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The infinite possibilities of a loss of memory

April 19, 2024

This is the cow.” – Gabriel García Márquez, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

When a plague of insomnia sweeps the fictional town of Macondo in “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” its residents find themselves tossing and turning together.

The Buendía family spend their days and nights dreaming in solidarity—“in that state of hallucinated lucidity … some saw the images dreamed by others.” Communal as the plague is, patriarch José Arcadio Buendía begins to worry about its impacts on the town. He fears that the sleeplessness might begin to eat away at its victims’ memories. Could the collective forgetting produced by insomnia demolish the history of the town—or curb its productivity? Buendía begins to label everything in an effort to combat this semantic dementia:table, chair, clock … goat, pig, hen.

He hangs a label on the neck of the cow—“this is the cow”— and reminds the residents that she “must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk.” If all is forgotten in the haze produced by accumulated fatigue, the residents of Macondo must still be able to drink their coffee.

Gabriel García Márquez has reflected on plagues both real and fictional. Aracataca, the town in which he was born in 1927 and on which Macondo is often said to be based, was ridden in the nineteenth century with plagues of locusts, cholera, malaria and typhus, which find their way into his stories.

Macondo’s insomnia reads as one of García Márquez’s less medical and more metaphorical narrative plagues, untraceable to any well-documented disease and humorous in the excess literalism of Buendía’s bovine labeling. But it would be flawed to treat the insomnia plague as primarily fantastical. As critic Gerald Martin writes in “On Magical and Social Realism,” it would, in fact, be an error to treat much of García Márquez’s writing as more magical than it is realist.

García Márquez’s works instead fall more into the genre of “critical realism.” “One Hundred Years of Solitude” has achieved, in Martin’s theory, “a socialist … reading of Latin American history.” The removed reader who sees only a mystically laden epic in the tale of Macondo has missed the novel’s historical truth and has constructed a false sense of magic which is in fact “no more than eccentricity born of ex-centricity.”

Buendía’s simplistic labeling thus reflects the power of literary creation, a power about which García Márquez was outspoken. “Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters,” he writes of the plague.

García Márquez certainly captures reality with his words, but they are far from momentary. As Roland Barthes writes in “The Pleasure of the Text,” the sentence could be treated simply as an “artifact”—here, a sign hung on a cow at one instance in time. Or, more excitingly, the sentence could be something more—a living reminder of a forgotten town. For Barthes, the sentence could be so alive that it gains physical form: “Unless for some perverts the sentence is a body?”

García Márquez’s sentences are certainly bodies. Macondo will see the birth and death of generations. The town will undergo war and revolution and suffer the brutally exploitative imposition of import substitution industrialization, as metonymized by a railroad and a banana company.

Later in the novel, García Márquez deepens the sense of the sentence as body in writing that “literature was the best plaything that had even been invented to make fun of people,” thus lending stories corporeality gained from their truth. García Márquez further rejects the treatment of sentences as artifacts in remaking the final sentence of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in his Nobel Lecture in 1982. He calls upon “the inventors of tales” to construct:

“A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”

This sentence as first written recounted Macondo’s destruction by forgetting, where the town blows away and “a second opportunity” is denied. But, as the sentence is a body, it grows and shifts. Upon its second iteration, the living sentence admits the opportunity made possible by documentation. Buendía’s labeling now seems much less foolish. “This is the cow” does not just label an animal, but also pleads for the acceptance of fiction as historical record: “This is the truth.”


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