Remembering to Forget: Teaching Cien Años de Soledad

by zunguzungu

As my class turns the corner into the second half of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I realized I haven’t blogged a thing about it. I meant to, honest I did! Because it’s a magnificent novel; you should really just forget all that bullshit about magical realism and Oprah’s Book Club and Bolano’s bitchy little “a man terribly pleased to have hobnobbed with so many Presidents and Archbishops” because none of it matters. It’s a very long novel, and so much longer than its 422 pages because every word in it will arrest you if you let it, a novel whose every forgotten detail – I’m coming to have faith – turns out to be a thread leading somewhere else, if you find the right way to pull on it.

Every class goes something like this. Having allotted myself far too little time to prepare, I begin by asking a dumb question. “Why did Colonel Aureliano Buendía decided to lead a revolution?” I’ll ask, for example. They’ll remember, in a vague sort of way — “didn’t the soldiers shoot someone?” — and then we’ll look at that passage together. And pretty soon, as we try to tease out what was happening, we’ll discover (conoceremos) all sorts of surprising things about it.

Por Ejemplo. One of the little ironies about the colonel, of course, is that he had always been tight with the local Conservative party boss, his father-in-law, Don Apolinar Moscote, and had found the idea that anyone would be willing to fight and die “over things that could not be touched with the hand” perplexing in the extreme.[1] When his father in law gives him a political lesson (demonizing the liberals and extolling the virtues of the conservatives), he is blasé; at one point, when pressed, he admits that he would be a liberal if he had to choose, but it is clear that he has no real desire to do so.

Everything changes, however, when four soldiers “snatched a woman who had been bitten by a mad dog from her family and killed her with their rifle butts.” From nearly complete political apathy a few lines before (in the midst of a raging political crisis), and in the space of those words, Aureliano Buendía becomes Colonel Aureliano Buendía, the man who organizes thirty-two armed uprisings, survives fourteen attempts on his life, seventy-three ambushes, and the firing squad mentioned in the first lines of the book. From a man to a myth, over the course of one line. “Get the boys ready,” he tells his friend Gerineldo Marquez; “We’re going to war.”

I joked today that Garcia-Marquez can’t write ten words without adding three random extraneous details. But the magical thing about the book is its ordinary-life psychopathology: nothing is random and everything takes you somewhere. So: “snatched a woman who had been bitten by a mad dog from her family and killed her with their rifle butts.” There is, of course, no more context than that: the narrative has told us a lot about the politics of the town, and yet the supremely important detail – why she was beaten to deaeth – is withheld. And yet Buendía’s mythical revolution begins in that moment, that unexplained moment. The entire course of the novel shifts gears for chapters to come because of that detail, that unnamed woman, that unnamed dog, and a biting which is described so detachedly as to be almost completely unavailable.

So, a mad dog. I’m thinking, public health is the implication, right? The threat might be of rabies, of some sort of spreading of disease. There’s a certain horror in the notion that being bitten is a crime punishable by death, but perhaps the fact that she is beaten to death like a dog is the key? That she is killed, the way you would kill a dangerous vermin spreading disease, as a public health initiative taken to a dangerous and grotesque extreme? One cannot spread disease if you are dead, and of course the death squads that progressively enter the story of Macondo are often killing people to save them.

But I bet that public is the right idea. The second time we return to this incident is well over a hundred pages later, when Colonel Aureliano is an old man and his wars have been neatly folded into the narrative of the town and the country, the ultimate rebel who has been forgotten in his dotage by being mis-remembered as a patriot. He resists being commemorated, of course – a continuation of his attempts to destroy himself once he understood that his revolution had blended into the violence he was fighting – but when Buendía sees a grandfather and grandson brutally hacked to bits by soldiers (after the child spills a soft drink on a soldier), “it meant the limits of atonement.” After the entire town watches the pieces of the child and grandfather get carried back to their home – after the public atrocity is made real – he decides that “One of these days, I’m going to arm my boys so we can get rid of these shitty gringos.” He feels “the same indignation he had felt in his youth over the body of the woman who had been beaten to death because she had been bitten by a rabid dog.”

Again, the little details are interesting, but I’m more interested in the publicity of the gesture. As a man more than a myth, Buendía thrives on publicity, so he knows to spring into action – the very figure of popular revolution – when a public atrocity spurs him into action. He will even come out of retirement, out of the expiation he’s been engaged in since he recognized that his revolution had gone wrong – and for those who take Gabo’s apparent friendship with Castro to signifiy something, it’s indisputable that Buendía’s revolution stands as a colossol failure and a waste, a meaningless atrocity in its own right that he spends the rest of his life trying to do penitance for. The detail that I find most affecting is when he removes every personal touch from his laboratory and when he burns his poetry, but when he stops fighting he spends all his energy trying to remove any memory from the earth, only to be prevented (ironically) and be doomed to live out his life being mis-commemorated. He attempts to end himself as a public figure, and he fails.

The second time, however, his enemies help him succeed: almost as soon as he has finished declaring his intention to start a revolution again, unknown gunmen kill the seventeen sons he fathered back when he was a revolutionary. And when we were talking about this in class, it quickly became apparent that the point was that we never know who they are or why; we don’t know who heard him talk about getting rid of shitty gringos, or why he wasn’t killed along with them, we know only that they were killed. In response to the publicity of the mythical revolutionary and the spectacle of violence to which he responds with more spectacle,[2] he is destroyed (exactly as he had tried to destroy himself) by silence and forgetfulness. Each of his seventeen sons – but one, who I won’t discuss here — is hunted down and disappeared. Silence and forgetting defeat remembrance.

And the ultimate grisly symbol of this victory of forgetting over the remembered is when, pages later, the last comrades from the war he had fought are “photographed in a newspaper with their faces shamelessly raised beside an anonymous president of the republic who gave them buttons with his likeness on them.” Faceless power defeats myth by remembering it. One of my students said that she thought something like that was happening now, something like rendition, they call it, she said.

[1] Now, suddenly, it occurs to me that the materialism of that statement might be only one of Gabo’s many winks at the way Colonel Aureliano Buendia dream-works the Cuban revolution onto stage.

[2] Gerineldo Marquez even asks him, in the beginning, “With what weapons?” to which he responds, “With theirs,” a self-prophecy if ever I’ve heard one.