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Wednesday, January 18, 2012


First sentences: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Requested by storiteller

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

First disclosure: I admire Marquez, but when it comes to magic realism I tend to prefer female authors, so I've only read a limited amount of his work and have not read the whole of One Hundred Years of Solitude. My knowledge of the book is based upon: having read some extracts, attended a lecture when I was an undergraduate, looked up the plot on Wikipedia, read Of Love And Other Demons, and having a general impression of what's considered classically magic realist. I'm therefore approaching the first sentence in a state of relatively literate ignorance; I may get some things wrong.

Okay, first sentence time.

Marquez is, of course, a pioneer of the famous magic realist style, that intermixture of grim politics and dreamlike unreality, intense passion and logical flippancy, history and fantasy, humanity and abstraction, that casts such a strange and compelling shadow over literature. For setting out the stall, this first sentence is a feat of hologrammatic perfection: the tiny fragment containing a complete image of the whole.

The sentence is obviously translated from the Spanish, which is a language I don't speak, so I cannot comment too much on the rhythms Marquez chose to employ - which, I think, is a shame, because I bet he does something interesting with them. Even in translation, the sentence is an extraordinary piece of conceptual rhythm. Time wheels in a slow, almost drunken circle. We begin 'many years later' - raising the immediate question, later than what? The time he saw ice, or some other moment? Where in time are we? The answer, as the years continue to revolve, seems to be nowhere and everywhere at once: life is passing before our eyes, taking in a man's whole experience, beginning at the end or perhaps in the middle, and moving back to childhood - but childhood on the cusp of some other state of being, for it is a childhood moment of change.

In other words, we cannot pin down where we are, not just because we don't know what moment in this sliding scale of time we occupy but because every specific instance of time we are given is a moment of transition. Facing the firing squad is a moment of transition from life to death - or if you're luckier, from helplessness to salvation, we don't yet know which, and Marquez is in no hurry to put us out of our uncertainty. Childhood is a trip to discover ice - not even the moment of discovery itself, but being taken to discover it, the journey verbally eclipsing the arrival.

Time, in short, is endlessly fluid. There is no 'now'; there is only 'later' and 'before' and movement to and fro: we see everything at once. Even the first eyes we see through are caught in an act of memory rather than observation. And this is an important piece of preparation: before Marquez gets to his more surreal and outlandish claims, he has cut us loose from our moorings. In the real world we may not know much of what's going on, but we at least know what's past and present. To enter Marquez's book through this first sentence is to have that familiarity wrested away from us. We approach the outlandish incidents too disoriented to put up much of a fight against their unreality.

And the outlandishness begins in the first sentence, presented with a deadpan nod. The fact that it's a discovery of ice - not, you would think, something you'd normally need to take a trip to 'discover' (you might need to journey to see ice, given the right home town, but discover is a word that makes clear ice is a new concept as well as a new sensual experience) - throws both mundane ice and abstract discovery into question. Soon the book will move to the bewildering assertion that in Aurelio Buendia's childhood 'the world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them one had to point' (rather a wry enactment of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; reality can be zany in this world, but it's a profoundly erudite zaniness), but the implication is clear in the first sentence before it's made so explicit. A child making a new discovery isn't just making a new discovery for himself: it's really, genuinely new. I called the handling of time drunken, but it's equally accurate to call it childlike: the straight-faced gaze of a child whose mind hasn't yet sorted fact from fantasy and regards each as equally bizarre. In this time-hazed, numinous world, even ordinary things take on a mystical quality: you never know what's going to tilt next.

Intermixed with this matter-of-fact tone is a promise of high drama (a firing squad!) which Marquez is distractibly, teasingly vague about keeping. In most books, you would think that a firing squad would be the main point of a story; here, the narrative shifts quickly away from this, as if an execution were a mere aside to the central story. And the central story is of a family moving through history. Note, for instance, that we get Colonel Aureliano Buendia's full name: there will be other Buendias, even other Aurelianos: we may be lost in time, but we need the dry precision of a family tree to keep us clear on who's being discussed here. The family will not be an isolated unit, though: here in the first sentence, we are deeply political - or else why do we need to know the Colonel's rank, and the fact that he faces a firing squad? There are other Buendias in store for us, but we already know that this one, at least, will have his fate determined by forces beyond his control - not magical ones, or not just magical ones, but human forces.

