Autumn of the Patriarch, Forgetting to Live: Gabriel García Márquez's Memory

When critics attempt to account for the genesis of Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (a sort of Genesis text in its own right), there are two easy narratives we often come across. First, there is the young Gabo faithfully transcribing his grandmother’s fabulist stories, thereby producing a “magic realist” literary modernism out of the humble beginnings of Colombian folk culture. Second, there is the “Faulknerian revolution” story that people like Pascale Casanova put forward, where William Faulkner modeled a particular way of being a writer in a peripheral place, and so García Márquez learned to be Colombian by reading about Mississippi, joining "modernism" by imitating the Modernists that preceded him. To those two, we might also add García Márquez as journalist, and no doubt many others.

INTERVIEWER: Since we’ve started talking about journalism, how does it feel being a journalist again, after having written novels for so long? Do you do it with a different feel or a different eye? GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: I’ve always been convinced that my true profession is that of a journalist...

For me, the second volume of Alexander Von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Year 1799-1804 is the place to start. As the great scientist and explorer travelled through the equatorial jungles of what is now Venezuela, dodging Jaguars and Electric Eels, he surprised himself by happening upon a Ben Franklin in the jungle:

We found at Calabozo, in the midst of the Llanos, an electrical machine with large plates, electrophori, batteries, electrometers; an apparatus nearly as complete as our first scientific men in Europe possess. All these articles had not been purchased in the United States; they were the work of a man who had never seen any instrument,who had no person to consult, and who was acquainted with the phenomena of electricity only by reading the treatise of De Lafond,and Franklin’s Memoirs.

Senor Carlos del Pozo, the name of this enlightened and ingenious man, had begun to make cylindrical electrical machines, by employing large glass jars, after having cut off the necks. It was only within a few years he had been able to procure, by way of Philadelphia, two plates, to construct a plate machine, and to obtain more considerable effects. It is easy to judge what difficulties Senor Pozo had to encounter, since the first works upon electricity had fallen into his hands, and that he had the courage to resolve to procure himself, by his own industry, all that he had seen described in his books. Till now he had enjoyed only the astonishment and admiration produced by his experiments on persons destitute of all information, and who had never quitted the solitude of the Llanos; our abode at Calabozo gave him a satisfaction altogether new.

It may be supposed that he set some value on the opinions of two travelers who could compare his apparatus with those constructed in Europe. I had brought with me electrometers mounted with straw, pith-balls, and gold-leaf; also a small Leyden jar which could be charged by friction according to the method of Ingenhousz,and which served for my physiological experiments. Senor del Pozo could not contain his joy on seeing for the first time instruments which he had not made, yet which appeared to be copied from his own. We also showed him the effect of the contact of heterogeneous metals on the nerves of frogs. The name of Galvani and Volta had not previously been heard in those vast solitudes.

Maybe García Márquez’ Spanish-language commentators know all about this (and I, like Senor Pozo, am reinventing the wheel from the periphery), but I can’t seem to find any references to this passage in English language criticism. The parallels between José Arcadio Buendía and the Senor Carlos del Pozo are striking, as is the use of “solitude” to describe their thwarted desires to be on the cutting edge of scientific discovery.

One Hundred Years of Solitude even has a tip of the hat to Von Humboldt at one point, when the groping monologues of the senile Melquíades repeatedly return to the name of that 19th century explorer and the word "equinox" (a Humboldtian trope).

But the idea that One Hundred Years of Solitude needs an origin story, that it needs a genealogy, that it needs to remember its past, well, I think we lose something important if we get too caught up in that. Maybe we lose the most important thing. Modern editions of One Hundred Years of Solitude usually include a family tree at the beginning, to help you make sense of all those different Arcadios, Remedios, and Aurelianos, but Gabo didn't write it that way, and he didn't include anything of the sort for the same reason he intentionally gave his characters different variations on the same damnable names. You are supposed to forget. You are supposed to get confused. You are supposed to blur different characters together, mix up timelines, be surprised to find that you're not quite sure who is who. The last thing you are ever supposed to do is keep everything straight.

