No Magic, No Metaphor

Fredric Jameson on ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’

The first centennial of the Soviet revolution, indeed the fifth centennial of Luther’s, risk distracting us from a literary earthquake which happened just fifty years ago and marked the cultural emergence of Latin America onto that new and larger stage we call globalisation – itself a space that ultimately proves to be well beyond the separate categories of the cultural or the political, the economic or the national. I mean the publication of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, which not only unleashed a Latin American ‘boom’ on an unsuspecting outside world but also introduced a host of distinct national literary publics to a new kind of novelising. Influence is not a kind of copying, it is permission unexpectedly received to do things in new ways, to broach new content, to tell stories by way of forms you never knew you were allowed to use. What is it, then, that García Márquez did to the readers and writers of a still relatively conventional postwar world?

He began his productive life as a movie reviewer and a writer of movie scenarios nobody wanted to film. Is it so outrageous to consider One Hundred Years of Solitude as a mingling, an intertwining and shuffling together of failed movie scripts, so many fantastic episodes that could never be filmed and so must be consigned to Melquíades’s Sanskrit manuscript (from which the novel has been ‘translated’)? Or perhaps it may be permitted to note the astonishing simultaneity of the beginning of his literary career with the so-called Bogotazo, the assassination in 1948 of the great populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (and the beginning of the seventy-year long Violencia in Colombia), just as García Márquez was having lunch down the street and, not much further away, the 21-year-old Fidel Castro was waiting in his hotel room for an afternoon meeting with Gaitán about the youth conference he had been sent to organise in Bogota that summer.

The solitude of the title should not at first be taken to mean the affective pathos it becomes at the end of the book: first and foremost, in the novel’s founding or refounding of the world itself, it signifies autonomy. Macondo is a place away from the world, a new world with no relation to an old one we never see. Its inhabitants are a family and a dynasty, albeit accompanied by their fellows on a failed expedition which just happened to come to rest at this point. The initial solitude of Macondo is a purity and an innocence, a freedom from whatever worldly miseries have been forgotten at this opening moment, this moment of a new creation. If we insist on seeing this as a Latin American work, then we can say that Macondo is unsullied by the Spanish conquest as also by indigenous cultures: neither bureaucratic not archaic, neither colonial nor Indian. But if you insist on an allegorical dimension, then it also signifies the uniqueness of Latin America itself in the global system, and at another level the distinctness of Colombia from the rest of Latin America, and even of García Márquez’s native (coastal, Caribbean) region from the rest of Colombia and the Andes. All these perspectives mark the freshness of the novel’s starting point, its utopian laboratory experiment.

But as we know, the form-problem of utopia is that of narrative itself: what stories remain to be told if life is perfect and society is perfected? Or, to turn the question inside out and rephrase the problem of content in terms of novelistic form, what narrative paradigms survive to provide the raw material for that destruction or deconstruction which is the work of the novel itself as a kind of meta-genre or anti-genre? This was the deeper truth of Lukács’s pathbreaking Theory of the Novel. The genres, the narrative stereotypes or paradigms, belong to older, traditional societies: the novel is then the anti-form proper to modernity itself (which is to say, of capitalism and its cultural and epistemological categories, its daily life). This means, as Schumpeter put it in an immortal phrase, that the novel is also a vehicle of creative destruction. Its function, in some properly capitalist ‘cultural revolution’, is the perpetual undoing of traditional narrative paradigms and their replacement, not by new paradigms, but by something radically different. To use Deleuzian language for a moment, modernity, capitalist modernity, is the moment of passage from codes to axioms, from meaningful sequences, or indeed, if you prefer, from meaning itself, to operational categories, to functions and rules; or, in yet another language, this time more historical and philosophical, it is the transition from metaphysics to epistemologies and pragmatisms, we might even say from content to form, if the use of this second term did not risk confusion.

