A burning noonday sun brought out a startling demonstration with the gigantic magnifying glass: they put a pile of hay in the middle of the street and set it on fire by concentrating the sun’s rays. Jose Arcadia Buendia, who had still not been consoled for the failure of his magnets, conceived the idea of using this invention as a weapon of war.” (pg.3) – One Hundred Years of Solitude
“The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by ants.”(pg. 446) – One Hundred Years of Solitude
I must first depart from the proponents and coiners of the word “Magical Realism” in talking about this 1967 work of the Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and bring back the familiar term and one grounded in Philosophy (the mother of all sciences) namely “Metaphysics” (of the ontology-epistemology dualism) to denote that One Hundred Years of Solitude is not so much about “the real becoming magical” but of the permeability of the force of living, or “cybernetics” (from Latin kybernets) into objects, and into people and the existence of a fine line between the dream world of the resolution of spiritual conflicts, of premonitions, of visitations by the dead warning of the Eros-Thanatos predictability of Life, of tragedy and farce in history — of all these and more about metaphysics but less about “magical realism” nowadays used as a branding and marketing strategy in the publishing industry to promote Harry-Potter type of fiction.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is about the nature of reality as it is and as interpreted and presented by the author and his anthropological circumstances. It is about metaphysics of magic, the mundane, and how these two interplayed in the story. This novel, set in a series of chronological time (from pre-Columbian to modern-day of American imperialism) is about the saga of the Buendia family in the town of Macondo, faced with the challenges of life shaped by political-economic and technological intergenerational forces of change. In it contains the study of that dimension of metaphysics. Realism (“physics”) is too harsh but there is always an escape, through Fate nonetheless, through the meta (or “beyond”) of physics called “death, in whatever form –violent as in the end of it through a firing squad or peaceful as the death of Ursula as she “willed herself” to death, or as she had said to promise to go after the deluge.
It is more a metaphysical story of historical-anthropological proportion than of “magical realism.” as often the work of Marquez is ascribed to.
As a major thematic subtext or meta-message, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a story addressing a metaphysical issue: of the consequence of the fascination with technology in all its “irrefexivitiness”, and the consequences of power in all its manifestation of excessiveness, and of problematique of life itself as a location of one’s search for meaning and the meaning of freedom in order to be and to become, as existentatialist-literatis such as Camus or Sartre or Kafka would say, to be “free in the most radical sense that freedom itself is an act of rebellion against life to that one should not have to choose between having a cup of coffee or committing suicide and that ultimately, in the language of existentialism, ‘it’s all just too human to be free’ “.
Here is my question: Is Marquez’s work about the realness of the real? Or about the ascension of Man from the harshness and mundaneness (or even madness) of everyday life destroyed by the forces that turned the fictional Colombian town of Macondo into a banana republic of a military state, aided by as always, in the case of American prop-a-Latin-American-styled-dictator-to-stop-nationalization-of industries style of imperialism?
In the following paragraphs I discuss the element of metaphysics and how the author crafted passages with the intention of bringing the reader to understand how the mundane evolved into the fantastic.
Transitioning from the real to the magical
In the first example of how Gabriel Marcia Marquez introduced the element of the extraordinary or the supernatural, he produced a scene in which a child’s seemingly magical power of predicting an event was to take place, yet the father brushed it off as a natural phenomenon. I read it as way a culture sees things as natural rather than an element of magical realism. Although things do not move by themselves, in the fictitious world of One Hundred Years of Solitude, world-building takes not the form of phantasmagoric happening, or pots and pans turning into UFOs, but rather a hint that something extraordinary happened.
Marquez prepared the reader to accept the idea that metaphysics rather than magic is at play here. It is as natural as the Christian believing that a virgin can give birth to a child, a man can part the Nile River, a dead man can rise from the dead and ascend to heaven, or a man can walk on water, or any other stories termed as “miracles” rather than “magic the elevated itself from the real”. Metaphysics of a belief system rather than magic is at play in the “extraordinary/supernatural” scenes Marquez crafted. These are as natural as how a Caribbean or Latin American paganist-Catholic community not attuned and trained in scientific rationalism, would believe. It is about a weltanschauung, or a worldview wherein anomalies of natural phenomenon happen, their believability contingent upon the scale of devotion and fear or intense love to the Catholic god.
