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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Comments 35 comments

Pete Maida profile image

Pete Maida 7 years ago

This series of yours is fascinating. I have not read many of these novels but you definitely make them sound like that are worth reading. I did hear some stories about Chiquita and their tactics.


Elena. profile image

Elena. 7 years ago from Madrid

Teresa, I was wondering whether you would include some titles not written in English, and here's my answer :-)  I don't know the MOST famous first sentence in English, but in Spanish it's El Quijote's  "En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor..."  Oh well :)  I enjoyed your incursion into magical realism!


john guilfoyle profile image

john guilfoyle 7 years ago

a fine novel, without a doubt


Triplet Mom profile image

Triplet Mom 7 years ago from West Coast

This is one of my favorite novels and I also love this series. It really gives a different perspective on the book and author.


Hawkesdream profile image

Hawkesdream 7 years ago from Cornwall

makes me want to read more, will look out for the book.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks, guys: I'm having a lot of fun with this, as you can see.

Pete, yeah -- apparently United Fruit Co. committed a couple of atrocities. Thanks for reaading.

Elena: you're going to have to write the one on el Quijote, then! I'm not sure I could even manage El libro gordo de Petete. . . :)

John G: thanks for reading

Triplet! thanks for reading (did your copy fall apart? I have to keep mine in a gallon ziplock bag. . .)


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hawkes -- you'd like it, I'm sure.


goldentoad profile image

goldentoad 7 years ago from Free and running....

One of my favorite books, its been awhile since I read it, but I remember the magic and the mystical sequences and poetic description. Thanks TM for conjuring up the images again.

no need to throw the chalk.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hey there, GT: thanks for stopping by. I think it's thirty years since I first read it, myself.


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 7 years ago

Nice work, Teresa. That's one of my all-time favorite books, because it's a great novel and because it reminds me of a happy time growing up when my parents and siblings lived in Colombia.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks for reading, Ralph. Glad it brings back happy memories.


Cris A profile image

Cris A 7 years ago from Manila, Philippines

I've always loved Garcia Marquez' weaving of fantastic elements and realistic narrative. And this book that deals with a family at a microscopic level to the macrocosm of Columbian history was his best. I think he won the Nobel Prize for literature for this one.

I hope I was not late for class! :D


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

Missed reading this one, but will certainly put it on my list now. Thanks.

Hanging laundry out to dry and ascending to heaven. Lovely image!


Iphigenia 7 years ago

What a great choice - I love this book and it must be 20 years since I read this, about the time "Love in the Time of Cholera" was published.

You will introduce many new readers to this book with this hub - and you should seriously consider tunring this amazing series into a book.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Cris, Peggy, Iphi -- three of my favorite hubbers -- thanks for stopping by! Your comments are always appreciated.

Ya know, Iphi, the thought of a book was beginning to form in my mind -- but I think I'd rather concentrate on having fun, first, with these (the word "book" always makes me think of research and publishers, ugh).


elliot.dunn 7 years ago

i wish i had read this a couple months ago! i had to read this book in my World Literature class. Marquez's paralleling of Macondo with the world, beginning with its creation (founding by the first of many buendias) and ending with the apocalyptic wind, was my favorite feature of the book. Also, though magic realism can definitely be difficult to read, the Western reader is forced to appreciate the weaving of history and mythology. Marquez can't be read without understanding his cultural climate.

I really enjoy your writing style. You're very easy to read, even when discussing such heady topics as One Hundred Years of Solitude. Muchly appreciated Mz. McGurk.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks, BC, for stopping by. Have a great weekend yourself!

Elliot -- thank you ver y much for your kind comment. I reaaly enjoyed writing this one, as you can tell.


blondepoet profile image

blondepoet 7 years ago from australia

Hi Bubbles ROFL do you do heaps of reading Teresa, you have so much knowledge up your sleeve


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

It's all catnip to me, really.


Candie V profile image

Candie V 7 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

"The inclusion of fantastical elements".. omg..girl you ooze "Smart!". Can I get you to translate my cookbook, please? ok, so how about My Vogue magazine article.. 100 things to do with a guy in bed? You make it all magical! I've bookmarked this incase I get a change to get away from my Harlequin Romances! LOL (totally kidding)


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks, Candie -- but I've read your writing and know full well you are literate and intelligent!


Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 7 years ago from United States

I love this 'first sentence' series. Great reads, every one.


Feline Prophet profile image

Feline Prophet 7 years ago from India

Makes me want to read the book again. Marquez is such a great writer! Thanks Teresa for this great series! :)


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Many thanks, Tom and Feline, for stopping by and reading.


Feline Prophet profile image

Feline Prophet 7 years ago from India

I notice you changed your avatar to your celebrity lookalike! :)


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

It's the real me, Feline: that other photo was just some chick in a magazine. I AM Mrs. Bubbles!


Feline Prophet profile image

Feline Prophet 7 years ago from India

At the risk of cluttering up your hub with inconsequential comments, may I say she was the spitting image of you? :P


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks -- although her fur was not quite as sleek as mine is.


write away profile image

write away 7 years ago from Maryland

You definitely caught my interest about the book. Its going on my "to read" list for sure.


2patricias profile image

2patricias 7 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

This series continues to amaze! It's been a long time since I read "100 Years" - my most recent Garcia Marquez was his autobiography, which I think is called "Living to Tell the Tale" (it's downstairs and I'm too tired to go down and check). Anyway, I recommend first reading "Love in the Time of Cholera" and then the autobiography. Both books are long, but Garcia Marquez is a very rewarding writer - his images stick in the mind.

Thanks for another fascinating Hub.

ps - I had a note from my library to say that "Dharma Bums" is waiting for me - they had to order it from their central store for me.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks, Writw; thanks, 2Pats -- I have Vivir para contarla in storage, wish I knew where. Haven't read it yet. Hope you like the Dharma Bums. . .


Raven King profile image

Raven King 7 years ago from Cabin Fever

Wow this is a rich and ripe description of one of my favorite authors. This tastey review makes me want to dig in my library for Gabriel Garcia Marquez' work. Outstanding description! Woooooo.


GeneriqueMedia profile image

GeneriqueMedia 7 years ago from Earth

"where audiences are kept waiting for one exciting episode by the deliberate digression into an aside or other incident."

With out this technique, we'd have less soap operas. ;)

I really enjoyed this one, yet again. I just may have to pick this up...


Megan Coxe profile image

Megan Coxe 5 years ago from somewhere between here and there

To my own embarrassment, I've never actually read 100 años de soledad (even with a degree in Spanish lit.) but I´ve always admired Gabo´s style, the combination of what we commonly call "magical realism", which actually has quite a long history in Spanish-American literature, and narrative progression that recalls William Faulkner, who Garcia Marquez admits influenced his decision to become a writer in the first place. Thank you for the hub. Its great to see Spanish language literature appreciated as it should be!


Ayelet profile image

Ayelet 3 years ago

Excellent series of hubs - as a Spanish minor and having recently visited Colombia, it was great to see that Marquez made your list.

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