Critical Insights: One Hundred Years of Solitude. Salem Press, 2010.
Edited by Ilan Stavans.
The Living Manuscript:
the Reader as a Character in One Hundred Years of Solitude
By Gustavo Arango
One Hundred Years of Solitude could be summarized in many ways. We could either say that it is the story of six generations of the Buendía family, or the history of a tropical town named Macondo. We could even paraphrase some of its critics and call it allegorical, saying that it represents the history of Latin America, or even the adventure of the human race. But if we look closely, there is an almost invisible topic that gives unity to the whole story: the complementary acts of reading and writing. Besides the history of the Buendía family or Macondo or Latin America, One Hundred Years of Solitude is also the story of a multigenerational effort to read and understand Melquiades’ parchments, a text in which the characters’ destiny is foretold and explained. This perspective has been neglected by many readers and critics of Garcia Márquez’s novel, perhaps because—like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter—it is so visible that it remains unnoticed.
Reading and writing are the threads that give unity to the novel. Although most of the characters are connected by lineage, without these threads we would have only a collection of successive stories in which, every now and then, some features are repeated; we could even agree with Jorge Luis Borges in saying that One Hundred Years of Solitude would have been a better novel, “if it just were fifty years shorter” (Garzón ¶10). But reading and writing are not just common threads: like a spider web, they seduce, involve, and conquer their prey, the reader.
In Time and Narrative, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur undertakes the challenge of explaining how we use narrative devices to make sense of our lives. He devotes a section of his study to review a series of critical approaches (e.g. “reception theory” and “reader response theory,” among others) that could be united under a general theory of reading. For Ricoeur there are two main perspectives to consider when addressing the act of reading:
From a purely rhetorical perspective, the reader is, finally, the prey and the victim of the strategy worked out by the implied author, and is so to the very extent this strategy is more deeply concealed. Another theory of reading is required, one that places the emphasis in the reader’s response—the reader’s response to the stratagems of the implied author. (166)
Our challenge here consists of identifying those strategies at work in One Hundred Years of Solitude and explaining the response the text asks from its reader.
Strange things happen when we read the verb “to read,” or when we write any form of the verb “to write.” We feel kind of a mental echo; we experience the closest possible encounter between the words and the things they express. In his essay, “Partial Enchantments of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges points to the fact that representations of the act of reading, and especially those stories in which characters read their own stories, are invitations to the actual readers to remember their fictional nature.
Why does it disquiet us to know that Don Quixote is a reader of the Quixote, and Hamlet is a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the answer: those inversions suggest that if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious. (46)
Borges does not explore stories in which writing itself is also represented, but he concludes his essay by mentioning Thomas Carlyle’s observation that “universal history is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they too are written” (46). While keeping in mind that the reader is at the center of One Hundred Years of Solitude, we can begin to observe the novel’s many representations of the acts of reading and writing. Readers cannot evade the fact that they are reading a story about characters reading their own story. If we agree with Borges, the readers of One Hundred Years of Solitude have to deal, from the first to the last page, with constant reminders of their fictional condition.
The making of language is a living presence right from the beginning of the story, when the narrator says that “the world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point” (1). We don’t have to wait long to begin to see writing represented. During their second visit to the town, the gypsies bring a magnifying glass “the size of a drum”(2), and the unbridled imagination of Jose Arcadio Buendía makes him obsessed with the invention, to the point of writing a manual “of startling instructional clarity and irresistible power of conviction” (3). Already we can see the novel’s insistence on reflecting on itself, since an “irresistible power of conviction” is one of its most visible traits. The entire novel is a reflection on the meaning and destiny of writing. In this sense, it is attuned to central themes in the art of the twentieth century. In Sources of the Self, philosopher Charles Taylor says: “it is amazing how much art in the twentieth century has itself for its subject, or is in one level at least thinly disguised allegory about the artist and his work” (481).