The form-problem of the novel is that it isn’t easy to find sequences to replace those traditional narrative paradigms; the replacements inevitably tend to reform into new narrative paradigms and genres in their own right (as witness the emergence of the Bildungsroman as a meaningful narrative genre, based as it is on conceptions of life, career, pedagogy and spiritual or material development which are all essentially ideological and thereby historical). These newly created yet soon familiar and old-fashioned paradigms must be destroyed in turn, in a perpetual innovation of the form. Even then, it is rare enough for a novelist to invent wholly original replacement paradigms (paradigm change is as momentous an event in the history of narrative as elsewhere), let alone to replace narrative itself, something modernism can be seen everywhere to strive for, unsuccessfully I might add: for what is here demanded is a new kind of novelistic narrative which replaces narrative altogether, something obviously a contradiction in terms.

The perpetual resurrection of newer narrative paradigms and sub-genres out of the still warm ashes of their destruction is a process I would attribute to commodification, as the primary law of our kind of society: it isn’t only objects that are subject to commodification, it is anything capable of being named. Many are the philosophical examples of this seemingly fatal process, and the philosophers who – like Wittgenstein or Derrida in their very different ways – set out to free us from stable, reified, conventional categories and concepts have ended up as brand names in their own right. So it is with the creative destruction of narrative paradigms: your ‘knight’s move’, your deviation or defamiliarisation, ends up becoming just another ‘new paradigm’ (unless, as in postmodernity, it chooses the path of what used to be called irony, namely the use of pastiche, the play with a repetition of dead forms at a slight remove).

Such are, in my opinion, the consequences of Lukács’s insights in the Theory of the Novel – insights which did not have the benefit, as we do, of generations of accumulated modernist experiments in this direction. Returning to One Hundred Years of Solitude with a view to demonstrating and validating what I have proposed, let’s begin with its principal narrative paradigm, the family novel. It has been debated a good deal lately, the upshot being that it is no longer possible, if it ever was (and perhaps, indeed, in the West it never was). The Bildungsroman is not a family novel but a flight from the family; the picaresque novel turns on a hero who never had a family; and as for the novel of adultery, its relation to the family speaks for itself.

Someone, I think it was Jeffrey Eugenides, has claimed that the family novel today is only possible in the non-West, and I think there is a profound insight here. We may think of Mahfouz, for example, but I would argue that it is one of the greatest of all novels, the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, one should have in mind. After all, it is from China that we have the slogan that epitomises the ideal of the family as the fundamental structure of life itself: five generations under one roof! The great manor or compound thereby includes everyone from the eighty-year-old patriarch to the newborn baby, including the intermediate generations of parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents, at the appropriate twenty-year generational intervals: patriarchy in its ideal or even Platonic form, you might say (overlooking the often malign role of the various matriarchs and uncles in the process). Folk wisdom through the ages has – along with many philosophers, beginning with Aristotle – assimilated the state itself to this patriarchal or dynastic family, and it is this deep ideological archetype that One Hundred Years of Solitude brings to the surface and makes visible. The extended family founded by José Arcadio Buendía is the ‘mythic’ state, which will only later, in its days of prosperity, be infiltrated by personnel of the professional or official state, in the person of a ‘magistrate’ and his police, who are at once assigned a minor and inconspicuous position, along with the other hangers-on of any city-state, such as merchants and booksellers. And just as an extended family has its own service personnel – gardeners, electricians, pool maintenance specialists, carpenters and shamans – so also these appear and disappear punctually in the entourage of the Buendía family, of which they may be considered honorary members.

The family considered as its own city-state has, as the anthropologists teach us, one fundamental problem: it is endogamy, the centripetal tendency to absorb everything external into itself, risking the danger of inbreeding (the intermarriage of cousins and even incest), and all the consequences of triumphant identity, including repetition, boredom and that fateful genetic mutation, the family pigtail. What is not the family, to be sure, is the other and the enemy. Still, the law of endogamy does have its own way of thinking inoffensive otherness; it has its own thought categories for acknowledging difference and relegating it to a subordinate and intermittent, indeed cyclical and harmlessly festive category. It calls such incursions from the outside gypsies. These bring, as the opening pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude so memorably show us, radical difference, in the form of trinkets and inventions: magnets, telescopes, compasses and, finally, the only true miracle achieved by these swindlers and con-artists, the wonder that testifies to their authentically magical power: ‘Many years later,’ the immortal first sentence of the novel reads, ‘as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ Ice! An element with inconceivable properties, a new addition to the atomic chart. The existence of ice in the tropics is ‘memorable’ because it is remembered, as Benjamin might have put it. It marks, in that opening sentence, the dialectical nature of reality itself: ice burns and freezes simultaneously.

