First published in 1967
Expelled from a Garden of Eden, a still nameless community moves through the world, until they stop at a place called Macondo. Jose Arcadio Buendía, whose family dynasty governs Macondo, puts up the sign that marks the town’s existence.
But where is this place? What is its relation to the wider world?
When Buendía leads a search he finds that the town is locked between marshes, mountains and the sea with no path to the wider world. All they find is a wrecked Spanish galleon, suspended in the forest.
The history and geography that could make sense of it all are beyond their reach.
From time to time changes in the outside world invade Macondo’s suspended life, usually brought by the gipsy Melquiades with his fairground attractions. He brings ice, false teeth, products that are stages in a developing science and technology that are invisible to Macondo.
So when a train arrives unannounced, in the village, it is preceded by a terrified woman warning of the imminent arrival of a “kitchen on wheels”.
The “hundred years” in the title of Gabriel García Márquez’s hugely popular novel is not a historical century but a mythical time, as imprecise as it is flexible. It is a metaphor for every colonial experience.
Latin America was born out of the destruction of an original world. And on its levelled rubble the Spanish colonists built a new world, a utopia that existed only in their imperial imagination. So the transformations that were the products of history, appear here like tricks or miracles.
The Colonel, the Buendía patriarch, spends most of his life looking for a philosopher’s stone that can transform lead into gold, and miraculously regain control over their world.
One Hundred Years of Solitude isn’t just an exotic journey into the peculiarities of the primitive from the perspective of a self-proclaimed advanced world. It is an encounter between two versions of historical time. Macondo does have its own culture, its own science and knowledge.
In this universe death comes in a flock of yellow butterflies; sexual energy is endless; popular wisdom (represented by Ursula, the Colonel’s wife) has at least as many solutions as the pharmaceutical giants that arrive with the modern cities that appear later in the novel.
Márquez’s “magical realism” embraces the reality of Latin American experience – the military dictatorships, the parody of modernisation that takes the form of McDonald’s and baseball, the brutal repression of protest.
But if in the official narratives the murder of striking banana workers’ or the 500 killed in Mexico’s Three Cultures Square on the eve of the 1968 Olympics, disappear, they are held in the popular imagination that transforms the memories into the myths and stories passed on from generation to generation.
So when the novel ends in a kind of apocalypse, the story and the memory remain – as the novel does.
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