Setting the Stage: Comparing the Opening Scenes of One Hundred Years of Solitude and The President
The opening scene of each the novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The President by Miguel Angel Asturias, is important to the reading of the book because it sets the overall tone and form of the narrative. It does this in three particular ways. First, it presents key themes which will be expanded upon over the course of the novel, second, it introduces characters who are important catalysts for the action of the narrative, and third, it sets the general atmosphere in which the story will take place. Although both books deal with issues of violence, civil war, and dictatorship, they handle them in very different ways. Marquez keeps the focus on family and relationship. He uses humor and magical realism to humanize and soften the harder aspects of reality. Asturias on the other hand keeps the focus on the breaking of family and relationships, using horror and magical realism to make the nightmare of living under a dictatorship more absorbable.
The opening scene of One Hundred Years of Solitude, places Colonel Aureliano Buendia facing a firing squad and reliving a distant memory of his father taking him to discover ice. As the Colonel faces certain death his thoughts take the reader back in time, perhaps to the beginning of time, to the founding of the village “of twenty adobe houses… [in a world so] recent that many things lacked names” (p.1). This scene not only encapsulates many of the themes which the novel will expand upon, family, history, and warfare, as well as touching on the concepts of discovery, exploration, and science, but it also sets all these themes within the context of nostalgia and the way in which events are remembered. By making the village’s history start before things had names Marquez casts a Biblical tone over the whole story and the village of Macondo takes on mythic proportions. The village can now be interpreted not only as an allegory for the history of Colombia and South America but also as representing Mankind’s flaws and foibles in general.
The second character to be named, after Colonel Aureliano Buendia who represents the Buendia family history, isMelquiades, a “learned alchemist from Macedonia” (p.1).He not only plays the most significant role in the novel embodying the force of fate, the concept of prophecy, and the convoluted, overlapping, worlds of alchemy, magic, science, and religion but he also introduces the form of magical realism. The first outsiders, ” a family of ragged gypsies”, enter Macondo immediately after the opening scene, to “display new inventions” (p.1). The gypsies’ inventions are one way in which Marques marks the passage of time.Starting with the introduction of “Melquiades’ magical irons”, magnets whose powers and properties had been discovered in ancient times, he moves on to the discovery of the ” suit of fifteenth century armor”, taking the time line well into the Renaissance and the age of colonialism.The magnets do not act like normal magnets but exert a super natural force by acting on and exposing “objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquiades’ magical irons” (p.1).This first paragraph of the first two pages of the novel demonstrates the fluidity and compression of time, the power of memory, the impact of science and discovery, as well as sets the tone of magical realism by combining the unexpected and magical, or highly exaggerated, with the normal and mundane reality of life.
Set against this background of shifting time and magical realism, the Adam and Eve of the story, Jose and Ursula, as well as their incestuous original sin of being cousins, are introduced. Even though their son, the Colonel, is facing a firing squad in this moment of remembering his parents and the founding of the village, the overall tone is light hearted and humourous, bordering on the ridiculous.The patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia is described as having “unbridled imagination” (p.2).He is a man driven by discovery.After buying the magnets from Melquiades, he imagines that he will find enough gold to “pave the floors of the house” (p.2).It is his nature to not only take everything to the extreme but also it shows the way in which he lives in a futuristic, fantasy world, disconnected from the reality of everyday life.This is contrasted with his wife, the matriarch of the family Ursula Iguaran, who is very practical in nature.She is the voice of reason and the one who tries to hold the family together throughout all the ups and downs.She represents innate feminine wisdom in contrast to her husband’s masculine desire for knowledge and exploration.As the story unfolds, the many descendants of these two characters will create a downward spiral of history repeating itself. One of the ways in which this spiral is manifested is in the children receiving the same names as their forefathers; the boys being named either Aureliano or Arcadio and the girls being named Remedios, Ursula or Amaranta.This main theme of time being cyclical, and those who do not remember the past being doomed to repeat it, echoes throughout the entire novel.Even though the novel addresses the issues of colonialism, civil war, and the violent oppression of the people by dictatorship, the use of Marques’ style of magical realism keeps the tone hopeful.
Whereas One Hundred Years of Solitude takes the lighthearted tone that was introduced in the first few pages and maintains it throughout the novel, so The President starts and finishes with an overwhelming sense of despair in the face an oppressive regime and violence. The opening page begins with what is called the “sound of the church bells summoning people to prayer” but is in reality a nonsensical chant of “boom, bloom, alum-bright, Lucifer of alunite” (p.7). This nonsense rhyme quickly degenerates into a chaos of repeating words and phrases and is described as an “uneasy transition” between day and night, “brightness to gloom”. This surreal introduction sets the overall tone of the novel. It creates a spell of chaos and confusion, of darkness and despair. The church bells are not church bells but the call of the Devil, the ‘Lucifer of All Unite’. By starting the novel with a nonsensical passage and disturbed feeling Asturias takes the reader immediately, and deeply, into the dream world where reality and rationality no longer exist. His use of magical realism not only evokes the emotional by tapping into the irrational or the unknowable, but it also creates a sensation of the mythic making it easier to connect with, and digest, the horrific messages and nightmarish images that Asturias is showing us. One of the major themes of this novel is the way in which living under a dictatorship, where falsehoods and violence are used to terrorize and control the population, erodes peoples’ abilities to trust one another, maintain normal relationships, and express mercy and empathy for the downtrodden and the innocent.