So it is the raw material of the ‘family novel’ which will in this opening section be worked over for all its resources and all its possibilities of musical variation, structural permutation, metamorphosis, anecdotal invention, the production of endless episodes which are all in fact the same, structural equivalents in the myth of ‘magic realism’, whose production and reproduction is itself what is then tautologically described as ‘mythic’. Yet the identity of this seemingly irrepressible and irreversible proliferation of familial anecdotes is betrayed by the repetition of names down through the generations – so many Aurelianos (17 of them at one point), so many José Arcadios, even with some Remedios and Amarantas thrown in on the distaff side. Harold Bloom is right to complain of ‘a kind of aesthetic battle fatigue, since every page is crammed full of life beyond the capacity of any single reader to absorb’.

I would add to this an embarrassment the literary commentator is loath to confess, namely the difficulty of keeping the characters’ names separate from one another. This problem is rather different from students’ complaints about impossible Russian patronymics and matronymics (and now Chinese or non-Western ones), and worthier of attention in its own right as a symptom of something historically more important: namely, the renewed significance of generations and the generational, in an overpopulated world henceforth doomed to synchrony rather than diachrony. I can remember when, in the development of that now respectable literary genre the detective story, a writer of some originality (Ross Macdonald) began to experiment with multi-generational crimes: you could never remember whether the murderer was the son, the father or the grandfather. So it is with García Márquez, but deliberately, in a spatial world beyond time itself (‘No one has died here yet’; ‘the first person born in Macondo’ and so on). Everything changes in Macondo, the state arrives, and then religion, and finally capitalism itself; the civil war pursues its course like a serpent biting its own tail; the town grows old and desolate, the rain of history begins and ends, the original protagonists begin to die off; and yet the narrative itself, in its rhizomatic strings, never grows extinct, its force remaining equal to itself until the fateful turn of its final pages. The dynasty is a family of names, and those names belong to the inexhaustible narrative impulse, and not to time or history.

So, as Vargas Llosa has observed, there lies behind the repetitive synchronicity of García Márquez’s family structure a whole diachronous progression of the history of society itself, against whose shadowy, inexorable temporality we follow the structural permutations of an ever changing yet static family structure, whose generations ring the changes on its permanency, and whose variations reflect History only as symptoms, not as allegorical markers. It is this dual structure which permits a unique and unrepeatable solution to the form-problem of the historical novel and the family novel alike.

But the family narrative has one last trick up its sleeve, a final desperate move at its moment of saturation and exhaustion: the absolute structural inversion or negation of itself. For what defined the autonomy of Macondo and allowed its luxurious exfoliation of endogamies was its monadic isolation. Yet as in the ancient cosmologies of atomism, the very concept of the atom produces a multiplicity of other atoms, identical to itself; the notion of the One generates many Ones; the force of attraction that pulls everything external into the internal, that absorbs all difference into identity, now subverts and negates itself, and the repulsion into which attraction suddenly turns acquires a new name: war.

With war, One Hundred Years of Solitude acquires its second narrative paradigm, only apparently a mirror-image of the first, whose secondary, eccentric filial protagonist now suddenly becomes the hero. The war novel, to be sure, is itself a peculiar and problematic kind of narrative: if you like, it is one manifestation of a deeper structural necessity of all narrative, namely what the screenwriters’ handbooks recommend as conflict, and what narrative theorists such as Lukács (and Hegel) see as the essence of the pre-eminence of tragedy as a form.