[#1] “Ursula did not remember the intensity of that look again until one day when little Aureliano, at the age of three, went into the kitchen at the moment she was taking a pot of boiling soup from the stove and putting it on the table. The child, perplexed, said from the doorway, ‘It’s going to spill.’ The pot was firmly placed in the center of the table, but as soon as the child made his announcement, it began an unmistakable movement towards the edge, as if impelled by some inner dynamism and it fell and broke on the floor. Ursula, alarmed, told her husband about the episode, but he interpreted it as natural phenomena.” (pg.16)
I read the passage (#2) below as the author’s way of preparing the reader that in a place such as a carnival, or a “fun fair” wherein freaks and the magic are sold to the public, there is a fine line between magic and the real. I do not read it as another element of “magical realism” that would add to the mountains of passages that would brand the genre as “Magical Realism” as if literature needed periodization and clear stylistic demarcations. Instead, I see it as common scene of an exhibition wherein one pays to get amused or even fooled. In this sense, Marquez prepared the reader by creating a situation in which there is no need to explain that something radically out of the ordinary has happened, such as a boy flying across the sky on a magic carpet, or a cat turning into a cat woman and climbing the trees, or any other manifestations of magic, central as invention in today’s writing in the so-called genre of Magical Realism.
As in other passages I read closely and analyzed for this brief essay, Marquez presented a metaphysical problematique and a moment, inviting the reader to ask less the question of what is this magic about, rather by using what technology, is this magician able to maintain the control of power and knowledge and to profit from fooling the powerless. This is essentially a metaphysical question. Not so much of the nature of magical realism.
[#2] “When the gypsies came back, Ursula had turned the whole population of the village against them. But curiosity was greater than fear, for the time the gypsies were about the town making a deafening noise with all manner of musical instruments while a hawker announced the exhibition of the most fabulous discovery of the Naciencenes. So that everyone went to the tent and by paying one cent they saw a youthful Melquiades, recovered, unwrinkled, with new and flashing set of teeth. Those who remembered his gums that has been destroyed by scurvy, his flaccid cheeks, and his withered lips trembled with fear at the final proof of the gypsy’s supernatural power. The fear turned into panic when Melquiades took out his teeth. intact, encased in their gums, and showed to the audience for an instant — a fleeting instant in which he went back into being the same decrepit man of years past — and put them back again and smiled once more with full control of his restored youth.” (pg.8)
A foundational line it is, in fact an ideological thesis of this novel, it reads like a statement signifying magic and how objects can turn into animated beings but I propose that it is a profound metaphysical statement on technological determinism, on technology as a life-force in itself, on the idea that artefacts have life-force governing them. This statement uttered by the mysterious gypsy Melquiades not only frame the novel as a story laced with some instances of “magic’ but sets its tone and theme as how human beings are indeed “surrealistic beings” in which in order to function and to survive as a species governed by “natural selection” in which only the fittest will survive, as Charles Darwin proposed in The Origin of Species. Man had to create “extensions of himself” by first learning about the principles of science and next about techniques and ultimately, through science, technology, and a symbiosis of both, create artifacts or “machines with spirits and souls” in order to not only survive but also to control and dominate each other as Nature.
[#3] “Things have a life of their own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” (pg.2)
In the passage below (#4), Marquez crafted the idea of the supernatural as real, when Ursula a matter-a-factly warned her great-great grandson not to be too comfortable with the wealth created out of “magic.” I see it as a metaphysical situation well-prepared, in which the realm of the real after it has moved into the supernatural, or the “magically real” is further expanded to the real of metaphysics and ethics: of what is good and right to do next?
