Okay, kids, here's how you start a novel. Colonel Aureliano Buendía is facing a firing squad. That's right, you're already hooked.
While he's waiting to be shot, the colonel remembers his childhood in the town of Macondo.
This is where things start to get a little weird. One of the things this novel does a lot is play around with our normal sense of time. So get used to doing a lot of, wait, this is happening when? And it's set in what century? Huh? For example, in this chapter, when we learn all about the founding of Macondo and its beginnings as a little village, it's really, really hard to figure out when everything is happening -- mostly because you're not supposed to. Don't take that 100 years thing too literally. Not only does the novel span the years from around 1850 to 1950, it also envelopes all of history since the dawn of time. (What on earth? Swing by "Setting," where we try to explain.)
Macondo seems to have its origin in the Biblical book of Genesis. That's what it sounds like, at least, since this is taking place so long ago that they even don't have words for everything yet. Or maybe that's a joke or an exaggeration.
Every year, a caravan of gypsies comes to town, bringing with them the most up-to-date scientific discovery of the time. This year it's magnets.
But hang on, you say, isn't it the nineteenth century? When were magnets discovered? Yes, indeedy: naturally occurring magnets were already known in the time of ancient Greece. But in Macondo, the people are astonished at the magnets' power of attraction. So maybe we're not in the nineteenth century after all. Maybe instead, what we're getting is a fast-tracked metaphorical journey through the development of knowledge.
Everyone thinks the magnets are super-awesome, especially José Arcadio Buendía, Colonel Aureliano Buendía's dad.
Oh, and guys? The names are hard in this novel. The basic rule of thumb is that all Buendía dudes have one of two names. And there are seven generations of them. (Why? Check out Shmoop's "Symbols" section for some juicy thoughts.)
Daddy Buendía decides to use the magnets to find gold deep in the ground. Melquíades, the leader of the gypsies, tells him it won't work, but he's ignored.
Buendía's wife Úrsula tries to talk him out of it, too, but it's no use.
So they drag the magnets around and they find… a rusted suit of fifteenth-century armor with a calcified skeleton inside. Oh, the fifteenth-century – so now we're back in the 1400s? Argh!
The next year the gypsies come back and bring a telescope and a magnifying glass. Ooh, this is the cutting edge of science in the Middle Ages. So we're moving forward.
Again, the Macondoans are bowled over by the awesomeness.
But José Arcadio Buendía decides that the giant magnifying glass with its solar burning properties should be made into a weapon. (Don't tell us you didn't set fire to a few ants back in the day.)
He spends forever drawing up plans for it and sends them off to the government by courier.
Now we get another important tidbit about Macondo: not only is it held back in time, it's also geographically isolated. The courier goes through hell just trying to get to the mail route to send José Arcadio Buendía's message. Why? Because Macondo is surrounded by mountains on one side and swamps on the other. It's basically cut off from the outside world.
Anyway, the government doesn't answer, and eventually the gypsies come back again. This time they've got a compass, an astrolabe, and a sextant. Melquíades is a nice guy, so instead of taking money from José Arcadio Buendía again, he just trades him these instruments for the magnifying glass.
So, astrolabe. That's a device for observing and measuring the planets and starts in the night sky. We've just about arrived at the Age of Reason, science-wise.
José Arcadio Buendía watches the skies for a very long time and finally shocks all of Macondo with the announcement that the earth is round, not flat.
Okay, so we've slipped back in time again, since in the nineteenth century this would not have been a shocking statement.
Macondo is shocked. The earth is round? José Arcadio Buendía must be crazy. But soon Melquíades comes back and reveals that actually he's right.
Melquíades is starting to look a little worse for the wear, all old and diseased. He gives José Arcadio Buendía an alchemy lab. (Shmoop brain snack: alchemy is the attempt to chemically turn base metals into gold. It, um, doesn't work. Gold is an element, so unless you can actually move the electrons and protons around somehow, you ain't gettin' gold from anywhere but the ground.)
José Arcadio Buendía gets carried away again. He melts down some of Úrsula's ancestral gold, trying to create more gold, and ends up with gooey, useless metal soup.
Melquíades returns again, this time with a set of false teeth that seems to make him look decades younger. José Arcadio Buendía is dismayed at how much Macondo is missing out on by being so completely cut off from the world.
Back in the beginning, when he first founded the village of Macondo, José Arcadio Buendía was all energetic and an excellent city planner. Now he's kind of become the village nut with all his scientific obsessions.
Úrsula, meanwhile, who has always been super-industrious, is even more so.
José Arcadio Buendía decides to clear the land and create a road out of Macondo to the rest of the country. But which way to go? He and the other Macondo families (there are 300 people living in the town) originally came from the mountains to the east of the city, so no one wants to go back that way. But to the south and west are swamps.
Our main man José and a group of men decide to make their way north. They quickly find themselves in a depressing and hallucinatory jungle or rain forest. No sooner do they clear a path than the plants grow right back over it. It's maddening.
Finally they come out and immediately see… an ancient Spanish ship, petrified onto the rocks. They've hit the sea! There's no path out of Macondo to the north!
José Arcadio Buendía is infuriated and makes a map of Macondo as a peninsula. It's not really a good map, since they haven't actually explored anything, but it's an idea that sticks for a while.
He then decides to go ahead and move the town.
Úrsula organizes all the wives to resist this new insanity and the plan fails.
She tells José Arcadio Buendía to start paying attention to his sons. And he does, for the first time in his life.
His sons are: José Arcadio (we'll put a II next to his name just to distinguish), who is fourteen and just like his dad (which might be why he's got the same name), and Aureliano, who is six and more introverted and quiet. Aureliano might also have some ability to predict the future.
José Arcadio Buendía starts to spend time with his kids, teaching them to read and write, math, and whatever he knows about history and the world – mostly legends, myths, and fantasies.
The gypsies come back again, but this time without Melquíades. He's dead. Man, we were really starting to get attached!
They have brought an amazing thing with them: a huge block of ice. José Arcadio (II) touches it and thinks it's boiling. (Which makes sense: our nerve endings perceive very low and very high temperatures as the same. Don't try this at home, please.)
José Arcadio Buendía pronounces ice to be the greatest invention of our time (and we're back on the right timeline, since ice was first shipped as a commodity around the world in the 1810s).