The Latin American version of the war novel, however, is a little more complicated than it looks. Colombia’s institutionalised civil war, the Austrian-style alternation of its two parties, is at first memorialised in Aureliano’s identification with the Liberals, but is then transformed by his repudiation of both parties in the adoption of guerrilla warfare and generalised social ‘banditry’. Meanwhile, in the country of Bolívar, this atomisation is modified by a truly Bolívarian pan-Americanism (of the type aspired to by both recent Latin American revolutions, the Cuban and the Venezuelan), which is itself but a figure of that ‘world revolution’ onto which the original Soviet revolution had hoped to open. The ambiguity is not only that of South America as a distinct geographical and ethnic ‘autonomous zone’ in a world history of which it nonetheless wishes to be a central part; but also of the imbrication of these various autonomies – from village to nation-state to region – between which the representation freely moves. We remember that the mythic founder, José Arcadio, set out from the Old World ‘in search of an outlet to the sea’ (discouraged by his discovery of a primal swamp, he settled on the halfway position of Macondo). The space of independence (and solitude) is thus something like the attempt to become an island. The sea here figures that ultimate boundary and end of the world otherwise socially and economically embodied for Latin America by the US. (It is true that the other great regional autonomous zone in which García Márquez’s Cartagena participates is the Caribbean, but it scarcely has the importance in One Hundred Years of Solitude that the regional centrality of the Cuban revolution had in García Márquez’s own life.)

This would be the moment to speak about politics, and of One Hundred Years of Solitude as a political novel, for despite Colombia’s eternal civil war, the enemy is always the US, as Porfirio Díaz’s inexhaustible sigh reminds us: ‘Alas, poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!’ But these gringos, a strange and alien race, whose very approach tenses the muscles and always arouses suspicion, are here personally reduced to the self-effacing Mr Brown then replaced by the faceless banana company, which brings with it capitalism, modernity, union-busting, bloody repression and an inevitable relocation (an uncanny anticipation of the US’s own plague of factory expatriation decades later). It also brings the desolation of eight years of rain: a world of mud, the worst possible dialectical synthesis of flood and drought. But what is truly and artfully political about this sequence isn’t just its mythic symbolism, or even the way in which the combined form-problems of the representation of villains, foreigners and collective actors is skilfully circumnavigated, but rather the redeployment of García Márquez’s supreme theme, which is not memory but forgetting. The plague of insomnia (and its resultant amnesia) has long since been surmounted; but a specific – one wants to say, a surgical – amnesia is here revived: no one but José Arcadio Segundo can remember the massacre of the workers. It has successfully, magically and yet naturally been eradicated from the collective memory in that archetypal repression which allows all of us to survive history’s immemorial nightmares, to live on happily despite ‘the slaughterhouse of history’ (Hegel). This is the realism – yes, even the political realism – of magic realism.

There is, however, something peculiarly sterile and skeletal in this context about the war paradigm as such: warfare cannot provide the anecdotal richness of the family paradigm, particularly when it is reduced, as in this novel, to the stark reciprocity of enemy sides. What emerges isn’t so much a war novel as a play of executions, beginning with that famous first sentence (‘as he faced the firing squad’), and a set of surprise reversals (Aureliano will not be executed – twice over – but his brother José Arcadio will be, along with various alter egos). Here, at this temporal rather than geographical ‘end of the world’, what the execution promises is a momentary halt in that breathless continuity of filled time and perpetual narrativity which Bloom deplored, thereby making room for a new kind of event altogether: namely, memory (‘Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember’). The representation of memory as an event transforms this temporality altogether: utterly unlike the familiar Proustian version, it comes as a thunderbolt in its own right. Nostalgia is anecdotal; memory here is no resurrection of the past, in this filled space of unremitting sentences, of something like a Churrigueresque narrativity. There can be no past in that traditional sense, nor any real present either (what there is, as readers of the novel already know, is a manuscript, to which we will come in a moment).

But the structural reversals that make up the eventfulness of the novel do draw their most intense off/on energies from the war material, and this very precisely in the characterology of Aureliano (who for this reason most often seems to be the novel’s protagonist, even though it has no protagonist except for the family itself and the space of the named collectivity). García Márquez is behaviourist in the sense that the characters have no psychologies, depth or otherwise; without being allegorical, exactly, they are all obsessives, possessed and defined by their own specific, all-encompassing passions. Secondary characters are marked by mere functions (plot or professional); but when the protagonists withdraw from their obsessions, it is into the néant of closed rooms and shuttered houses, as with Rebeca, who persists forgotten into her old age in a kind of narrative sequestration, where the distraction of the novelist (or better still the impersonal chronicler) is rigorously the same as the forgetfulness of society (and of the family) as such; without their anecdotal captivations, they do not simply become normal, they disappear.

