Mostly Novels by Chelsea BiekerMostly Novels

Marriage, Repetition, and Márquez:
One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of SolitudeBy Emily Burns Morgan

s there anything so solitary as a quiet shop full of books in a language you can’t read, with a husband so weak from days of traveler’s tummy that he can barely talk? Yet stepping into the sweet cool air of the little shop felt like the first breath after being under water; we gulped down its brick walls crowded with cask-cooled titles in plastic wrap while American jazz played on the stereo. Of course all of this—my Colombia, my honeymoon—is colored now by nostalgia, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s must have been while he was writing, from his adopted country of Mexico, his most famous book about his homeland.

I didn’t read One Hundred Years of Solitude until after my honeymoon in Colombia, but I was thinking about solitude then, too. In the days and weeks leading up to a wedding, you’re surrounded by family and friends. As the bride, you are the center of attention, which of course is what you’ve always wanted, and also your worst nightmare at the same time. But finally, after all the hullaballoo is over, the occasionally sensible authorities who came up with this whole crazy wedding tradition suggest you get away, just the two of you. And so my husband and I, adventurous souls that we are, went backpacking in Colombia, far away from our families and the specter our wonderful, loving parents’ failed marriages, which had caused not a small amount of inner turmoil for both of us as we finally decided to embark on marriage ourselves.

So there we were in Bogota, then the Caribbean coast, then the jungle, where we got sick, and then came to rest for a while in Cartegena, which just so happens to be the city where Marquez makes his home, when he is at home, in Colombia. In Cartegena, as I did all over the country, I picked up Marquez’s books and put them down again, balking at the high cost of the text in English. Maybe it’s better that I read One Hundred Years after I returned, as both the reading and my simultaneous memory of the place I was reading about offered me a new way to think about the past, and about the nature of memory.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is about the Buendia family. Its patriarch, Jose Arcadio Buendia, is the founder of Macondo, the city in which the novel takes place. While the story is definitely about this place, I wonder if Marquez’s project isn’t similar to Joyce’s—“For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” The world does indeed seem to be here—Marquez’s magical realism is so thick, each sentence draped with so much description, that one feels satisfied having achieved a general impression of the whole, especially as each new generations of Buendias are given the same names as the last. There are so many Aurelianos and Arcadios that surely the author’s intention is for the reader to lose track. Memory, or lack of it, after all, is a major theme here (in the first ½ of the book, the entire town of Macondo suffers from a “plague of insomnia,” which causes forgetfulness to such a degree that no one can even remember the names of common household items.) Ursula, the family matriarch who survives nearly the entire book, often comments that time seems to be moving in a circle. The novel suggests that the lack of shared memory is responsible for this lack of progression. 

The Buendias’ inability to share their memories with each other also contributes to their solitude. Each generation obsesses over the same things and makes similar mistakes, but remains separated from each other by love of themselves and a preference, or destiny, to indulge in self-love (often in the guise of misery), rather than actually communicate with each other. The incestual nature of almost all of the Buendias’ romantic relationships is another way the author thematizes this concept. The fact that in most of these instances the characters don’t even know they are related to each other gives us a sense of how disconnected they are. If each family member were not huddled alone with their own solitary concerns, they would at least have an idea of their connection to everyone else. One gets the sense that if just one Buendia could truly share themselves with someone else (and that someone outside of the clan would be their best bet to do this), then they might be able to free themself from the ring of isolation in which they seem destined to revolve.

One character we at first have hope for is Renata Remedios, aka Meme, who falls in love with an outsider named Mauricio Babilonia, whose presence she is always notified of by the yellow butterflies that follow him. But Meme’s mother’s secret shooting of Mauricio dashes any hope that he and Meme will end the Buendia curse. Instead, the tragic demise of Mauricio Babilonia is a reminder of the silence and secrecy that keeps the family tied, unhappily, to itself. To further drive home the point, the child of that union, Aureliano Babilonia, grows up completely unaware of his parentage and ends up falling in love with his aunt, Amaranta Ursula, with whom he has a child born with a pig’s tail.

So what do the magical elements of the text have to do with anything, and how is a reader even supposed to know which ones are “magical” and which are “real”? One example of this confusion I found particularly troubling—during a confrontation between the “banana company” and its workers, 3,000 people are gunned down at a station, their bodies carried away on a train and dumped in the ocean. It seems so incredible that it’s hard to believe, which I guess is why the authorities in the book have no trouble rewriting history such that years later, when Colonel Aureliano Buendia refers to the event, no one believes it ever occurred, or even that the banana company ever existed. If I hadn’t just come back from Colombia, where I heard first-hand stories about the horrors committed by guerilla military groups, often with the complicity of the government, then I might not trust Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s memory, either. And this seems to me to me a problem of the novel. Maybe for a Colombian audience, it’s not. Maybe people used to this kind of thing recognize the reflection of reality right away. Or maybe Marquez is trying to point out that everything in life is hazy, vague, recurring, and cyclical because, like the Buendias, we are all hell bent on wallowing alone in our self-made cities of mirrors, rather than in working through problems together, and thus can’t help repeating the mistakes of our ancestors until we are all destroyed like the town of Macondo, and the last of the Buendia line.

As I look back into my memory—back to looking across the café table at my new husband playing games on his iPhone and pausing over the rim of his cup of café negro to smile at me—I hope to God that Marquez is wrong.

Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Willamette Week, and Martha Stewart Living, among other publications.