Of the original expedition to found Macondo we read that:
“In his youth, José Arcadio Buendía and his men, with wives and children, animals and all kinds of domestic implements, had crossed the mountains in search of an outlet to the sea, and after twenty-six months they gave up the expedition and founded Macondo, so they would not have to go back. It was, therefore, a route that did not interest him, for it could lead only to the past.”
Immediately before this line, it is mentioned that the ancient city of Riohacha is on the other side of some impenetrable mountains, “where, in times past — according to what had been told by the first Aureliano Buendía, his grandfather — Sir Francis Drake had gone crocodile hunting with cannons and that he repaired them and stuffed them with straw to bring to Queen Elizabeth.”
There’s a connection between these passages, though it isn‘t immediately clear what that connection will be. But about ten pages later, we’ll learn that “every time 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.”
But why Drake? After all, she’s pissed because José Arcadio Buendía has become an utterly useless husband; in the early days, he “had been a kind of youthful patriarch who would give instructions for planting and advice for the raising of children and animals, and who collaborated with everyone, even in the physical work, for the welfare of the community.” When the town was first founded, after all, leaving the old world behind and moving on to new lands was the same thing as social responsibility.
However, when the gypsies come, Melquíades brings with him all manner of inventions that exercise José Arcadio Buendía’s imagination in a way ambiguously both noble and anti-social, and which make him into a bad patriarch: “that spirit of social initiative disappeared in a short time, pulled away by the fever of the magnets, the astronomical calculations, the dreams of transmutation and the urge to discover the wonders of the world. From a clean and active man, José Arcadio Buendía changed into a man lazy in appearance, careless in his dress, with a wild beard that Úrsula managed to trim with great effort and a kitchen knife.” (That Melquíades is described as “a heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands” on the first page is not coincidence, by the way; not only do his gypsy ideas lead to the “flightiness” of the husbands, but the “taming” of José Arcadio Buendía’s beard is just as much an overdetermined symbol as the caging of birds)
These flights into fantasy are, for José Arcadio Buendía , the equivalent of a Dodge Chargercommercial. But instead of the odious fantasy of beset masculinity we get interpellated into by that dumbass commercial, Garcia Marquez shows us Jose from the perspective of his wife, looking on in horror as, scene after scene, “having completely abandoned his domestic obligations,” he does things like spending “entire nights in the courtyard watching the course of the stars…to establish an exact method to ascertain noon” and so forth, basically being so obsessed with the gypsies and the news they bring of the latest science as to be a complete absence as a father. Until about fifteen pages in, we know he has a family mainly because of his efforts to get away from them, a wife because she is always trying to rein him in, and children because he ignores them. The only room in his house we know specifics of is the one he builds to get away from his children. Like a Dodge, he only wants to charge forward.
Things come to a head, however, when he decides that Macondo is simply too much of a backwater, when he determines that “We’ll never get anywhere…We’re going to rot our lives away here without receiving the benefits of science,” and that the only thing to do is to move to a better place. Macondo is still new, of course, still a town without its first buried citizen and in that sense still temporary. But when he tries to move the town away from even the very brief past they’ve created, Úrsula turns out to be of much sturdier resolve than him. When he declares that “A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground,” she steps up and fires back “If I have to die for the rest of you to stay here, I will die”:
“Jose Arcadio had not thought his wife’s will was so firm. He tried to seduce her with the charm of his fantasy, with the promise of a prodigious world where all one had to do was sprinkle some magic liquid on the ground and the plants would bear fruit whenever a man wished.”
Insensible to his blandishments, Úrsula does not share his desire to throw “magic liquid” on the ground and let fruit grow where it may. And she’s kind of a bad-ass, not only frustrating his masturbatory Dodge Charger fantasy head on, but quietly rallying the town’s women against their husbands so as to foreclose the whole adventure before it even gets started. Faced with defeat of his plans, he has no choice but to listen when she reads him the riot act: “Instead of going around thinking about your crazy inventions, you should be worrying about your sons,” she replied, “Look at the state they’re in, running wild just like donkeys.”
He does. And as he remembers he has children, the novel’s frame widens to include them and we learn their names and histories, the memories he has, in forgetting, deprived us of until this point. Yet while his sudden resignation to his wife’s stand registers through his willingness to allow them to help him unpack all his boxes, into a house now safe from being abandoned, he has the “impression that only at that instant had they begun to exist, conceived by Úrsula Iguarán’s spell.”