Or else their passions suddenly mutate into new missions, new demonic possessions: this is what is paradigmatic about Aureliano, who moves from the fascination of ice in childhood, through the alchemy of his year-long handicraft (in his father’s laboratory) of little golden fish-trinkets, to the political vocation of war and rebellion, which seizes him as soon as Macondo threatens to be absorbed into the institutional reification of a state, and falls away again like a deconversion and a fit of dejection at the end of the age of revolutions, at which moment he reverts to his handicraft and his closed quarters: in Macondo only ceaseless activity sustains life.

In Macondo only the specific and the singular exist: the great abstract schemas of dynasty and war can only preside over minute and empirically identified activities. lt is clearly in some unique, not to say impossible co-ordination of these narrative levels that the specificity of García Márquez’s narrative solution lies: not in the unification of episodic poetic inventions within the continuity of a single bizarre character’s life (as in the parallel generic line of the mega-novels of Grass and Rushdie), but rather in a unique structural constellation, perhaps the last thing to call which is ‘magical realism’. Indeed, let’s stop using this generic term for everything unconventional and consign it to the bin in which we keep such worn-out epithets as ‘surrealistic’ and ‘Kafkaesque’. Alejo Carpentier’s original version is that the real itself is a marvel (the ‘real maravilloso’), and that Latin America is in its paradigmatic unevenness – in which computers co-exist with the most archaic forms of peasant culture and on up, through all the stages of the historical modes of production – itself a wonder to behold. But this can only be observed and told absolutely deadpan, and with the unsurprising undeniability of a simple empirical fact. García Márquez’s ‘method’, he tells us, must be ‘to tell the story … in an imperturbable tone, with infallible serenity, even if the whole world resists, without for one instant calling into doubt what you are saying and avoiding the frivolous and the truculent alike … [this is] what the old ones knew, that in literature there is nothing more convincing than your own conviction.’ So nothing remarkable, nothing miraculous, about the fact that Mauricio Babilonia, a man who is all love, pure love, should constantly be surrounded by a swarm of yellow butterflies (‘accompanied by a stupendous odour of grease’); nothing tragic about the fact that he should be shot like a dog by someone whose plans he hampers; nothing magical about the fact that a priest disturbed by the utter absence of God or religion in Macondo should seek to call its citizens to decency and piety by levitating a foot above the ground (after fortifying himself with a cup of hot chocolate); or that Remedios the Beauty should rise into heaven like a windy tangle of backyard sheets. No magic, no metaphor: just a bit of grit caught in transcendence, a materialist sublime, drying the wash or changing the oil caught in an angelic perspective, celestial grime, the Platonic Idea of Socrates’ dirty toenails. The storyteller must relate these things with all the ontological coolness of Hegel confronting the Alps: ‘Es ist so’ (and even then, without the philosopher’s ontological emphasis).

Not ‘magic’, then, but something else must be evoked to account for the undeniable singularity of García Márquez’s narrative invention and the form that allows it to come into being. I think it is his uncanny, rapt concentration on his immediate narrative object, which isn’t without resemblance to Aureliano’s awakening to the world ‘with his eyes open’:

As they were cutting the umbilical cord, he moved his head from side to side, taking in the things in the room and examining the faces of the people with a fearless curiosity. Then, indifferent to those who came close to look at him, he kept his attention concentrated on the palm roof, which looked as if it were about to collapse under the tremendous pressure of the rain.

Later on, ‘adolescence … had restored the intense expression that he had had in his eyes when he was born. He concentrated so much on his experiments in silverwork that he scarcely left the laboratory to eat.’ It is interesting, but not particularly relevant for our purposes, that like his own sequestered characters García Márquez himself never once left his house during the writing of One Hundred Years of Solitude; what is essential for grasping the peculiarities of the novel is this notion of concentration itself which, far more than vague ideas of the magical or the ‘maravilloso’, give us the key to its episodic narrative.

