‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’: Of bloodbaths and butterflies

Revisiting magical Macondo as Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, gets ready to be adapted for cinema

Updated - April 14, 2019 11:51 am IST

Published - April 13, 2019 04:00 pm IST

Either this book will be my big breakthrough or I’ll blow my brains out,” Gabriel García Márquez told his friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza sometime in 1966. He went on to explain that the book was like a bolero, which, according to Mendoza, is “the most authentic South American music... sentimental but also tongue-in-cheek, its exaggeration tempered by humour and a sense of ‘don’t take it too literally.’” Abandoning the “safest” route he had taken in his previous novels, Márquez said he had decided to “walk along the brink” for his fifth one, Cien Años de Soledad or One Hundred Years of Solitude .

And what a journey it turned out to be — “on a knife’s edge between the sublime and the vulgar” — as he recounted the story of several generations of the Buendía family set in the fictional town of Macondo.

The first sign that One Hundred Years would be taken seriously came when the Latin American publisher, Editorial Sudamericana, in Buenos Aires agreed to publish a first edition of 10,000 copies and then immediately doubled the number. It has since sold over 50 million copies, been translated into over 40 languages, and will now, according to The New York Times , be adapted for screen for the first time on Netflix, guided by Márquez’s sons Rodrigo and Gonzalo.

Sense and folly

How and why has this story endured, 52 years after it was first published? What pulls us to a narrative filled with “men of folly”, who are into alchemy, invasions, wars and audacious binges, and women who have better sense but are still willing to fall off the precipice for their beliefs? Founded by José Arcadio Buendía, the excitable man of many “useless enterprises”, Macondo is a village of 20 adobe houses, a swampy settlement built on the banks of a river and surrounded by mountains. News from the world outside is brought by a family of ragged gypsies who would arrive every year with new inventions.

The first thing they bring is the magnet, and one of them, Melquiades, goes from house to house with two metal ingots attracting pots, pans, nails and everything made of iron. “Things have a life of their own,” he proclaims. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” One of José Arcadio’s useless enterprises would be to use the magnets to try and extract gold from the earth. His wife Úrsula holds the family together and suffers because of José Arcadio’s mad ventures. When he figures out a simple fact — “the earth is round, like an orange” — she reprimands him for his “gypsy ideas”.

Of their two sons, one, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, drawn heavily from Márquez’s grandfather, grows up to wage wars, and that brings us to the cinematic first line. “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.” We are soon immersed in the world of Melquiades and the people of Macondo, their miracles and disasters, loves and losses.

As for Melquiades, after several trips of alchemy and adventure, he decides to stay on in Macondo, scribbling the history of the family in parchments, “one hundred years ahead of time”. He writes in Sanskrit and only one of the last members of the Buendías — Aureliano Babilonia — will be able to decipher it before he is swept away in a “biblical hurricane.”

A trickle of blood

Such moments of drama and sublimity abound, with Márquez walking on the edge with many of the characters. A reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis at 17 had made him understand “how many other possibilities existed in literature outside the rational” and he puts it to good use. Consider what happens to the Buendías’ second son, also named José Arcadio. “Wilful and always too big for his age,” he flees the village with the gypsies.

When he returns to settle down in Macondo and, much against his mother’s wishes, marries Rebeca, the vagabond who turns up one day at the Buendía home with a bag of bones, the village settles down to a routine. But José Arcadio kills himself, and this unravels: “a trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street… made a right angle at the Buendía house,… and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula [his mother] was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to bake bread.” Úrsula follows the thread of blood back and finds her son lying face down, the smell of gunpowder never leaving his body. That’s how edgy Márquez gets with an imagination embedded in the far reaches of his childhood.

Macondo as metaphor

Keys to Macondo’s mysteries and its theme of solitude can be found in Márquez’s memoirs, Living to Tell the Tale , which was published in 2003. Macondo is a “literary picture” of the world of Márquez’s childhood in Aracataca, which was spent in a “large, very sad house with a sister who ate earth, a grandmother who prophesied the future, and countless relatives of the same name who never made much distinction between happiness and insanity.” The epigraph of Living… holds a clue to his mind: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

The story of the Buendía family also becomes an account of Latin American history, of “poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels,” bookended by two particular events which had an important context in Márquez’s childhood: the War of a Thousand Days in Colombia and the massacre of the banana workers at Ciénaga in 1928. “The book was set in Aracataca, in Macondo, but Macondo was now a metaphor for the whole of Latin America — a macrocosm contained within a microcosm” — the local was now universal, explained his biographer Gerald Martin in Gabriel García Márquez, A Life .

In a world plagued by loss of memory, lessons of history conveniently forgotten, Márquez rues the fact that nobody remembers the massacre of the banana company workers. In One Hundred Years , therefore, when the Colonel’s nephew, José Arcadio, recounts the massacre, he gets a look of pity from the residents. “There haven’t been any dead here,” they tell him.

Of the men and women in the book, Márquez wouldn’t say which of the two were crazier. “I think women keep the world going and stop everything (from) falling apart while men try and push history forward,” he told Mendoza.

Besides Úrsula, who has an extraordinary longevity, there’s Pilar Ternera, the “foul-mouthed provocative woman who knew how to read the future in cards,” and mother of two Buendía boys; Santa Sofía de la Piedad, the mother of Remedios the Beauty and twin boys; and the rigid Fernanda who ushers in many changes in the household. Úrsula, who always cautioned the family against madness, was alarmed by the card reader’s prediction that there would be an incestuous coupling which would produce a child with a pig’s tail and bring about the end of the family line.

Magic realism

“There’s not a single line in my novels which is not based on reality… You only have to open the newspapers to see that extraordinary things happen to us every day,” Márquez told Mendoza ( The Fragrance of Guava ), narrating his grandmother’s story about an electrician who had butterflies following him around. So, if readers were drawn to the “magic” of One Hundred Years — and there are plenty of absurd things happening — it was “real”. Remedios the Beauty ascends to heaven; yellow butterflies flutter around Mauricio Babilonia; and a baby is indeed born with a pig’s tale.

Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.

Writing in NYT after Márquez passed away in 2014, Salman Rushdie said no other writer since Dickens was so widely read, and so deeply loved. Márquez mined his childhood to create a place that will live forever, like R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

If anyone asked him which was his favourite novel — and he wrote many more stunning books — Love in the Time of Cholera, Autumn of the Patriarch, Chronicle of a Death Foretold — he never mentioned One Hundred Years because “it nearly ruined my life.” It went on to do many other things though. The book established Márquez as a giant of 20th century literature and inspired a host of writers to root their fiction in magic realism.


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