José Arcadio Buendía has been beaten, and he takes responsibility of a sort for his home, but his children were not, of course, conceived by Úrsula’s spell; they were conceived in the usual way, by a man and a woman having sex. Which brings us back to Drake. After all, Drake didn’t just hunt crocodiles in Riohacha; the novel’s second chapter opens with this fascinating little story:
“When the Pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked Riohacha in the sixteenth century, Úrsula Iguarán’s great-great grandmother became so frightened with the ringing of alarm bells and the firing of cannons that she lost control of her nerves and sat down on a lighted stove. The burns changed her into a useless wife for the rest of her days. She could only sit on one side, cushioned by pillows, and something strange must have happened to her way of walking, for she never walked again in public. She gave up all kinds of social activity, obsessed with the notion that her body gave off a singed odor. Dawn would find her in the courtyard, for she did not dare fall asleep lest she dream of the English and their ferocious attack dogs as they came through the windows of her bedroom to submit her to shameful tortures with their red-hot irons.”
The euphemisms wind incredibly thick around this passage. The story we’ve gotten of Drake from José Arcadio Buendía from his grandfather is the kind of courteous courtier who would lay his cloak over a mud puddle for the queen, or some such thing, a man out in the wilderness hunting trophies for his lady. But Drake was a rapistic pirate, known as “the Dragon” by the Spanish whose cities he burned and pillaged and famous for having “singed the King’s beard” in Cadiz. And the story — older by two generations — that Úrsula Iguarán gets from her great-great-grandmother is that Drake. After all, what does it mean to have been rendered a “useless wife”? And why did she happen to “sit on a hot stove” when a pirate attacks that she (as I read it) became physically unable to bear children, became too ashamed to show herself in public, and could no longer sleep in her own bedroom because she would have dreams of pirates climbing through her “window” with red hot pokers and making her submit to “shameful tortures”?
“Drake” stands for rape, in other words, a rape that’s either been forgotten in historical memory or a fear of it that is indistinguishable (generations later) from the real thing. And just as both sides of the family seek to forget that shameful past, dream-working it into something very different, the entire flight to found Macondo is the attempt to escape from a similarly shameful secret, the rape from which the entire Buendia clan descends.
After all, Úrsula Iguarán and José Arcadio Buendía are cousins, and she fears that the incestuous product of their marriage will be born with a pig’s tail. So, for a while after the marriage, she refuses to have sex with her husband, going so far as to invent a kind of chastity belt to make sure:
“Fearing that her stout and willful husband would rape her while she slept, Úrsula, before going to bed, would put on a rudimentary kind of drawers that her mother had made out of sailcloth…That was how they lived for several months. During the day he would take care of his fighting cocks and she would do frame embroidery with her mother. At night they would wrestle for several hours in an anguished violence that seemed to be a substitute for the act of love…”
Now, the fact that the same sentence contains both a “cock fight” and the phrase “violence that seemed to be a substitute for the act of love” almost interprets itself. And when Prudencio Aguilar loses a cockfight to José Arcadio Buendía and implies that José Arcadio Buendía ’s cock can do what his cock cannot (“Maybe that rooster of yours can do your wife a favor”), José Arcadio Buendía stabs Prudencio Aguilar in the throat with his spear and then goes home to rape his wife: “Pointing the spear at her, he ordered: “Take them off”…there’ll be no more killing in this town because of you.”
The founding of Rome in Vergil’s Aeneid is described by the verb condere, appearring at both beginning and end (dum conderet urbem (1.5) and ferrum adverso sub pectore condit (12.950). But as Sharon James tells us, “these two acts are so different — the one a slow, constructive struggle to settle down and build a civilization, the other a swift, destructive act of enraged killing — that by placing them in such prominent symmetry and using the same word of them, Vergil calls attention to the relationship between them…In linking the slow founding of Rome to the swift stabbing of Turnus, Vergil suggests that the former rests on the latter. Thus he shows the violence and fury beneath the founding of Rome.” And as James goes on to note, this is a linguistic innovation of Vergil’s: while the idiom “to bury a weapon in an opponent” is common both in English and in Latin after the Aeneid, it was Virgil’s use of the two terms in deadly symmetry in the Aeneid, linking the foundation of Rome with the murderous passion that undoes it, that gives it this connotation.
The founding of Macondo, by contrast, happens when José Arcadio Buendía “buried the spear in the courtyard and, one after the other, he cut the throats of his magnificent fighting cocks,” a very different kind of burying. For while the Aeneid is worried that uncontrolled passion might sow the seeds of Rome’s fall in its founding violence, Cien Años de Soledad, I think, is much more concerned with the legacy of sexualized violence. José Arcadio Buendía moves his family to a new world to get away from the ghost of Prudencio Aguilar, but this produces, in turn, an inability to settle down: seeking to forget his own children (and what they represent) he follows science as an escape, an attempt to escape from the bird-cage of domesticity he would prefer to imagine he’s cooped into, but which is — in fact — a cock-pit.