We might draw back and sketch a long development between Aristotelian logic and Freudian free association, passing through the 18th-century psychology of associationism and culminating in Surrealism, on the one hand, and Jakobsonian structuralism (metaphor/metonymy), on the other. In all these frameworks, what matters is temporal succession and the movement from one topic to another, as when Aureliano’s nascent vision moves from object to object, or as the emplacement of the objects of this or that ‘memory theatre’ remind the speaker of the order of his remarks. I want to suggest that far from the baroque disorder and excess of that ‘magic realism’ with which he is so often taxed, the movement of García Márquez’s paragraphs and the unfolding contents of his chapters are to be ascribed to a rigorous narrative logic, characterised precisely in terms of a peculiar ‘concentration’, which begins with the positing of a specific topic or object.

From a relatively arbitrary starting point – the gypsies and their peculiar mechanical toys or playthings, the wife’s family, the construction of a new house (to mention just the openings of the first three chapters) – an association of events, characters, objects, is followed with all the rigour of Freudian free association, which isn’t free at all but in practice demands the utmost discipline. That discipline demands exclusion rather than the epic inclusion so often ascribed to García Márquez’s narrative. What does not arise in the specific line of associated topics must rigorously be omitted; and the narrative line must lead us wherever it goes (from the curse of the pigtail to the slander of Prudencio Aguilar, his killing, the haunting by his ghost, and as a consequence the attempted abandonment of the haunted house, the exploration of the region, the founding of Macondo, its peopling by their children, the organ which is far from being a pigtail etc). Each of these follows rigorously on its predecessor, whatever shape the series takes under its own momentum, but it is not the form of the narrative sequence but rather the quality of its transitions as they emerge from García Márquez’s rapt concentration on the logic of his material, as well as the sequence of topics that emerge from that undistracted stare, from which neither abstraction nor convention can move him. This is a narrative logic which is somehow beyond subject and object alike: it does not emerge from the unconscious of some ‘omniscient narrator’; nor does it follow the habitual logic of daily life. It would be tempting to say that it is embedded in the raw material of that Latin America Carpentier characterised as ‘maravilloso’ (owing, I believe, to the co-existence of so many layers of history, so many discontinuous modes of production). Anyway it isn’t really appropriate to credit some exceptional storytelling genius to a fictive entity called García Márquez’s ‘imagination’. Rather, it is an equally indescribable or unformulatable intensity of concentration which produces the successive materials of each chapter, which then, in their accumulation, result in the appearance of unforeseeable loops and repetitions, ‘themes’ (to name another literary-critical fiction), finally exhausting their momentum and beginning to reproduce themselves in static numerical patterns.

This concentration, however, is the quality we consume in our unique reading, and which has no real equivalent in The Tin Drum, say, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or Midnight’s Children, even though their momentum is analogous, as are the associations from which their episodes are constructed. We have no ready-made literary-technical terms with which to approach the strange mode of active contemplation that lies at the heart of this compositional process (and of reading too). It would be philosophical and pedantic to hearken back to the notorious Fichtean formula – ‘the identical subject-object’ – which has had its day in fields beyond the aesthetic; but there is a sense in which it remains the most satisfactory characterisation, and incites us to an essentially negative approach to these narrative strings. No, there is no point-of-view here, no implied narrator (or reader either). There is no stream of consciousness, or style indirect libre. There is no initial order, challenged and ultimately restored. No digressions either; the string pursues its own internal logic without distraction and without realism or fantasy. The great images – ghosts who grow old and die, the lover emanating yellow butterflies – are neither symbols nor metaphors, but simply designate the string itself, in its inexorable temporal progression and its stubborn repudiation of any distinction between the subjective and the objective, the inner feeling and the external world. The starting points alone are arbitrary, but they are given in the family itself, less a genre or a subject matter than a network of points, any of which can serve until the associations begin to peter out and are broken off. The dialectic of quantity into quality leaves its mark as the episodes pile up and begin to burden what used to be new references with layers of memory. And indeed, this is what, for want of a better word or concept, García Márquez calls the narrative logic of his strings: ‘memory’, but memory of a strange and unsubjective kind, a memory within the things themselves of their future possibilities, threatened only by that contagious epidemic of insomnia that threatens to wipe out not only the events but the very meaning of the words themselves.

