The Buendía males are all enterprising, passionate dreamers, but José Arcadio Buendía is at once the most notable and the most eccentric. Forever fascinated by the unknown, he is a man for whom no form of reality will ever live up to what he imagines can be further discovered. Hardly a mad scientist, he nonetheless takes up project after project, invention after invention, so as to arrive at the ultimate truth of life. This excessive zeal is a virtue in that it enables him to discover Macondo, but it is also a form of madness.
José Arcadio Buendía takes the life of Prudencio Aguilar, in an argument over José Arcadio's impotence and Úrsula's virginity, and José Arcadio can never forget his taunter, and the ghost eventually finds him. But for a long time, José Arcadio I lives the life of a man who has no memory or past, and in leaving the world, he achieves solitude by psychological regression. His fascination with familiar instruments indeed seems real because it comes as a consequence of his flight from a bad memory (indeed, all memory of the world as it is). His agent and friend, the gypsy Melquíades, is the purveyor of mundane, archaic things that feed his appetite for novelty. Through Melquíades and the gypsy band, José Arcadio I acquires a magnet to locate gold, a telescope to eliminate actual physical distance, an ancient camera to photograph God, and a player pianola, flying carpets, ice, and other wonderful "inventions." When José Arcadio I is not involved with some "new" invention, he builds bird cages to fill Macondo with bird songs, which incidentally enable the gypsies to always find the town.
José Arcadio Buendía flees the tranquility of his native village to found Macondo. This flight is born of personal pride and indignation, but from that beginning, violence becomes associated with every action in the novel, from the social violence of civil wars, political treachery, and martyrdom, to the violence of inner anguish, self-abnegation, and personal despair. Through suggestion and often vivid metaphorical description, García Márquez forces the reader into a state of expectation that life in Macondo is bound to a brutal end. The characters and the events alike are born of force (and not only in the sense of physical rape), and they pass away in collision with other brutal forces. José Arcadio II settles down into the role of feudal lord, having taken forcible possession of the best plots of land around Macondo and oppressively taxing local peasants. He becomes a kind of heroic tyrant, saving his brother from execution by firing squad only to close his bedroom door forever to the sound of gunshots. There is only the suggestion that José Arcadio II is shot to death; no wound is ever found on his corpse and no weapon is ever found. But his body reeks with the smell of gunpowder. Besides the physical sense of violence, the major characters all seem to have some uncontrollable proneness to cruelty or blind rage. José Arcadio II's son, after the departure of the Colonel, assumes responsibility for Macondo, but the role makes him power-mad. Amaranta, sister of the Colonel, is so consumed by jealousy that her rage at Rebeca Buendía causes her to suffer massive attacks of fever; in the end, her passion leads her to disfigure herself. Thus violence, like the murdered ghost of Prudencio Aguilar, infuses the town and the Buendía household.
The endless quests of José Arcadio I recall to us the character of Don Quixote. Perhaps critic Jack Richardson described him best as a "spiritual conquistador." But if so, José Arcadio I is one who never conquers his spirit, nor satisfies his appetite for intellectual novelty. Eventually, of course, the patriarch's energy and fascinating sense of wonder become rote formulas. Although he fails to photograph God, he has a street in Macondo named God Exists. And when at last he realizes the world of pure imagination, where all things become ever more wonderful, he goes mad and spends his last years tied to a chestnut tree in his backyard. There, babbling in medieval Latin, he argues with the first priest in Macondo, Father Nicanor Reyna, against all the imagined proofs for the existence of God. When he dies, his ghost remains under the chestnut tree, and he is Úrsula's consolation, although invisible to everyone else, except when Colonel Aureliano Buendía, his son, almost commits suicide. At various points in the latter half of the novel, José Arcadio I reappears as he does that first time, "soaking wet and sad in the rain and much older than when he had died." In the house of his great granddaughter-in-law, Fernanda, he is the only dead ghost, in contrast to the three live ones — Amaranta sewing on her shroud, Úrsula utterly blind, and Colonel Aureliano Buendía defeated and alone with his metal goldfish. For all his lust and ebullience, José Arcadio I is painfully fragile.
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