After the opening demonic and dreamlike chanting of the church bells the next image is “the frozen shadow of the cathedral [and] the beggars …shuffling past” (p.7).What had traditionally been a safe haven for the most powerless people in a society, the Church, has now become a “frozen shadow” of itself.The image is one of icy darkness and a tone of hopelessness.These poor people, the lowest of the low, have “nothing in common but their destitution” (p.7).They have not gathered together out of a sense of camaraderie or solidarity.There is no sense of warmth or communion between these people even though they are all in the same situation.These humans are “cursing, insulting and jostling each other…spitting and biting with rage… [they have] never known pillows or mutual trust… [and] like all beggars they were miserly with their scraps, and would rather give them to the dogs than to their companions in misfortune” (p.7). The stage is decorated with the nightmares of the other beggars as they dream about “famished pigs, thin women, maimed dogs and carriage wheels passing before their eyes, or a funeral procession of phantom monks going into the cathedral preceded by a sliver of moon carried on a cross made of frozen shin-bones”.Here Asturias clearly combines reality with fantasy and calls them both a dream further confusing fact and fiction, adding to the nightmarish quality of the scene.
This opening scene of the beggars in front of the church not only introduces the form of magical realism as well as the theme of how life under a dictatorship robs people of their humanity, but it also sets the stage for the first murder which will be the catalyst to the narrative.The first beggar to be identified by name, and thus humanized, is the one they call the Zany, ” a drunk man who called for his mother and wept like a child in his sleep” (p.8).Zany is used to represent humanity on many levels.He is the innocent individual who lives without any power and is the victim of an oppressive regime.He also foreshadows the tragic loss of the bond which holds family, and society, together.The President uses torture, threats, and lies, to maintain his power and doing so destroys any sense of hope or resistance that comes from community and family.The police, who represent the hand of the oppressive regime, torment the Zany by shouting “Mother” into his ear and waking him.This is symbolic of the way in which the regime tortures and torments its powerless citizens.The opening scene describes the way in which it is not only the authorities who lack empathy but how all the people, his own people and community, torment the idiot Zany. They shout ” ‘Mother!’ at him from every side … [they drive] him out of churches, shops and everywhere else, indifferent to his utter exhaustion and the plea for pity in his uncomprehending eyes…[They] beat him and [tear] his clothes…they [throw] stones, dead rats and empty tins at him as he [runs] away in terror” (p.10).It is at the Cathedral Porch where the Zany tries to take his exhausted refuge from the abuses of the people who have not only no empathy but hold active aggression towards him. It is here that the police man shouts “jeeringly at him:’Mother!’…[and] the Zany [flings] himself upon his tormentor, and …thrust his fingers into his eyes, tore at his nose with his teeth and jabbed his private parts with his knees, till he fell to the ground motionless” (p.11). Thus setting into motion the murder of Colonel Jose Sonriente which the President will usefor his own political purposes.The President uses his power to control the truth, and by blaming General Eusebio Canales and Abel Carvajal for the murder he adds layer upon layer of unreality and illusion coupled with lies and manipulation.
Although the feeling of hope is allowed to glimmer momentarily throughout the narrative with the relationship of Camila and Angel Face, it is primarily the devastation of any hope that runs through this novel in wave after relentless wave.Even when people like the beggar Mosquito tell the truth they are tortured and murdered regardless.While being interrogated by the police, the captured beggars are dehumanized and described in animalistic terms as “whimpering like sick animals and sniveling with horror of the darkness…they had a growing conviction that they would be boiled down and made into soap like dogs, or have their throats cut and be given to the police to eat” (p.13).It quickly becomes obvious that the President does not want the truth but has to in fact beat the truth out of people so his lies can be the only story.The Judge Advocate, after hearing the truth from the beggars who were eye witnesses to the murder, he declares “Lies!… You’re a liar.I’ll tell you who murdered Colonel Jose Parrales Sonriente, and we’ll see if you dare deny it…It was General Eusebio Canales and Abel Carvajah, the lawyer!” (p15).Again, and again, there is a breakdown of perceived reality by the dictator’s use of shock and horror to quash any sense of optimism or escape; the President’s false accusations and imprisonments of the citizens, his false newspaper reports and rumors, as well as his false favorites and missions, serve to keep all the people in a surreal nightmare that is enforced by terror and torture.
Even though these novels approach their subjects in very different ways, they clearly demonstrate the importance of the first few pages of a book because of the way in which these opening scenes not only set the tone and form of the book but also introduce themes and character’s actions which will continue to run throughout the narrative.Although the introduction of the themes, as well as the laying of the foundation for the action of the narratives are both very important, it is the combination of creating the emotional atmosphere and the use of magical realism which is the most striking element in these opening pages.Interestingly, without the form of magical realism, which intensifies the reader’s feelings towards the characters and the plotlines, the themes would perhaps come across as one dimensional and the narrative as mere melodrama.
Asturias, Miguel Angel. The President Copyright 1963 by Victor Gollancz, Ltd. Reissued 1997 by Waveland Press, Inc. Long Grove, IL U. S. A.
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. One Hundred Years of Solitude originally published in Argentina in 1967 by Editorial Sudamericanos S. A., Buenos Aires under the title Cien Anos de Soledad. English translation copyright 1970 by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. New York, NY U. S. A., FIRST HARPER PERENNIAL MODERN CLASSICS EDITION PUBLISHED 2006
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