To say that memory can deceive us is to perpetrate a dull cliche, however, and this is not the point. Instad, I would put it to you that the point is this: forgetfulness is what saves us, what gives us a second chance. Those who forget the past are not condemned to repeat it, but the reverse is true. Only those who forget the past will ever free themselves from it.

Recall the first lines of the book, the famous "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." We will remember this line as we read forward, from that fateful day in the Colonel's childhood towards his inevitable meeting with the firing squad. We might even forget that that was our starting point, as we get caught up in the domestic stories and get tangled up in the growth of Macondo from a patch of settlement to a living community. But when Aureliano Buendía becomes "Colonel" we will start to remember; we will start to look forward to the execution we had  forgotten to remember, and we will read the story already knowing the end. To the extent that we remember his death, he is already dead even before it happens.

Except of course he doesn't die there, does he? As it turns out, and as we will have had no way of knowing until that point, he gets saved at the last minute, and survives to die a different way. Which is to say, that proleptic death -- that dull certainty that the ending is already written -- is exactly the anticipation that makes him already dead in our minds. The only thing that kills him is the anticipation of repetition, since we only know him to be already dead to the extent that we remember the beginning. When we'd forgotten the ending to the story, on the other hand, he was as alive as he always was.

Or recall the end of the book, the strange apocalyptic scene in which the last of the line of Buendía's finally reads the book of his family, when he finally confirms the end of his own story by his ability to read it: in a "flash of lucidity," Aureliano Babilonia suddenly "became aware that he was unable to bear in his soul the crushing weight of so much past." As he reads, skipping ahead again and again in his haste to get to the ending, it begins to become clear that he is reading the same book that we are reading, and he becomes aware -- as we must surely be, as we turn the last page -- that the irrevocable ending of the story is closing in on us, that every word we read brings us closer to the end, Aureliano Babilonia's own end and that of the family. But it isn't the future that makes this inevitable; it's the backward looking gaze that makes the past the only truth.

* * *

A century and a half after Alexander Von Humboldt traveled through the Equinoctial Regions of America, Gabriel García Márquez would take stories from his mother, William Faulkner, and shipwrecked sailors and begin to write some new very old stories. A half century after that, last Friday, his brother announced that Gabo is now suffering from dementia, that his bout with cancer in the last decade has left him physically whole but mentally weakened, that his writing career is over.

"Dementia runs in our family and he's now suffering the ravages prematurely due to the cancer that put him almost on the verge of death," he said. "Chemotherapy saved his life, but it also destroyed many neurons, many defences and cells and accelerated the process."
It is unlikely, now, that Gabo will write the second volume of his memoir, and oh, what a cruel word in this context! The first was called Living to Tell the Tale in English, though Vivir Para Contarla might be better translated as simply "living to tell it," since, as he put it in the epigraph,  "Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it."

But what if you do not remember?

* * *

In One Hundred Years of Solitudewhen the great patriarch of the Buendía clan becomes old and begins to lose his faculties -- when he begins to behave erratically, dangerously -- his family ties him to a chestnut tree in the yard, and there he lives until he dies. But José Arcadio Buendía does not lose his memory. He loses to it. He starts to die when he begins to remember too much.

More precisely, José Arcadio Buendía starts to die when he forgets to forget about someone that it was very important he not remember, a buried ghost named Prudencio Aguilar. When the old ghost pops up, in fact, José Arcadio Buendía doesn't even recognize him; indeed, by this point in the novel, we may have forgotten him as well, so much having happened in the interim. But Prudencio Aguilar is one of the most important characters in the novel, in the necessity that he be forgotten: his murder is part of the foundational shame that links the founding of Macondo to the founding of José Arcadio Buendía's line, a knowledge which it is necessary and essential to live without.

To go back to the beginning, remember that the founders of Macondo, José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula Iguarán, are cousins, and when they marry, Úrsula fears that the incestuous product of their marriage will be born with a pig’s tail.