Reading and writing are everywhere in One Hundred Years of Solitude. José Arcadio Buendía, taking Úrsula’s advice that he ought give up trying to use the inventions brought to Macondo by the gypsies and pay more attention to his two sons, decides to teach them “to read and write and do sums” (15). In fact, every time someone wants to take care of the children of the Buendía’s house, he or she teaches them to read and write. Aureliano teaches Arcadio to read and write. Even when Úrsula is blind, and more than a hundred years old, she is able “to arouse a great love in little Amaranta Úrsula, who was just like her, and whom she taught how to read” (283). Failing to teach the children well also has its consequences: Arcadios’s cruelty is explained in part by the fact that Aureliano “had taught him to read and write, thinking about other things, as he would have done with a stranger” (111). One of the facts that separate Remedios from the rest of the family is that “she reached twenty without knowing how to read or write” (196).
Reading figures large in Aureliano Segundo’s story, too. During the long period of rain, he remembers the remote time of his childhood he devoted to reading. He had read the same book that three generations of his family had read before, “a crumbling book” with fantastic legends, whose title is never mentioned, but which we can infer was The Arabian Nights. He also had tried to decipher Melquiades’ parchments, but had soon given up. It is then, while remembering the fantastic stories of his early readings, that he discovers the existence of little Aureliano, his grandson, whom Fernanda had been keeping locked in Melquides’room. This sudden transition, from fantastic stories to reality, occurs many times during the novel, and prefigures the moment when Aureliano discovers in reality, when the ants are taking away his son, the key to decipher Melquiades’ parchments.
When he discovers Meme’s child, Aureliano Segundo decides to take care of him and his youngest daughter Amaranta Úrsula. He takes the English encyclopedia he had bought for Meme, and, since he does not know any English, he uses the pictures to invent stories. After spending some time with Petra Cotes, his concubine, Aureliano Segundo goes back to the children
and once more they got together in Meme’s room, where Aureliano Segundo’s imagination changed a dirigible into a flying elephant who was looking for a place to sleep among the clouds. On one occasion he came across a man on horseback who in spite of his strange outfit had a familiar look, and after examining him closely he came to the conclusion that it was a picture of Colonel Aureliano Buendia. He showed it to Fernanda and she also admitted the resemblance of the horseman not only to the colonel but to everyone else in the family, although he was actually a Tartar warrior. (322)
Once again, we are reading about the act of reading. In this case the meaning of the words is not available, because the encyclopedia is written in a language Aureliano Segundo doesn’t know, but imagination compensates for the lack of understanding. As simple as this scene might look among the much more bizarre images the novel offers, this old man with a book in his hands, inventing stories for his daughter and grandson while outside an eternal rain pours, prefigures the climatic finale of the novel, in which Aureliano Babilonia finds himself reflected in the parchments. The fact that the characters find themselves in a book they are “reading”, although, in this case, we are in the presence of a misreading, replicates the scene in which Don Quixote reads a book about himself. Once again, as in all the other situations in which the characters are reading, the readers of One Hundred Years of Solitude are reminded, in a concealed way, of their own fictional condition. The scene is also a reminder of the fact that the entire book is the story of the deciphering of Melquiades’ parchments, an enigma that keeps readers engaged until the last page.
It is an ironic twist in the novel that Melquiades’ parchments are deciphered by a character who taught himself to read. Little Aureliano never went to school because Fernanda did not let him leave the house, “where he spent his solitary hours looking through the pictures in the encyclopedia” (340). When he reaches adolescence, Aureliano does not know anything about his own time but has “the basic knowledge of a medieval man. Any time that Santa Sofía de la Piedad would go into his room she would find him absorbed in his reading” (355).
We can find many more representations of the act of reading throughout the entire novel. The first contact between Meme and Mauricio Babilonia, the parents of the character who finally deciphers Melquiades’ manuscripts, begins with a Chinese toy that Mauricio Babilonia gives to Meme, in front of her mother, saying that it was a present from Patricia Brown. “The toy was made of concentric boxes, and in the last one there was a card laboriously inscribed by someone who could barely write: We’ll get together Saturday at the movies” (288). In a physical way, the toy with its concealed message represents the search for the deep meaning inside a text.
Even at the center of the most violent episode of the novel, the massacre of the workers of the banana plantations, reading is a central fact:
many years later that child would still tell, to the disbelief of all, that he had seen the lieutenant reading Decree No. 4 of the civil and military leader of the province through an old phonograph horn (…), and in three articles of eighty words he declared the strikers to be a “bunch of hoodlums” and he authorized the army to shoot and kill. (309)
After the massacre, normality is restored by another document: “the night before he had read an extraordinary proclamation to the nation which said that the workers had left the station and had returned home in peaceful groups” (309).
