The Abstraction of Time in 100 Years of Solitude

The Abstraction of Time (Essay Excerpt)

Look up the word “time” and one is confronted with sixty-four entries from the Random House Dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition includes no less than one hundred and twelve entries and subentries. Like the attempt to define magical realism, it seems that time can best be described instead of defined. One begins to feel nostalgic for that prehistoric, utopian Macondo where, “the world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” (1)

In the opening pages of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the character of José Arcadio Buendía thrusts the spear that kills his foe, Prudencio Aguilar. It is the metaphorical arrow of time, the notion in physics that moves time forward in a natural progression, keeping the order of the universe. But what the author has done is to symbolically rid the story of the constraints of time. José Arcadio Buendía buries the spear and cuts the throats of the cocks. The natural order of things is buried and the cocks, keepers of time, are dead.

In García Márquez’s world without order and a marking of time, there can only be simultaneity, a simultaneity experienced not as circularity but as a spiral that will become tighter and tighter, making only minor progressions until it can spin on itself no further. Time inches forward while at the same time past, present, and future overlap throughout the novel. This principle tenet of magical realism is most notably shown through the repetition of family names, and which finally re-emerges in the long-ago seen and foreseen spiral that was the corkscrew pig’s tail of Ursula’s cousin and which determines the fate of the last Aureliano. Time can no longer progress. The Buendías and Macondo necessarily disappear.


Linear and Perceptual Time

A novel that expresses the passage of time in its very title is fiercely devoid of any clear mentions of the era in which it is set. In fact, the only suggestion of a year occurs in the second chapter and this provides the reader with the point of reference necessary to situate him or herself in the linear or chronological story:

“Therefore, every time that Úrsula became exercised over her husband’s mad ideas, she would leap back over three hundred years of fate and curse the day that Sir Francis Drake had attacked Riohacha.” (20)

We may not be historians, but the mention of Francis Drake is enough to place the attack in the fifteen hundreds, add then “three hundred years of fate and curse” and the reader is comfortably situated in the 1800s. The mention of Drake also establishes that the chronology has been imposed from outside. But the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude become increasingly isolated so that there is no outside force that can determine a linear time, an official history, or the chronology of events vital to the expression of a common reality.

After the mention of Drake, García Márquez eschews an overt chronology that might have made the story no more than a chronicle of a time gone by. Instead, the author provides a background of historical allusions that on their own stand as meaningless though humorous references, but when added together bring to life the 19th century and the imprint it left on the “New World”. There are references to Rabelais, Alexander Von Humboldt, physics’ arrow of time, thematic allusions to Marcel Proust’s notion of simultaneity of time in Remembrance of Things Past. Through these references García Márquez imbues the novel with a depth of meaning that in itself expresses the eras and ideas that are simultaneously at work in the world at large and that have now penetrated the Latin American way of life. Change is afoot.

History, religion, folklore (magic), science, and philosophy are all represented within the novel’s 417 pages and many of these collide within single characters. José Arcadio Buendía, who, with his folklore-laced quest for the knowledge of science and philosophy, becomes obsessed with obtaining scientific proof of God’s existence, is the most obvious example. While Macondo’s patriarch pursues this enlightenment, García Márquez lays out the preoccupations of the European 19th century before the reader. In showing us a José Arcadio Buendía obsessed with the pursuit of knowledge and the “discovery” and “invention” of things that already exist, the author succeeds in revealing a “long 19th century whose self-conception was framed by a disciplined obsession with the past.”

It’s easy to get lost in the humor of these pursuits and miss the metal ingots, the magnifying glass, and telescope, all of which were instrumental in making navigation and exploration possible so that the Conquistadores could find “the land that no one had promised” (23). By highlighting José Arcadio Buendía’s tireless effort to prove the already proven, the author also lets us know that man is destined to repeat the past. This is further emphasized when, searching for a route to the sea, José Arcadio Buendía finds an old suit of armor and a marooned Spanish galleon: this land has already been explored, this territory has been literally covered, and the land has vanquished the invader, a dance that will be repeated until “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.” (417)

Pulling back the lens, we see a greater ordering of time: the founding of Macondo as Renaissance—a literal rebirth—to José Arcadio Buendía’s embodiment of the Enlightenment in his pursuit of knowledge. The character of Colonel Aureliano Buendía becomes the influence of government and the military, the railroad Industrialization, and the banana company and Macondo’s failure, Globalization. Pulling back even farther, we see the arc of Macondo’s existence following the trajectory of human existence, in this case, the Buendía family’s in particular. Macondo is born in the innocence of utopia, is ravaged by the rebellions of endless war, bears the political consequences and outcomes of its maturation, and dies in the recognition of life’s futility.

In the case of One Hundred Years of Solitude, omitting exact dates saves the narrative from becoming a catalog of occurrences that is only relevant to a particular time. It also contributes to the perception of timelessness contained in the story and plunges it deep into the realm of psychological time. It is March and then March again, and then again, for example, but we do not see a progression in years. We sense a progression, a progression measured by the births, deaths, loves, disillusionment, victories, and failures of every generation, which are similar to the happenings of the generations that came before it. As these events occur, we experience the circularity of time, one of the principle tenets of magical realism.


“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.” (1)


This line is often cited as one of the best openings in the history of the novel and it would be easy on first reading to be so seduced by its lyricism as to overlook its semantic achievement. First, the story begins with a very real situation: a soldier, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, has done something that has warranted his imminent execution. This very real situation is followed by a very natural human reaction: facing death, the colonel remembers.

The reader first encounters Colonel Aureliano Buendía in media res. He faces a firing squad and he remembers. We aren’t told about the colonel’s fear (another natural reaction), which we then presume he doesn’t experience, or how he feels in any way, what we are told is that he remembers. And though we recognize it as a human reaction, it’s unusual for the narrator to make this the focus of the situation.

While tempted to discover the nature of his memory, a question lingers: Many years later than what? As we try to answer this, we start to experience the issue of time that will permeate the entire novel, a device that Richard Terdiman calls a “present past,” where chronology “folds back on itself” to create a past that lives in the present moment through memory. This idea of a present past and, by extension, a pre-ordained future is key to the building of a magical realist world. By starting his story in the middle of the action, García Márquez propels the reader into the character’s present—which is simultaneously the reader’s future—but our sojourn there is short because what the character is doing is remembering and his memory takes us back in time, effectively leaving the execution in the colonel’s future. Past, present, and future converged in one character and in one instant.

While the sentences that follow the colonel’s memory of discovering ice take the reader back into prehistoric times and a creation myth with tones much like those of Genesis, the opening emphasizes a far-reaching story by juxtaposing the modern idea of a firing squad with the discovery of ice. An epic narrative is suggested, or a folkloric one in which we sense a vastness of time, and specific time is immaterial. As such it conjures the magical world that resounds in the title and in the vagueness of this unpinnable time that converges all at once in the colonel.

This will be an all-encompassing story the likes of the ancient epics, characterized by “a distant past that seems greater than the present”. A distant past indeed echoes throughout the novel, much like that distant afternoon when the colonel discovers ice, which until the moment he’s due to be executed, has barely even registered as a “hereditary” memory (6). Of course, we soon realize that what the narrator has propelled us into through the colonel’s memory is not the dawn of man on earth, but the moment the clock starts ticking for the new settlement of Macondo, a representation of an independent Colombia and much of Latin America. Time, the author seems to be telling us, is a matter of point of reference and as such the vagueness of time in the opening line can be attributed at least in part to finding oneself in the middle of the story, disoriented by not yet having a reference point from which to measure the “many years” and the “distant afternoon”.


© Natalie Aristy 2009-10




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