In the beginning, the village Macondo exists on its own; cut off from everything, it is lost in the drowsiness of swamps, so peaceful that none of the people there has had a natural death. A village without a cemetery, Macondo is so fresh that many things lack names. José Arcadio Buendía, the first Buendía we are introduced to, carries the delirium that all the Buendías will carry in different forms. The Gypsy Melquíades hasn’t yet returned, but will in a moment, because he cannot bear the solitude.
Gabriel García Márquez, in his childhood, followed his grandfather around during the daytime but spent his time with his grandmother when daylight receded into the dusk. While his grandfather was a realistic man, his grandmother filled the dark of the nights with tales of magic and marvel. In Bangladesh, we are no stranger to tales of marvel and magic. In fact, such tales are so ingrained in our culture that we grow us listening to stories of fairies and demons, of divine curses and doomed love. So it is no wonder that at no point in the novel I thought it to be too magical to believe, too realistic to digest. Because as far as lived realities in our country are concerned, there is no dearth of the macabre, and we have to swallow our version of the grotesque every day.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Melquíades the Gypsy, in one of his prophecies, says that there will always be a Buendía in Macondo. The Buendías are known by names of their predecessors; they also carry the memory that has been passed on from generation to generation. Among them, while the Aurelianos are withdrawn despite their lucid minds, the José Arcadios are impulsive and enterprising. Along with their names, they share the fates that they cannot outrun.
From the beginning I have found it difficult to feel connected to any particular character: they die and are born again, a Buendía gets replaced by another Buendía, each one born with a fate that is much too familiar. The Buendías trapped in their choices live in times that are not linear. So there is a restlessness that I, like many readers, cannot escape. It is hard to root for them seeing the flaws they do little to mend and the traps they fall into, flowing and spilling over from one generation to the other. So among these thundering clouds of stories, where can a reader find the pulse of the book?
When Melquíades the Gypsy dies and inaugurates the cemetery in Macondo, the cemetery which still doesn’t know how many deaths it awaits, he leaves his writings in a roll of parchment. His ghost later tells a Buendía that the parchment can only be understood after a hundred years. When read by the last Buendía, the parchment reveals a secret about the Buendías, and all this time it sat on the shelf gathering dust guarding the secret while around it deaths and rebirths unrolled like a game of chess. On the parchment where the stories don’t follow the usual progression of time, events overlap each other. The ultimate end comes when the Buendías and the parchment along with the entire village get wiped out by a storm that was brewing for quite some time. And they all get exiled from the memory of men and women.
Not until halfway through the book, it dawns why that restlessness was needed, and what is the point of all the deaths and births of the Buendías. It answers itself, if a reader is keen enough to listen; it answers who the protagonists are in the novel, and where the core of the story lies, and also, how one can relate to the story.
It is solitude, the protagonist. It is time, the protagonist. It is the frailty of life, the unavoidable repetition of it all, and the village that suffers things both magical and horrible is the protagonist.
About Marquez, Isabel Allende, an acclaimed Chilean novelist, said, “He gave us our History back.” Márquez walked along the paths of Latin American history; he watched and remembered, and stood straight up, refusing to be bent down by the crushing weight of so much past.
In Macondo, “The Banana Plague” comes as American investors start banana plantations; along come the men who intend “to correct solitary people,” and the alley is built where dreams are guessed and the future is interpreted. They also move the river from where it has always been.
At the plantations, all the workers are hired on a temporary basis, and are not being paid in real money but in scrip. So when the workers revolt, by a decision of the court it is established that “the workers did not exist.” In the town square, when all the workers gather to protest, fourteen machine guns answer at once. And the official version, repeated a thousand times, states that no one was killed.
Though rooted in real history, Márquez uses the massacre uniquely in his tale. What Colonel Aureliano Buendía says in this connection keeps coming to my mind: “Look at the mess we’ve got ourselves into, just because we invited a gringo to eat some bananas.”
So what can possibly I relate to, living in Bangladesh, in a middle-class Muslim family? I who have recently migrated to the capital of the country from my once sleepy hometown that too is now getting “standardized”?
It is not that the workers here get shot, and I have to watch their mass killing. Colonel Aureliano Buendía says they fought all those wars just so they didn’t have to paint their houses blue, their houses are going to be white like doves, their houses are going to be what they want them to be. Can we paint our houses the way we want to? Be whoever we choose to be? Say what’s in our heart and create magic at our own free will? Do we have Gringos that we invited, and are we now looking at the mess?
In his tribute to Marquez, published in The New York Times, Salman Rushdie said, “I knew Garcia Marquez's colonels and generals, or at least their Indian and Pakistani counterparts; his bishops were my mullahs; his market streets were my bazaars. His world was mine, translated into Spanish.”
In Bangladesh, as in South Asia, Asia, Latin America and Africa, there is this ongoing conflict between the city and the village, and there is similarly the profound gulf between the rich and the poor, and the powerful and the powerless. These are places with powerful colonial histories—with different colonial rulers, but with the same disastrous results.
So when I was walking with the Aurelianos and the Arcadios, when I was on board the yellow train which, with a terrible indifference, transported the dead bodies piled up on top of each other just like bananas, when I sat on the dining table with the matriarch Úrsula Iguarán, when I was ascending into heaven with Remedios the Beauty who is tired of all the fights between men over deciding who gets her, I knew I’ve seen their counterparts. We share things in our world.
It is worth mentioning that Melquiades’s parchment is written in Sanskrit, and that Márquez himself was influenced by the magnificent Arabian Nights. Through this book, we the people of the non-white continents are bound together in a story of multiple stories; we are connected in more ways than we are even aware of.
The book was published the year my mother was born. This apparent insignificant and arbitrary link, I know, I draw to make the book closer to my heart. I carry their memories, of my mother, of my grandmother, of my great-grandmother whom I had had the luck to see before she went away. I know I’ve already lived some of their memories. I know I am in a race to outrun my fate, and theirs too. One cannot keep away from the immense weight of solitude that comes with the race. Macondo, the town idealised by nostalgia, in the end forgotten even by birds, where history turns out to be a hallucinatory vision, is a place I know, and I’ve been in.
We are in a battle to fight the collective amnesia, and my dear Gabo, I’ll carry you, always, along with the hereditary memories that have been entrusted to me. I will also carry the parchment, One Hundred Years of Solitude, that is, and it will never be wiped out or exiled from my memory.
Wherever I go, I’ll always remember: “…the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”
Sumaya Mashrufa writes essays for Arts & Letters.