Reading has also magical effects. When she is about to be sent to Brussels, Amaranta Úrsula receives “a notebook written by father Ángel in his own hand containing six prayers to be used against storms”(352). During her graduation ceremonies, Meme Buendía “had the impression that the parchment with Gothic letters and illuminated capitals was freeing her from a compromise that she had accepted not so much out of obedience as out of convenience” (270). In addition to the fact that the parchment have magical effects and liberating ones, the repetition of the word parchment acts as a discreet reminder of the fact that the story will not reach its end until Melquiades’ parchments are deciphered.
We can find many avid readers in the story. Aureliano reads “from the first page to the last of the six volumes of the encyclopedia as if it were a novel” (373). The wise Catalonian, proprietor of the bookstore where Aureliano finds the books he needs to decipher the parchments, “revealed the gentleness of a man who had read all the books” (366). But the most interesting reader of the novel is not a reader of parchments or books, but cards. Pilar Ternera is a subtle but constant presence from the first to the last chapter of the book, and an invisible hub of the Buendía family. She is the mother of Arcadio, the ancestor of the last three generations of the family. Her cards help the members of the family face uncertainties and deal with the pains of love. During the insomnia plague, she helps the inhabitants of Macondo, “when she conceived the trick of reading the past in cards as she had read the future before” (47). A misreading of hers provokes Aureliano José’s death. Her character represents a more vivid way of reading: the interpretation of reality, the deciphering of people’s destiny. It is not a coincidence that the last chapter of the book begins with Pilar Ternera’s death.
But in One Hundred Years of Solitude writing is even more important than reading. The number of ways in which many of the character devote themselves to writing is almost overwhelming. For instance, almost all of them write letters. Colonel Aureliano Buendía and José Raquel Moncada exchange letters in which they discuss ways “to humanize the war” (155). After José Arcadio’s mysterious death, Rebeca spends the rest of her life writing letters to the bishop, and apparently she never receives an answer. We can even find letters to the dead. At the moment of her death, Amaranta “conceived the idea that she could make up for a life of meanness with one last favor to the world, and she thought that no one was in a better position to take letters to the dead” (280). Even the author of the novel includes himself as a character who writes letters. On one occasion, when visiting a brothel, the Golden Child, with his friends, Gabriel goes to the room of a “pensive mulatto girl who did not collect in money but in letters to a smuggler boyfriend who was in prison on the other side of the Orinoco…” (395).
Foto Camilo Rincón
Fernanda writes letters all the time, first to her parents, then to the invisible physicians (her failure to call things by their name causes her surgery to fail and ends the correspondence), and to her son, José Arcadio, and her daughter, Amaranta Úrsula. At one point, the exchange of letters between Fernanda and her son is described as “an exchange of fantasies” (367). After Santa Sofía de la Piedad leaves the house, Fernanda’s difficulties in dealing with reality are expressed through the troubles she had trying to write.
That wandering about of things was even more exasperating when she sat down to write. The inkwell that she had placed at her right would be on the left, the blotter would be lost and she would find it two days later under her pillow, and the pages written to José Arcadio would get mixed up with those written to Amaranta Úrsula, and she always had the feeling of mortification that she had put the letters in opposite envelopes, as in fact happened several times. On one occasion she lost her fountain pen. Two weeks later the mailman, who had found it in his bag, returned it. He had been going from house to house looking for its owner. (360)
At this moment, when Fernanda faces all kind of difficulties in writing, we find the act and the elements of writing represented in the most visible and detailed form. Following Borges’ idea that representations of the act of reading are reminders of the fictitious condition of the reader, we can understand these representations of the act of writing as reminders of the author’s existence. However, this understanding can be expanded if we consider again Carlyle’s idea, quoted by Borges, that “universal history is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they too are written” (46). When we come across representations of the act of writing, we are reminded of the fact that we too are makers of meaning, that we are authors in that “infinite sacred book.” This fact has moral implications that we will explore at the end of this essay, but, for now, we still need to further explore how the act of writing is represented in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
In addition to Fernanda, there are other prolific writers in the novel. The wise Catalonian passes “half his life in the back of the store, scribbling in his extra-careful hand in purple ink and on pages that he tore out of school notebooks, and no one was sure exactly what he was writing” (400). The warrior figure of Colonel Aureliano Buendía makes us forget the fact that he also was a writer. He wrote poems to his child-wife Rebeca, and keeps writing during the war until he has accumulated five volumes of poetry. We can even find descriptions of some of his poems, like the one about the man who got lost in the rain. The burning of these poems is a decisive moment in the life of this character. Right before facing the firing squad, he gives the poems to Úrsula and asked her to burn them. But Ursula does not do it. “‘I didn’t want to be hasty,’ Úrsula explained to him. ‘That night when I went to light the oven I said to myself that it would be better to wait until they brought the body’” (135 ). Years later, when the colonel finally returns from the war and decides to stay home until his death, he asks Santa Sofía de la Piedad to light the oven with the poems, but she refuses.