Despite the drama of the situation, then, Marquez is playing a different game. Rather than starting us with an incident as such, he starts us with the terms we will have to accept if we are going to follow him down this winding path. Time exists only as a continuum; human and cosmic powers are equally at play, or at prey, upon our characters; family is central (so central that it distracts our narrator from talking about an execution squad) and must be watched carefully if we're going to keep up. Marquez is not telling us a conventional story. Instead, his main gambit is to unseat our readership, to force us into a new state of mind - which we will have to occupy if we are going to survive his free-handed spinning of the wheel. Issues of life and death take second place to this vital, eccentric view on the world. Only by surrendering to dream logic will we make it through One Hundred Years Of Solitude alive.

It's a long time since I read the book, but am I right in remembering that the firing squad doesn't kill him after all? What implications does that have for the opening sentence?

Also I think there's another "later, when he faced the firing squad" sentence a little further in, only this time it jars you by being inconsistent with the first one, because it's Jose Arcadio facing the firing squad this time, and you wonder if it's a typo. It isn't. There are two firing squads.
I had to read this book in college, and it drove me *absolutely nuts* because I couldn't quite figure out what was going on or who did what or why whoever was sleeping with the other person. I didn't realize until years later that this was intentional, that the author is well-known for writing things that are trippy and confusing and shake you loose from what you expect. If I'd known that going in, I would have felt less stupid that I didn't get it, and less annoyed at the author for writing stuff I didn't understand. It still isn't really the style of story I go for, but at least now I know a bit more of what he was up to.
Kit, have you read any Isabel Allende? The House of The Spirits is compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude quite a lot. It's one of my favorites.
@Sarah - I have, in fact, and I liked The House of the Spirits a great deal.
A ""One Hundred Years of Solitude"" reader will not be able to evaluate the whole work until at the end. So if one is thinking of skimming or skipping scenes, I suggest he/she should not. That is because Gabriel Garcia Marquez's writes his masterpieces like Chinese puzzle boxes with little sliding panels—the reader cannot open them until he/she has moved all those tiny components in exact sequence. Only then will the whole architecture of the novel become apparent. It's quite astonishing at first, but you'll get used to it.

""The House of The Spirits"" is indeed a great deal Kit. The man's obsession for power and the need to feel accepted by his wife make for an intriguing story to read.

In accordance with Sarah's comment: With a huge number of authors nowadays, some stories may bound to be similar, but I must say each writer has his/her own way with words and that what makes the novel unique.
The opening sentence in Spanish is:

"Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo."

Rhythmically, hm, nothing jumps out at me; it doesn't seem to be calling back to any poetic forms I'm familiar with. (Poetry in the Latin American Boom wasn't usually hung up on generalized rhythmic patterns anyway -- which isn't to say that rhythm didn't happen in individual poems, of course.)

What does jump out at me is "había de recordar," translated above as "was to remember." This feels to me (n.b.: Argentine dialectology, SO not my strong point; I could be wrong!) like a conscious archaism; the more modern locution would likely be "tenía que recordar." So, again, the time is out of joint, right down to the language.

Anything else in that? Well, maybe. The modern "tener que" plus infinitive is something like "to have to do something, to be forced [by powers beyond one's control] to do something." (E.g. "I gotta do my homework," no real choice in the matter.) "Haber de," historically, runs a gamut, from the above harsh necessity to a much less fraught "you just gotta [do this] [because it's awesome, understood]" to an entirely un-fraught temporally-focused "you'll do this [at some point in the future, or depending on tense, future perfect]."

So why, exactly, did this specific memory rise up as Aureliano Buendía faced the firing squad? García Marquez's verb usage seems to sedulously avoid answering...
I’m very interested in your first disclosure, as I have also recently been introduced to the works of Isabel Allende, and Paola Masino (1982; Birth and Death of a Housewife), via Massimo Bontempelli. I would very much like to learn which female magical realists you’ve enjoyed. Apologies if you’ve listed them previously.
This is perhaps one of the all time greatest novels in the history of literature ever written. Although I've heard many people disliking this book for its extreme complexity and mingling myths and fantasy with reality, still, this is 'the' book in literature that one must not miss during lifetime.

The language is poetic, and with the birth and death of a mythical town Macondo, this book describes the birth and death of eternal human values etched with the fragrance of sadness, happiness, solemnity, compassion, and tells the reader about all that are meaningful and meaningless in life.
Right! Two firing squads, of two binary characters! The rational and the hedonist, but only one actually dies!
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