Famous First Sentences: One Hundred Years of Solitude
I hesitated before choosing a novel written in Spanish; however, since Gabriel García Márquez not only endorsed Gregory Rabassa's fine translation of Cien años de soledad but said he liked it better in English, here's the first sentence of a novel that has enchanted millions since 1967:
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.
This is a hallmark of García Márquez's style, and one that I find so engaging: to give us two time frames in one sentence. Here, he's going to tell us about that distant afternoon; but he has planted a wonderful idea in our minds -- the colonel is going to be facing a firing squad? How did he get there? When are we going to find out?
This immediately gives García Márquez a literary link to the narrative style of the great medieval and Renaissance romances such as Roman de la rose and Orlando furioso, where audiences are kept waiting for one exciting episode by the deliberate digression into an aside or other incident. It was an extremely useful technique for oral storytellers, as it kept audiences asking for more.
This is a surprising literary technique to be found in the work of a Colombian writer trained extensively in journalism. Indeed, he started writing for newspapers while studying law -- and neither profession ostensibly encourages fantasy. Yet it is his journalistic training that gave him such a clear eye for detail and an objective voice that is capable of introducing the fantastic with such deadpan authority that we are delighted to suspend disbelief.
Magical Realism And Laundry
Cien años builds a systematic mythos surrounding the village of Macondo and the Buendía family. Since García Márquez has the political insight of a journalist, and since he grew up in a world where writers understand the political importance of literature and where politicians are necessarily literate, he has never been timid in recounting events similar to real incidents in Colombian history -- from the civil insurrection known as the Thousand Days War (of which his grandfather was a veteran) to the omnipresent and distinctly ominous United Fruit Company (now exorcised and known as the friendly Chiquita Company) spreading its pervasive tendrils of neocolonialism.
By situating the novel in rural Colombia, García Márquez was able to create a microcosm of earth itself and parallel human development from pre-history to the present in the lives of the Buendía family. While he has stated that the novel was on many levels an "in joke" among people who knew him, this belies the real strength of the archetypes he produced in Aureliano Buendía and Úrsula Iguarán (based on his grandparents).
The Buendía family grows and the generations weave personality traits from their progenitors in ever-shifting combinations of José Arcadios and Aurelianos who struggle to bring progress to Macondo, while life itself is subject to the magical forces of life that burgeon around them.
The inclusion of fantstical elements -- widely known as "magical realism" --, combined with traditional realism, such as swarms of butterflies and the ascension to heaven of a young woman while hanging out her laundry, demonstrate one simple fact: when we don't know all the causes or reasons for any specific object or action, we have traditionally labelled them as supernatural.
The first sentence of the novel is a good illustration of what I mean. Being taken to "discover" ice, a rare concept in the heart of the rain forest, puts the young boy on the level of explorer discovering something entirely new in his universe -- something that we take for granted.
For the boy, it is a magical incident. The ice looks like a diamond, but when he touches it it burns him (he is not familiar with the term "freeze," either). Maybe that is why this novel endures: it touches our sense of wonder.
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