[#4] “In a few years, without effort, simply by luck, he had accumulated one of the largest fortunes in the swamp thanks to the supernatural proliferation of his animals, His mares would bear triplets, his hands laid twice a day, and his hogs fattened with such speed that no one could explain such disorderly fecundity except through the use of black magic. ‘Save something now,’ Ursula would say something to her wild great grandson. ‘This luck is not going to last all your life.” But Aureliano Segundo paid no attention to her. The more he opened champagne to soak his friends, the more wildly his animals gave birth and the more he was convinced that his lucky star was not a matter of his conduct but an influence of Petra Cotes, his concubine, whose love had the virtue of exasperating nature.
Another example (#5) on how Marquez presented his metaphysical idea on premonitions, specifically on a mother’s intuition which is neither magic nor fantastic, but a mere spiritual/metaphysical construction of reality is in the scene in the bedroom. When two people heard a fetus crying and the father thought that it was a natural phenomenon, and when the towns folks explained the occurrence from a supernatural and religious perspective, and when the mother had a different interpretation, there is no more “magic-in-the-real” or “realism-embraced-by-magic” but a worldview of that needed metaphysical explanation within the realm of cultural logic of that society. Marquez prepared the reader well with this mode of interpretation of cultures, and in this case “Santeria-Voodoo-pagan” type of Catholicism that colors the thinking of the Caribbean and many Latin American societies. Marquez alerted the reader to read it as a religious article of belief: of a prelude to a miracle or perhaps a premonition of larger Evil looming, in this case, a mother’s premonition and her hypothesis of what is to happen to the child conceived “in the womb of Love” is the most valid. The son will grow up facing the firing squad. He is weeping inside the mother, lamenting his fate.
[#5] “One night when she was carrying him in her belly she heard him weeping. It was such as definite lament that Jose’ Arcadio Buendia woke up beside her and was happy with the idea that his son was going to be a ventriloquist. Other people predicted that he would be a prophet. She, on the other hand, shuddered from the certainty that the deep moan was a first indication of the fearful pig tail and she begged God to let the child die in her womb. But the lucidity of her old age allowed her to see, and she said so many times, that the cries of children in their mother’s wombs are not announcements of ventriloquism or a faculty for prophecy but an unmistakable sign of an incapacity for love.” (pg. 267)
Besides the five instances of “strange occurrences” discussed above, other examples abound on how Marquez sensitized the readers to the worldview of metaphysics and its manifestations that could be considered “magical” yet natural, given that the god of the Catholics in the case of what the Macondon society believes in, permit to happen. Some of the salient ones are Remedios the Beauty’s powers of animal magnetism to lure men to madness and to their death (pgs. 251-252), a baby born with a tail of a pig (pg. 443), a fallen and broken military leader who willed himself to death (pg. 287), and the blood of a man trickling and permeating all over town (pg. 144)
Because the novel’s ideological inspiration is that of a struggle between reason and faith, Catholicism and existentialism, and set in a society rooted in the power of the Catholic church in alliance with the junta/military state, Gabriel Garcia Marquez need not prepare the reader extensively to make the strange occurrences in the story seem fantastical or magical, as how the overused term “magical realism” might offer. The worldview and setting of One Hundred Years of Solitude has already taken care of the problematique of believability and plausibility of events such as a child possessing powerful intuition, a gypsy trader turning from old to young, a matriarch of the story knowing when to die, a former army colonel willing himself to death, a beautiful woman with profound powers to attract men to the point of the latter’s fatality and madness, and a baby born with a pig’s tail. These are not elements of magic as I read them, but metaphors requiring the readers to see them through the metaphysical perspective, so that the question of the reality, beingness, and spiritual nature of objects could be addressed not as examples of magical realism but as manifestations of the will of the Divine.
As the quote explained how boundary of the real and the supernatural collapses when the mysterious gypsy Melquiades, revered by Jose Arcadio Buenida, said,
“… (t)hings have a life of their own … (i)ts simply a matter of waking up their souls. (pg.3).
I read this as a classic statement on Marx’s idea of “technological determinism” and that “machines metamorphosize into mad monsters” such as the one created by Dr. Victor Frankenstein in the Romantic Period 1818 novel of the then 20-year old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley entitled Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. (1998). One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. (New York: Perennial Classics.)