At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses . . . the world was so recent that many things lacked names. . . .
One Hundred Years of Solitude begins as a flashback, with Colonel Aureliano Buendía recollecting the years immediately following the founding of Macondo, when a band of gypsies frequently bring technological marvels to the dreamy, isolated village. José Arcadio Buendía, the insatiably curious founder of the town, is obsessed with these magical implements. Using supplies given to him by Melquíades, the leader of the gypsies, he immerses himself in scientific study, to the frustration of his more practical wife, Úrsula Iguarán. Eventually, with Melquíades’s prodding, José Arcadio Buendía begins to explore alchemy, the pseudo-science of making gold out of other metals. He is driven by a desire for progress and by an intense search for knowledge that forces him into solitude. Increasingly, he withdraws from human contact, becoming unkempt, antisocial, and interested only in his pursuit of knowledge. But José Arcadio Buendía is not always a solitary scientist. On the contrary, he is the leader who oversaw the building of the village of Macondo, an idyllic place dedicated to hard work and order, filled with young people, and as yet, unvisited by death.
In his quest for knowledge and progress, José Arcadio Buendía’s obsession shifts to a desire to establish contact with civilization. He leads an expedition to the north, since he knows there is only swamp to the west and south and mountains to the east. But he then decides that Macondo is surrounded by water and inaccessible to the rest of the world. When he plans to move Macondo to another, more accessible place, however, he is stopped by his wife, who refuses to leave. Thwarted, he turns his attention, finally, to his children: José Arcadio, who has inherited his father’s great strength, and Aureliano (later known as Colonel Aureliano Buendía), who seems, even as a child, enigmatic and withdrawn. When the gypsies return, they bring word that Melquíades is dead. Despite his sadness at the news, José Arcadio Buendía does not lose interest in new technology and marvels: when the gypsies show him ice, the patriarch of Macondo proclaims it the greatest invention in the world.
In telling the story of Macondo’s founding, the book now moves backward in time. The cousins José Arcadio Buendía and Úrsula Iguarán are born in a small village, the great-grandchildren of those surviving Sir Francis Drake’s attack on Riohacha. Úrsula is afraid to consummate their marriage, as children of incest were said to have terrible genetic defects. There was precedent for this: two of their relatives gave birth to a child with a pig’s tail. But as time passes after their marriage, and Ursula continues to refuse to have sex out of fear of the genetic deformity of their child, the people of the village begin to mock José Arcadio Buendía. When a rival, Prudencio Aguilar, implies that Buendía is impotent, Buendía kills him. Haunted by guilt and the specter of Aguilar, José Arcadio Buendía decides to leave his home. After many months of wandering, they establish the village of Macondo.
On seeing the ice of the gypsies, José Arcadio Buendía remembers his dream of Macondo as a city built with mirror-walls, which he interprets to mean ice. He immerses himself again in his scientific study, this time accompanied by his son Aureliano. Meanwhile, the older son, José Arcadio—still a teenager—is seduced by a local woman, Pilar Ternera, who is attracted to him because of the huge size of his penis. Eventually, he impregnates her. Before their child can be born, however, he meets a young gypsy girl and falls madly in love with her. When the gypsies leave town, José Arcadio joins them. Grief-stricken at the loss of her eldest son, Úrsula tries to follow the gypsies, leaving behind her newborn girl, Amaranta. Five months later, Úrsula returns, having discovered the simple, two-day journey through the swamp that connects Macondo with civilization.
One Hundred Years of Solitude does not adopt a straightforward approach to telling its version of history. The progression of time from the town’s founding to its demise, from the origins of the Buendía clan to their destruction, provides a rough structure for the novel. But García Márquez does not necessarily tell events in the order that they happen. Rather, flitting forward and backward in time, García Márquez creates the mythic feel and informality of a meandering oral history. Although the first extended episode of the novel tells of the gypsies who come to Macondo bearing technological innovations that seem miraculous to the citizens of the isolated village, the first sentence of the novel refers to an episode far in the future, the planned execution of Colonel Aureliano Buendía. The story of the gypsies, leading up to the moment when José Arcadio Buendía sees ice for the first time, is cast as Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s recollection, and so, immediately in the novel, there is a chronological disjunction.
This feeling of befuddled time is compounded by the fact that, at first, we are not sure of One Hundred Years of Solitude’s historical setting. At the founding of Macondo, “the world was so recent that many things lacked names,” but we also learn that Ursula’s great-grandmother was alive when Sir Francis Drake attacked Riohacha, an actual event that took place in 1568. In real life, this perception of time would be impossible. Obviously Sir Francis Drake lived long after the world grew old enough for every object to have a name. Critic Regina Janes points out that these two occurrences are not meant to be an accurate picture of historical events. Instead, the disjunction between them allows García Márquez to disorient us, getting us thoroughly lost in the murky historical swamp in which he has placed us.
This strangely indefinite chronological framework blurs the distinctions between memory, history, and fiction. The arrival of the gypsies in town is framed as Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s memory rather than as an authoritative reframing of history. As a memory, it assumes subjective and dreamlike qualities that are supposed to be absent from textbook history. This is a narrative strategy that is evident throughout the novel—memory is given the same authority as history, and history is subject to the same emotional colorings and flights of fancy as memory. When, much later in the novel, the inhabitants of the town forget about the massacre of the banana workers, their amnesia constitutes an actual erasing of history. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, reality assumes the qualities of human fantasy and memory, and time itself is subject to the same distortions. People in this novel live for impossibly long periods of time, and rain descends for years without stopping; on the other hand, years sometimes pass by without mention or notice from the narrator. The extreme subjectivity of experienced reality is one of the themes of this novel. It is the human tendency toward the fantastic and the absurd that shapes our version of reality: magical realism, then, merely captures a version of reality colored by myth and memory, by human fantasy, and by our own subjectivity.
While we observe that the novel begins with a historical disjunction, however, it is important to note that One Hundred Years of Solitude is deliberately structured to trace a very definite narrative, one of epic—or perhaps biblical—proportions. The novel is indeed, as the critic Harold Bloom has observed, the Bible of Macondo, and, again, at the very beginning of the novel, just as in the Bible, many things have yet to be named. One Hundred Years of Solitude can be seen as a parable for the human quest for knowledge, expressed through the struggles of José Arcadio Buendía—the archetypal man—and his descendents. In the Bible, Adam’s job is to name the animals, exercising his power over them and cataloguing them to conform to his vision of the world. In establishing Macondo, José Arcadio Buendía does the same thing. Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and this novel conveys the same cautionary tale. José Arcadio Buendía’s relentless pursuit of knowledge, arguably, drives him to foolishness and eventual insanity. It should not be forgotten that, in his madness, he is tied to a tree that functions as a clear symbol for the Tree of Knowledge, whose fruit tempted Adam and Eve to their original fall.
García Márquez’s style of writing is commonly referred to as magical realism, which describes, among other things, the way historical events are colored by subjectivity and memory is given the same weight as history. One easily identifiable trait of magical realism is the way in which mundane, everyday things are mingled with extraordinarily wonderful, or even supernatural, things. In Chapter 2, as José Arcadio is seduced by Pilar Ternera, we learn that “he could no longer resist the glacial rumbling of his kidneys and the air of his intestines, and the bewildered anxiety to flee and at the same time stay forever in that exasperated silence and that fearful solitude.” Here, García Márquez describes very specific physical events side by side with huge, abstract emotions. This is typical of magical realism: just as the distinctions between different times are muddled up, the distinction between the real and the magical, or between the ordinary and the sublime, become confused.