Modernist & Modern classics

The many, many José Arcadios and Aurelianos

People discovering ice, suffering from insomnia for months, living ghosts (because death is too lonely), rains that don’t stop “for four years, eleven months, and two days”, priests who levitate with the power of chocolate and Ursula who managed to stay alive but not at all times conscious for 150 years (I’m not sure about that, she stopped counting). This is how one of the most magical books ever written – metaphorically and literally speaking – sounds like. In “One hundred years of solitude” García Márquez uses fantasy and the magic realism to make us understand the absurdity of human behavior and other flaws. So let us talk about mistakes, shall we?

The first and most obvious (or really confusing, in fact) theme of this novel is the cyclicity of life and the repetitive history filled with our mistakes. None of Márquez’s characters are perfect or even close to being flawless. And this is why they seem so real, even when some do improbable or simply impossible things. One of these peculiar behaviors could be naming their children – we get to read about six generations of José Arcadios and Aurelianos and more than one Ursula and Remedios. These characters do not only share the name, but also have the same personality traits, Aureliano being solitary and withdrawn, while Arcadio is impulsive and more violent. This repetition that gets so confusing is meant to present people as being so similar in their mistakes and behavior that you can’t differentiate them, not even by names.

Another important message Márquez told me about is that just like history repeats again and again and ends up being the same, time itself is always the same – it’s not divided into past, present or future, it’s just time. The very first sentence of the novel shows this unique perspective on time and I also tend to see it in Ursula’s and Rebeca’s arcs. Rebeca starts her journey arriving in a mysterious manner in Macondo to then be adopted by Ursula. She is uncommunicative, eats dirt and whitewash from the walls, infects everybody with insomnia, she finally stops eating weird stuff, almost commits incest by marrying her stepbrother, they both become outcasts, her husband dies and she goes back to eating dirt and whitewash. There she is, an almost round character that ends up back to where she began, unable to change. Or Ursula, her adoptive mother, who is the leader of her home, lives to see so much and yet so little, her world being limited to Macondo, only to get old and senile, sometimes completely forgetting her past. The end of Ursula is really similar to her beginning – a childlike person with no past and no future. She seems lost at this point, but somewhere in the book it is stated that time periods are not important, as we actually only live in the present – “It’s enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment”. This circle that their stories form shows a time which is not linear – “time was not passing… it was turning in a circle”.

Now let us follow their example and jump back to the beginning of the book – “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…” – in this sentence we don’t only witness a puzzling combination of multiple times, but also an intriguing proof of the human desire to know – the discovery of ice. For me, this fragment beautifully laughs at the foolishness of people who always try to quantify time, to play around with forces far beyond their perception, try to unlock the secrets of destiny and learn about their future, to control matters like life and death (“a person doesn’t die when he should but when he can”) or discover and name things that had been around longer than any of them, like ice, just because “The world was so recent that many things lacked names”.

The ending of the novel reminds me that what the people of Macondo lived was in vain, as they never learned from their mistakes and they wasted their precious time in that distant, lonely town, like most of us still do: “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

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