“They are important papers,” she said.
“Nothing of the sort,” the colonel said. “They are things that a person writes to himself.”
“In that case,” she said, “you burn them, colonel.”
He not only did that, but he broke up the trunk with a hatchet and threw the pieces into the fire. (174)
Colonel Buendía’s poems and Melquiades’ parchments are the most important pieces of writing present in the novel. If we insist on seeing One Hundred Years of Solitude as the story of an effort, by the Buendía lineage, to decipher and understand a text that prophesizes their destiny, Melquíades is revealed to be a character even more important than he initially appears. Colonel Buendía gradually disappears after his death, but Melquiades is, along with Pilar Ternera, the only character in the story that is present from the first to the last chapter. He is the prophet of a doomed town. Every now and then, his ghost talks to the members of the family who show interest in deciphering the parchments. He is the author of the most important piece of writing in a novel in which everyone seems to be writing. At one point we even come across the revelation that the title of the book we are reading doesn’t refer to the age of any of the characters, not even to the time of the events narrated, but to the deciphering of the parchments.
Melquiades revealed to him that his opportunities to return to the room were very limited. But he would go in peace to the meadows of the ultimate death because Aureliano would have time to learn Sanskrit during the years remaining until the parchment become one hundred years old, when they could be deciphered. (356)
The solitude of the title is not only an attribute of many members of the Buendía family, but also a distance between the moment of writing and the moment in which a prepared reader would release the locked meaning of the text and finally achieve understanding.
Writing can also be found outside of paper or parchments. We can find writing on human bodies, like José Arcadio’s tattoos or the crosses on the foreheads of the seventeen Aurelianos. And in the same way that Pilar Ternera’s cards or Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s premonitions remind us that reality is also a living book, we can also find in the story many living forms of writing. Some of the characters in the novel act themselves as living manuscripts, as in the case of José Arcadio Segundo, who repeats incessantly the real facts of the massacre he witnessed. Even at the moment of his death, before falling dead over Melquiades’ parchments, José Arcadio keeps repeating his own version of history, in spite of the fact that “everything had been set forth in judicial documents and in primary school textbooks: that the banana company never existed” (390). Úrsula acts also as a living manuscript, preserving many memories of the family and worshiping the memory of Remedios; she dies reminding her family “never to let a Buendía marry a person of the same blood because their children would born with the tail of pig” (342). In some sense they are all acting as the memory machine that the first José Arcadio would have liked to invent so that he could remember all the extraordinary inventions the gypsies brought to Macondo.
Even when he finally succeeds in deciphering the parchments, Aureliano Babilonia fails to recognize or to be interested in the life of his ancestors. Placed at the edge of time, he rushes to read the facts concerning his own life, and he jumps to the pages in which his own present is prophesied at the very same moment in which the prophecy is being fulfilled.
Macondo was already a fearful whirlwind of dust and rubble being spun about by the wrath of the biblical hurricane when Aureliano skipped eleven pages so as not to lose time with facts he knew only too well, and he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering as he was living it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last pages of the parchment, as if he were looking in a speaking mirror. (416)
At the final climax, the written word is referred to as a mirror, and there is no escape for the prey that the novel has been trapping page after page. There is only one character in the novel able to remember all the other characters and episodes: the reader. When the story says that this or that fact has been forgotten, the good reader, the active one, the one this book is asking for, makes the effort to remember. This quiet character has witnessed the whole story and has seen names and incidents fall into oblivion. The reader is the owner of the key to all the events in the story because he is able to decipher Melquiades’ parchments in a way that’s not even possible for Aureliano Babilonia.