It would be philistinism of the most unreceptive and boring kind to pronounce the word ‘imagination’ here, as though García Márquez were a real person and not (as Kant thought of ‘genius’ itself) simply the vehicle of a physiological anomaly, like his own characters, the bearer of that weird and inexplicable gift we have called concentration, the inability to be distracted by what is not implicit in the narrative sequence in question. Our happy accident as well as readers, if we are able in much the same way to lose ourselves in that precisely situated oblivion in which everything follows logically and nothing is strange or ‘magical’, a hyperconscious yet unreflexive attention in which we are unable to distinguish ourselves from the writer, in which we share in that strange moment of absolute emergence which is neither creation nor imagination: participation rather than contemplation, at least for a time. It is a defining characteristic of the spell of the marvellous that we are unaware of our own bewitchment.


Still, certain features of the work of art in general offer privileged access to what the Frankfurt School used to call their truth-content; among these, temporality has always played a significant role in the more productive analyses of the novel as a form. Just as Le Corbusier described the dwelling as a ‘machine for living’, so the novel has always been a machine for living a certain kind of temporality; and in the multiple differentiations of global or postmodern capitalism, we may expect a far greater variety of these temporal machines than there were in the transitional period we call literary modernism (whose experimental temporalities, paradoxically, seemed initially on the face of it far more varied and incomparable).

The novel is a kind of animal, and just as we speculate about the way in which a dog experiences time, or a tortoise, or a hawk (both in its limits and its possibilities, and granted that we assess these in terms of our own human temporal experiences), so also each distinctive novel lives and breathes a kind of phenomenological time behind which non-temporal structures can sometimes be glimpsed. This is why, for example, I have insisted on grasping what is here called the act of memory as a punctual experience, an event that interrupts the anecdotal yet irreversible flow of narrative sentences and is at once reabsorbed into them as yet another narrative event. Thus, what seems as if it might be the pause and distance of a moment of self-consciousness turns out to be another instance of unreflexive consciousness, that unremitting attention to the world which is itself shaped and tensed by a contradictory ontology in which everything has happened already at the same time that it is happening afresh in a present in which death scarcely exists, although time and ageing do. Repetition has become a popular topic in contemporary theory, but it is important to insist on the varieties of repetition of which this temporal one – past and present all at once – is a unique type.

This particular temporal structure then intersects with another, in which fundamental historical breaks are registered: the founding of Macondo is one such ‘break’, but it is reabsorbed owing to the tendency of mythic events to loop back into themselves. The arrival of the banana company, which registers the traumatic event of US economic colonisation, is assimilated into the continuity of everyday life in Macondo as its agents and actors become part of the secondary personnel of Macondo; and then wiped away altogether by the misery of the years of rain which renders its presence invisible. Here too then, temporality as a form-problem reflects that more general dilemma I have characterised as endogamy, in which the autonomy of the collective and its internal events must somehow find a way of defusing external shocks and assimilating them into its fabric, whether by marriage, warfare or, in this case, by a naturalisation that turns the socio-economic into acts of god or forces of nature. Historical temporality becomes natural history, albeit of a miraculous kind; while its recipients retain the option of withdrawing into the real interior space of crumbling buildings.

Such withdrawals, the long-awaited deaths of the principal protagonists, indeed the very indices of capitalist modernity itself in the imperialist penetration by the banana company of Macondo’s ever more threatened autonomy, and with all this the gradual exhaustion of the dual plots or narrative paradigms (the cyclical repetition of names; the gradual enlargement and effacement of military rivalries into ideological conflict and the dialectic of guerrilla resistance and ‘total war’): all of this betokens increasing impatience with the paradigms whose structural originalities have been exhausted and which, after their two-part development, give way to the interminable repetition of tale-spinning and the piling up of anecdote on fresh anecdote. (Where does the break take place? This is the historian’s unnamed vice, the hidden jouissance of periodisation: a deduction of the beginning of the end times, of ‘when it happened’, or in other words when it all stopped – the opposite of the Freudian primal scene. I would personally select the moment in which ‘Colonel Gerineldo Márquez was the first to perceive the emptiness of the war’, but I leave it to others to identify their own secret ‘break’.)