José Arcadio Buendía couldn't care less, of course; as he puts it, "I don't care if I have piglets as long as they can talk."
 So even after they are wed, she refuses to have sex with her husband, going so far as to invent a kind of chastity belt to be certain:

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 and had reinforced with a system of crisscrossed leather straps and that was closed in the front by a thick iron buckle. 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…

As Clifford Geertz famously wrote of Balinese cock-fights, "As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf links, at a race track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring. For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men. To anyone who has been in Bali any length of time, the deep psychological identification of Balinese men with their cocks is unmistakable. The double entendre here is deliberate. It works in exactly the same way in Balinese as it does in English, even to producing the same tired jokes, strained puns, and uninventive obscenities. Bateson and Mead have even suggested that, in line with the Balinese conception of the body as a set of separately animated parts, cocks are viewed as detachable, self-operating penises, ambulant genitals with a life of their own. And while I do not have the kind of unconscious material either to confirm or disconfirm this intriguing notion, the fact that they are masculine symbols par excellence is about as indubitable, and to the Balinese about as evident, as the fact that water runs downhill.
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, but I'm sure you'll forgive me if I point it out, along with the fact of a wife who fears her husband will rape her. But at the same time as love and violence come to be increasingly indistinguishable, we see the genders segregating themselves: the husband spends his days in homosocial combat with other men while Úrsula spends the day sewing with her mother, the woman who fashioned her chastity belt. To the extent that this separation can be maintained, the situation is stable.

Prudencio Aguilar is the catalyst which breaks it. After he loses a cockfight to José Arcadio Buendía, he angrily implies that José Arcadio Buendía’s cock can do what his cock cannot; “Maybe that rooster of yours can do your wife a favor,” he says.

José Arcadio Buendía responds instantly. First, he stabs Prudencio Aguilar in the throat with his spear  (fitting, both since his primary concern has been that people will talk and because his spear is, obviously, another phallic symbol) and then he goes home and rapes his wife, and blaming her for his own carnage.

“Pointing the spear at her, he ordered: “Take them off”…there’ll be no more killing in this town because of you.”
And then they both run. In Riohacha, the village in which they grew up together, everyone knows they are cousins and everyone knows that José Arcadio Buendía killed Prudencio Aguilar.

More concretely, everywhere they go, they are haunted by the ghost of Prudencio Aguilar, who comes to stand in for both the shame of the murder and the shame it was meant to cover. Neither can sleep, and both are left with the "prick" of conscience, as they see him attempting to wash his wound away, wandering in the rain and looking for water, and never finding it. Rage turns to empathy. José Arcadio Buendía is "tormented by the immense desolation with which the dead man had looked at him through the rain," and Úrsula leaves water jugs all around the house to help him.

It is no use. After many sleepless nights, José Arcadio Buendía gives up:

One night when he found [Prudencio Aguilar] washing his wound in his own room, José Arcadio Buendía could no longer resist.

'It’s all right, Prudencio,' he told him. 'We’re going to leave this town, just as far away as we can go, and we’ll never come back. Go in peace now.'

That was how they undertook the crossing of the mountains...Before he left, José Arcadio Buendía buried the spear in the courtyard and, one after the other, he cut the throats of his magnificent fighting cocks, trusting that in that way he could give some measure of peace to Prudencio Aguilar...They did not lay out any definite itinerary. They simply tried to go in a direction opposite to the road to Riohacha so that they would not leave any trace or meet any people they knew...

The point is simple, but easy to lose, easy to forget: Macondo was founded to escape reality, conscience, to forget about murderous cocks.

In Vergil’s Aeneid, the founding of Rome is described by the verb "condere," appearring at both beginning and end of that epic powem (dum conderet urbem (1.5) and ferrum adverso sub pectore condit (12.950), when the foundations of Rome are laid and when Aeneas stabs Turnus. 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.