When Aureliano Babilonia fails to find in the archive of the parish the truth about his origin, the priest tells him that, long ago, there was a street named “Aureliano Buendía” and that it might have been the inspiration for his name. But the reader knows that Aureliano Buendía was something more than the name of a street, that in fact there was “a real” colonel named Aureliano Buendía, who “organized thirty-two armed uprisings and he lost them all” (103). The reader is the only character who still believes that the massacre occurred, or that has knowledge of the risks for the Buendía family if they marry someone of their same blood. At the end of this novel, we are all living manuscripts forced to bear witness to the Buendía family’s story and to ask ourselves many questions about our own personal stories.
The question we have to ask ourselves is: why is the reader so important in this book? If we go back to the theory of reading sketched by Paul Ricoeur, we can easily conclude that, at the aesthetic level, the author is inclined to defend a work of art that is meaningful to others, even if its message takes one hundred years to reach its intended recipients. This is made clear by the fact that Colonel Aureliano Buendía fades into oblivion, like his poems written “to himself,” while Melquiades’ legacy is alive and present throughout the entire novel. The parchments survive all kind of perils: water, moths, mischievous attempts to destroy them. When the four children who killed José Arcadio try to destroy the parchments “an angelic force lifted them from the ground and held them suspended in the air until Aureliano returned and took the parchments away from them” (370).
But we still have to deal with the reader’s response to a work of art that has constantly placed him or her at the center of its narrative. Again we may find the key to decipher this enigma in Borges’ idea that reading about people reading their own lives, precisely what Aureliano Babilonia is doing at the end of the novel, reminds us that we ourselves are, in some sense, fictional characters. Part of our stories are written from outside, by destiny, society, family—the author has many faces—but at the same time we have an active role in the writing of our own stories. We are also writers: we act, we make choices. Right at the center of the book, then, is an ethical reflection. As Paul Ricoeur expressed it:
The moment when literature attains its highest degree of efficacy is perhaps the moment when it places its readers in the position of finding a solution for which they themselves must find the appropriate questions, those that constitute the aesthetic and moral problem posed by the work. (173)
It has been noted that readers from different cultural backgrounds can relate themselves to the story of the Buendía family. The novel seems to jump over cultural differences to become universally appealing. While reading One Hundred years of Solitude, it is almost impossible for the readers not to think about their own personal stories, about their ancestors, even about those whose names and memories are already lost.
For Paul Ricoeur, by using narrative, by telling personal and collective stories, we make sense of our lives. In Time and Narrative he mentions three different kinds of time. At the poles are “personal time” and “cosmic time,” and in the center is the intermediate category, “historical time,” which we have created in order to not be crushed by the vastness of cosmic time. For him, “the reaffirmation of historical consciousness requires the search, by individuals and by the communities to which they belong, for their respective narrative identities” (274).
One Hundred Years of Solitude invites us to see ourselves at the threshold between personal and historical time. The amount of time the title refers to is a limit very few people reach. It is an important fact that the characters in the novel who live the longest, Pilar Ternera and Úrsula, are the ones who act as readers of reality and living manuscripts. The whole book is, in a certain way, a personalization of the historical time. But the process doesn’t end here. At the final moment, when reading and living are the same activity, we are faced with an even bigger dimension, cosmic time, as we discover the vastness of the present, which is in a constant process of creation and destruction. By discovering the present, we see in the mirror of the pages our condition as creatures immersed in a universe that never stops; we can see ourselves as a blink in eternity. We are invited to inhabit a past whose annihilation has not taken place because it is “still in a process of annihilation, consuming itself from within, ending at every moment but never ending its ending” (404).
Closing the book we can feel all the past, all the stories, all the life and the characters living simultaneously within the present moment. We can feel ourselves as a part of a magical book in which we are characters and in which we have also the privilege, and the responsibility, of writing the story.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.
García Márquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. New York: Harper Perennial-Modern Classics, 2006.
Garzón, Ismael. “Alifano y el humor de Borges”. La Autentica Defensa. 30 June 2009. 20 July 2009 < http://www.laautenticadefensa.com.ar/noticias.php?file=print&sid=65093>.
Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Vol. 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989.