This kind of memory-event is utterly different from what happens in the great predecessor, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

Once there was – Do you mark how the wisteria, sun-impacted on this wall here, distills and penetrates this room as though (light-unimpeded) by secret and attritive progress from mote to mote of obscurity’s myriad components? That is the substance of remembering – sense, sight, smell: the muscles with which we see and hear and feel – not mind, not thought: there is no such thing as memory: the brain recalls just what the muscles grope for: no more, no less: and its resultant sum is usually incorrect and false and worthy only of the name of dream.

Faulknerian memory is profoundly sensory, in the tradition of Baudelaire – the odour that brings a whole moment of the past back with it. Despite its assignment to a poetic avant-garde, this is the mainstream Western ideological conception of time and the body, where that of García Márquez is on the contrary a reversion to chronicle time, the time of miracles and curiosity, of heightened attention, of the memorable, the exceptional event (Benjamin’s storyteller) – what generally goes down in collective or folk memory, even though here it is the ‘folk memory’ of an individual character. And the other way round: for is not all of Faulkner somehow transmitted via memory as such, so that events, soaked in it, are no longer to be distinguished as present or past, but only conveyed by the interminable murmur of the remembering voice? No such voice in García Márquez: the chronicle records but does not evoke, does not fascinate and immobilise us, rapt, in the web of a personal style; and the absence of style is also in general the mark of the postmodern.

‘The history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions,’ Pilar Ternera says towards the end of the novel, ‘a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.’ We can recognise the onset of this final section by the emergence of sheer quantity as its organising principle, and above all the apotheosis of those dualisms dear to structuralism in general, in which content gives way to pattern and empty formal proliferation; but also, as I have already hinted, by the signs of modernity that begin to show up in the village like so many unwanted strangers who must somehow be accommodated.

The denunciation of imperialism would scarcely be a novelty for Latin American literature: the genre of the ‘great dictator novel’ would be another version (García Márquez himself took it up in his next book, The Autumn of the Patriarch) – the portrait of the political monster who is alone powerful enough to resist the Americans. Here, however, the analysis is more subtle: only the rain can force the banana company out of the country, but the cure leaves its own insuperable desolation behind it – the very epitome of ‘dependency theory’.

The ways in which this penetration of ‘Western modernity’ is registered in temporality itself are more problematic, for it brings with it what we now call ‘daily life’ but what the novel’s title has already identified as ‘miserable solitude’, the absence of the miraculous event, whose boredom must now be filled by mindless rote work: in the case of Amaranta, sewing, whose ‘very concentration gave her the calmness that she needed to accept the idea of frustration. It was then that she understood the vicious circle of Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s little gold fishes.’ But this introduction of ‘understanding’ into the sheer activity of the chronicle is already a contamination, and points towards other kinds of narrative discourse the novel means to avoid. So also the notion of ‘truth’, which appears at the very moment when José Arcadio Segundo finds that the memory of the workers’ massacre has been, in Orwellian manner, effaced from collective memory. Truth then becomes the negative in a quasi-Hegelian sense, not the interminable listing of events of the chronicle, but rather the re-establishment of old events in the place of their distortion or omission. But this is also another kind of discourse, another kind of narrative, from the one we have been reading.

This is the twin face of the exhaustion and onset of readerly boredom to which Harold Bloom gave voice: for here the chronicle mode has fallen into deterioration, and the novel itself has begun to lose its reason for being, threatened by psychology on the one hand and depth analysis on the other. The chronicle mode was itself a kind of archaic utopia, but of a more subtle and effective kind than in those outright indigenista novels of which Vargas Llosa so bitterly complained. The chronicle took us back to an older kind of time and place, an older mode of origin. Now suddenly for the first time we begin to grasp the novel as itself a duality, the existence, alongside García Márquez’s impersonal yet contemporary narrative, of the old parchments in Sanskrit in which Melquíades composed the same history in another, more authentic form. And at this point, One Hundred Years of Solitude paradoxically becomes a trendy text espousing all the ideological furor of 1960s ‘écriture’; for in an unexpected final flourish, a concluding originality arises to match that of the novel’s beginning, and when ‘real life’ finally coincides with the confabulation of the parchments everything ends up in a book, just as Mallarmé had predicted, and the novel swirls away in a gust of dead leaves, just as Macondo is wiped out by the wind.