faces plagues of insomnia, amnesia and butterflies, three dozen civil wars, and a rain that lasts five years. There’s also a priest who can’t drink chocolate because it makes him levitate.
The book is not as baffling as all that, but I’ll admit I’d been reading it in the hospital for two days before I noticed there was no window in my room.
The Buendías endure, as most of us would, by getting drunk, leading revolutions, turning lead into gold, committing adultery (knowingly) and incest (unknowingly), and in the case of Úrsula — the 200-year-old family matriarch — endlessly adding rooms onto an increasingly unnavigable house.
When the family adopts an anxious orphan, her insomnia spreads to the family and then to the whole village in a plague of sleeplessness that leads to amnesia, which causes people to start labeling things so they won’t forget what they are. They write “cow” on cows, “man” on men, and “love” on lovers. The plague ends only after a Buendía family friend returns to the village with a new invention — a camera — and the villagers photograph and catalog everything they can to prove it exists, including God.
One is tempted to assign specific meanings to these happenings in an attempt to translate them into our own reality. But our author, Gabriel García Márquez, was a high priest of magical realism, where events, objects and characters remain more evocative than definitive.
For example, an American fruit company comes to Macondo to build a banana plantation, a railroad and housing, which are soon followed by corruption, strikes and a massacre of the workers. The bodies are dumped into the ocean and the sole survivor — a Buendía, of course — is disbelieved and driven away. It then starts to rain for five years, beginning Macondo’s slow destruction.
This is a real incident from the history of Colombia, the author’s homeland. He just added the rain.
The writing is straightforward, rich and lyrical, easily mixing the ordinary with the magical. But every miracle and tragedy, self-inflicted and foretold, reinforces the solitude of the Buendías — a family founded in escape. Generation after generation resist the truth by withdrawing further into Úrsula’s ever expanding house, inviting fate to follow them into every room.
I was halfway through the book the second time when I got sprung. I wasn’t gone that long, but the world was different. Everyone but me had forgotten how to drive. Crazy people were all over, masked up or not, socially distancing or not, yelling for no good reason or shunning each other entirely.
I felt like I was coming home to Macondo.
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