Gabriel García Márquez‘s Cien años de soledad is a long, sprawling novel that lacks much in the way of a conventional plot. Rather, it is full of events and incidents, digressions and flashbacks or flashforwards, not least the famous flashforward with which the book opens:
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. (9)
In fact, in a further complication, this is a double flashforward: both to the story of the discovery of ice, recounted some twenty pages later; and to the story of Aureliano Buendía facing the firing squad, which will not be told for another several hundred pages.
But what does appear even in this opening sentence is one of the threads that connects and gives some sense to what might otherwise appear to be a jumble of narrative excess. For in what we take to be his final moments, by recalling the transmission of knowledge from father to son the colonel also highlights the theme of inheritance, of what is passed down from generation to generation. In short, of genealogy.
For there’s no surprise that some editions of the novel include a family tree. Cien años de soledad is (among other things) a family saga. One of its central concerns is they ways in which sons and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters, and even great-grandsons and great-grand-daughters, have, face up to, take responsibility for, or negotiate what they have inherited from their forebears.
Still early on in the novel, for instance, we see how José Arcadio Buendía (Aureliano’s father) destroys or uses up his wife’s inheritance–a trove of colonial gold coins previously buried under the matrimonial bed (11)–in his misguided zeal for alchemical progress.
Equally, José Arcadio and his wife, Úrsula, fear that their very marriage may set trouble in store for their offspring. In that they are cousins, and they have heard that other cousins in the family who married gave birth to a child with a pig’s tail, they fear their children will likewise be monstrous. For months after their wedding, Úrsula refuses to allow the relationship to be consummated, out of fear for what might issue. They only start to reproduce after a neighbour, Prudencio Aguilar, mocks José Arcadio for his failure to bed his own wife. “If you bear iguanas, we’ll raise iguanas,” José Arcadio tells her.
Yet indirectly the future has already been set for the couple’s descendants. Spurred in defence of his honour to kill Prudencio Aguilar, José Arcadio has as a result to take Úrsula off in the founding Exodus that establishes the community of Macondo.
So Macondo is troubled from the start by the question of inheritance, of legitimacy, and the ways in which the sins of the fathers (and mothers) may be visited upon the sons (and daughters).
In other words, the novel is also troubled from the start by the ways in which, whether through incest or adultery or any number of other complications, the family tree soon becomes as unruly a structure as the narrative profusion that it is in part designed to contain and control.
Genealogy, intended to produce order and secure legitimate inheritance, is equally a source of disorder and confusion as Aureliano follows Arcadio but is followed in turn by other Arcadios and other Aurelianos. It becomes increasingly hard to keep up. The family tree is soon lost to the multitudinous forest.