As she goes on to note, in fact, this pun 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 only Virgil’s use of the two terms, in this precise and deadly symmetry, that gives it this connotation. And just as the English language has never forgotten the things Vergil did with Latin, neither have most of its epics, or its histories; we think of history as the inscription of memory, civilization as the writing of new stories, and of life as a thing we can narrate, from beginning to end.

The most important thing to say about Gabo's epic might be that it thinks none of these things. The story begins when its protagonists begin to forget. José Arcadio Buendía does not found a city on top of masculine conquest of other men, but the very opposite; he and his wife flee only after he had “buried the spear in the courtyard and, one after the other, he cut the throats of his magnificent fighting cocks.” This is so very different a kind of burying, so very different an epic. The Aeneid is always afraid that uncontrolled passion might sow the seeds of Rome’s fall, that its founding violence might re-emerge and tear it apart, but Gabo is so very much more concerned with the legacy of sexualized violence at its core.

* * *

Even before the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude, however, the story is already the same. Unlike the Adam and Eve which the first José Arcadio and Úrsula will become, our patriarch and matriarch have predecessors. Before they found Macondo, they live in Riahacha. And Riohacha, too, has a history of rape, or, rather, a history by consequence of forgetting about rape. And it isn't just their personal experience of foundational rape that José Arcadio and Úrsula are in flight from.

Almost in passing, it is mentioned that the ancient city of Riohacha is on the other side of some impenetrable mountains, 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.” 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.”

There’s a connection between these passages. Úrsula is upset 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, in other words, leaving the old world behind and moving on to new lands was the same thing as social responsibility. But when the gypsies come to Macondo, the trouble begins: Melquíades brings with him all manner of inventions and marvels that exercise José Arcadio Buendía’s imagination, and he becomes a different kind of 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 might seem to be something like the equivalent of this misogynistic Dodge Charger Commercial. But instead of the odious fantasy of beset masculinity we get from "Man's Last Stand" -- in which men are united by their joyless subjection to the hegemony of women -- Garcia Marquez shows us his patriarch from his wife's perspective, watching as, in 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. Indeed, until about fifteen pages into the novel, we only know he has a family because of his efforts to get away from them, only know he has 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.” She wins.

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.

Úrsula does not share his desire to throw “magic liquid” on the ground and let fruit grow where it may, and not only frustrates his masturbatory fantasy, but quietly rallying the town’s women against their husbands and forecloses the whole adventure before it even gets started

"With the secret and implacable labor of a small ant she predisposed the women of the village against the flightiness of their husbands."
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 suddenly 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 Anglos usually get of Drake is the English story, of a courteous courtier who would lay his cloak over a mud puddle for the queen, of a man out in the wilderness hunting trophies for his lady. But Drake was also a rapistic pirate -- as was well understood by the Spanish whose cities he burned and pillaged, who called him the Dragon, and who was famous for having “singed the King’s beard” in Cadiz.

The story 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. But you can't. 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. And then, one day, his science brings him back where he started, and he dies. To live is to forget, or perhaps the reverse.

* * *

In Genesis, Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden of Eden because the woman tempted the man. He'll pay part of the price, of course, but her sin was always the first thing, and what she did makes the principle of mankind's continuity into a shameful sin.

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
While man's punishment will be to till the soil, is the "sweat of thy face" simply his joyless labor of digging in dirt? Might it not also be the orgasmic pleasure of  planting a seed that will grow? But if that question might be left open, the woman's position is quite clear: Eve will suffer in childbirth.
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
It is her fault.

Úrsula Iguarán is not the villain of Gabo's retelling of Genesis, and while José Arcadio Buendía isn't either, it's not hard to notice how often we see men with out of control cocks, spears, and fires running rampant over the landscape of this novel, and how often it is we see women paying the price or keeping them safe. When José Arcadio Buendía tries to create fires -- trying haplessly and ludicrously to make a magnifying glass into a weapon of war -- she reminds him that fiery violence produces painful burns, that those who are burned look for water, and so she reminds him that he has children. She teaches him to forget all that. And so he takes his son to discover ice, and the novel begins.