The book opens with this line:
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
And a family tree on the other side of the page, a foreboding and tangled lineage that I went back to over and over again until I gave up, threw in the towel and realized the specific characters are secondary to the plot.
At once the reader is pulled into another universe of magical realism, where women disappear into the heavens wrapped in bed sheets. I was immediately drawn into this world, where in an attempt to find a new world and leave their past behind them, Jose Arcadio Buendia and his wife Ursula, leave everything they have ever know to travel through virgin territory and finally after having a vision of a city of mirrors that would reflect the world in and about it, they found Macando at the riverside of a wandering jungle.
The narrative constantly shifts from past to present and as more and more generations are introduced all with confusing matrilineage I began to feel like I was reading something better written but slightly less interesting then a genealogy record. Magical realism sometimes makes me uncomfortable, nothing is stable or predictable and like a Murakami novel fish could start raining from the sky at any moment. As a reader this requires a lot of trust, and after 200 pages or so I stopped fighting it and let the world of Macando sweep me into its reality. By the last 50 pages I couldn't put it down and was hoping it would never end. I wanted to crawl into Macando and never leave, walk down its muddy streets and go door to door with Arcadio soliciting raffle tickets for broken hopes and impossible dreams.
The basic summation of the plot is that the same people are born over and over again as the family slowly devolves and what is left of their hopes and dreams lies shriveled and naked and slowly carried away by a procession of ants...
While the family struggles to keep up appearances, generations have passed and the family lacks the grandeur it once possessed.
"Sitting at the head of the table, drinking a chicken broth that landed in her stomach like an elixir of resurrection, Meme then saw Fernanda and Amaranta wrapped in an accusatory halo of reality. She had to make a great effort not to throw at them their prissiness, their poverty of spirit, their delusions of grandeur."
Each family member embarks on their own solitary crusade, whether it is the constant fight to keep the weeds from devouring the house and the ants from tearing down the foundation of their lives, or a hopeless political battle between the liberals and conservatives who no longer remember why they're fighting, or a special smoldering hatred for one and love for another, the characters pick up their crosses and fight their battles alone.
"At times it pained her to have an outpouring of misery follow its course, and at times it would make her so angry that she would prick her fingers with the needles, but what pained her most and enraged her most and made her the most bitter was the fragrant and wormy guava grove of love that was dragging her toward death....
...The world was reduced to the surface of her skin and her inner self was safe from all bitterness. It pained her not to have had that revelation many years before when it had still been possible to purify memories and reconstruct the universe under a new light and evoke without trembling Pietro Crespi's smell of lavender at dusk and rescue Rebeca from her slough of misery, not out of hatred or love but because of the measureless understanding of solitude."
While each generation attempts to conquer their own individual ineffectual demons, they are overwhelmed with the isolation of their crusades and confronted with the futile lack of progress. When the family finally produces a bastard they are ashamed of (vs. all the other children in the family with a less then glamorous pedigree) they lock Aureliano Babilonia in the room filled with cryptic parchments and he spends his life slowly attempting to decipher them only to finally realize they are a prophetic history of every moment his family has ever lived and will live. Their lives have been written from the beginning only to end in a crumbling destruction, abandoned by fate.
"What did you expect?" he murmured. "Time passes."
"That's how it goes," Ursula said, "but not so much."
When she said it she realized that she was giving the same reply that Colonel Aureliano Buendia had given in his death cell, and once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she admitted, but that it was turning in a circle."
The Viconian theory of cyclic history consists of three recurring phases, a primitive phase of society embedded with the Divine or mythic, a phase of political conflict and finally an egalitarian phase where rank and privilege have been dismantled by the previous conflicts. Marquez creates a world where history is repetitive in a similar fashion. The family starts out with little besides the clothes on their backs as they forage through the jungle, intent on making a new life for themselves. As generations pass the family becomes embroiled in the politics not only of Macando but in the regions surrounding them, forcing a peaceful, idyllic town into the demands of modernity and finally when the dust settles, the town no longer remembers the founders existence, they themselves have become the myth. The moment when Aureliano Babilonia realizes that not only is history repetitive but also predetermined is the moment the Buendia family history comes to an end.
"Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave the room, for it was already foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men...everything written on the parchments was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth."