Notice how he begins this sentence: “Many years later.” There’s something wonderfully vague about this beginning. Not five years or twenty years or even the one hundred years in its title, but “many years” as though time is a flowing river blending effortlessly into the sea. Even this beginning suggests a media res, a middle of things, a violent disruption of order. Here is a history being suggested, whether the history of Colonel Buendía or a history of Macondo or a history of Latin America. The sentence sets the reader up for a tale that goes beyond the singular, and frankly violent moment of its beginning. Someone will die, but this death is but a moment in a far bigger canvas. Marquez pitches his novel backwards and forwards in time, beginning with the Colonel facing a firing squad, then moving further back to his childhood. We know in the sparsest sense what this childhood might entail. There is something magical about the idea of “discovering ice,” as though this memory not only encapsulates a “distant afternoon” of the colonel’s childhood but of history itself. Marquez further drives this impression home in the following sentences with “a bed of polished stones...like prehistoric eggs” or of a world “so recent that many things lacked names...” This is the way a child might see the world: huge and new and strange and wonderful. The first sentence sets up this magic and what will soon follow throughout the entire novel.
I mentioned before about a violent disruption, but the entire sentence is full of disruptions and contradictions. The clause “as he faced the firing squad” is as violent a disruption as any sentence can bear. It punches its way through brutally and unforgivingly, interrupting the rhythm of the sentence with a rhythm of its own, as all acts of violence must. Yet this violence is well into the future, a future that pushes further outward as the sentence continues. From there Marquez establishes another rhythm, one that is much more languorous, as though one falling into a daydream to escape the unpleasant or mundane, and indeed Colonel Buendía is facing the violent end of his life. Yet, as the old saying goes, his life flashes before his eyes, unfolding delicately like onionskin. Marquez fully builds his world with the complexities that it contains. There is the end of history and the beginning of it as well. There is death and birth, destruction and renewal. One can read this single line and have a sense of an entire story. We might not know who Colonel Buendia is or why he is being executed, but it is the very ambiguity of these questions that fuels the beauty of this first sentence and why it pulls me in as a reader.
The best stories are the ones that leave enough space for writers to enter. They reveal only what is necessary and allows the reader to fill in the white spaces with her own imagination. Marquez creates a first sentence that is balanced beautifully between what is there and what is imagined. We do not need a fully descriptive passage of what Buendía looks like or what his executioners look like. And yet there they are: as real as what could possibly have been written on page. This is the world Blake refers to. Within one sentence, with carefully selected words, Marquez is able to construct a world in which, as the novel soon unfolds, a world so fully realized, so fully contradictory and ambiguous and magical, that it leaps off the page.