One Hundred Years of Solitude begins with a flashback of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, facing the firing squad, remembering when his father showed him ice for the first time. At the time, Macondo was a small village with twenty houses. Only a band of gypsies visits every year to display their inventions. A gypsy named Melquíades displays an incredibly strong magnet. José Arcadio Buendía trades livestock for two of the magnets, believing he can use them to pull gold from the earth. Úrsula Iguarán tries to dissuade him, but she cannot.
The first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude is perhaps one of the most well-known in history, for the way it starts the story in media res, or in a moment of action. Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s nostalgia in a moment of danger is a perfect example of the way that time is manipulated in the book, conflating past, present and future. The gypsies, who appear to introduce both real and imagined inventions, are an example of how magic is normal in this book.
On their next visit, the gypsies bring a telescope and a magnifying glass. José Arcadio Buendía imagines using the magnifying glass as a weapon and trades in the magnets and some of the gold coins Úrsula had buried beneath her bed for the glass. He performs experiments and sends the magnifying glass and his findings on the possibility of solar warfare to the government, but the government never responds.
The gypsies continue to introduce real technology, though José Arcadio Buendía imagines fantastic uses for the instruments, apart from their standard purpose, showing the dominance of his imagination over his common sense. The government’s rejection of his invention shows its uselessness.
Melquíades, when he learns of José Arcadio Buendía’s failed experiments, refunds his gold and also gives him some maps and navigation instruments. He becomes obsessed with trying to navigate the stars, and slowly discovering that the earth is round. The family rejects the idea as crazy, but Melquíades’ return proves José Arcadio Buendía’s theory correct and, as reward for his intelligence, he gives him an alchemist’s laboratory. The old gypsy has aged rapidly, having contended with all of the world’s diseases in his travels.
José Arcadio Buendía continues to explore new inventions in the hopes of making a discovery of his own. Though he is ridiculed by his family for his claim that the world is round instead of flat, Melquíades confirms José Arcadio Buendía’s discovery when he visits him next, showing that not all of his ideas are bad ones (though Macondo’s separation from the rest of civilization does prove a shortcoming when trying to determine what is, in fact, a new discovery). Melquíades’ accelerated aging is an example of the way that time becomes circular, as he will proceed to die and come back to life several times over the course of the book.
José Arcadio Buendía convinces Úrsula to share her gold coins with him so he might double them via his newly acquired knowledge of alchemy, but he is only able to melt them down, fusing them to other metals. When the gypsies return, Melquíades again looks youthful and healthy, but it’s only his false teeth that are giving this illusion.
The magic of alchemy proves a hoax, and instead of doubling Úrsula’s gold, it seemingly destroys some of it by melting it down with other metals. This shows that, while some progress, like realizing the earth is round, proves worthy and well-reasoned, other attempts clearly are not. Melquíades looking young again is an example of the way that superficiality is a danger to be wary of.
José Arcadio Buendía, who was once so cheerful and hardworking, becomes distracted by these newest technologies. Úrsula remains a hard worker, helping all the others in town establish their lives, as well. The town grows to be an orderly utopia, where no one is older than thirty and no one has yet died. José Arcadio Buendía traps all varieties of birds and it’s their loud songs that draws the gypsies through the swamps to Macondo.
Macondo lingers in a moment of utopia, before outside influence corrupts the singular vision for the city. José Arcadio Buendía and Úrsula dedicated their lives to helping to grow the town, before José Arcadio Buendía becomes distracted by his solitary pursuits. It is important to note that the caged birds, isolated not by choice but by chance, are what attracts the outsiders to Macondo.
José Arcadio Buendía remains ignorant of the geography of the region, knowing only that there are mountains and the city of Riohacha to the east. On their search for a land to settle, they’d looked for the sea, but had no luck in finding it. The southern and western edges of Macondo are bordered by swamps. José Arcadio Buendía believes the only path to explore might be to the north, and so he and his men set out to see what they might find. After many days of trekking through the jungle, they discover a grounded Spanish galleon, filled with flowers. Four days journey beyond the ship, they find the sea and José Arcadio Buendía reasons that Macondo is a peninsula surrounded by water on all sides.
Despite the navigational tools given to José Arcadio Buendía by Melquíades, he remains unable to correctly determine the geography of the land they’ve settled. His limited knowledge leads him to assume that Macondo is situated on a peninsula that keeps them isolated from other civilizations. The discovery of the overgrown, grounded Spanish galleon provides evidence of explorers who have come to this area before, and whose civilization has been wiped out, indicating the circularity of time.
José Arcadio Buendía laments his choice of location for the city, and begins to pack to leave, but Úrsula tells him they will not leave because they had a son here. José Arcadio Buendía argues that they have not had a death, but Úrsula says she will die if it means the rest of the people stay where they are. José Arcadio (I), fourteen at the time, had been born on the way to Macondo. Aureliano Buendía, six years old, was the first human to be born in Macondo, and showed signs of being silent and withdrawn even when still in Úrsula’s womb. He has the power see the future, demonstrated first when he was three and predicted that a pot of soup would soon spill, which it did.
José Arcadio Buendía, because of his desire to be up to date on all of the newest technologies, is ready to abandon Macondo in favor of the knowledge available in a more populated area, but Úrsula insists on their remaining committed to the city they’ve established. Aureliano’s reticence and foresight are essential personality traits of the characters named Aureliano in the novel. The fact that he is believed to have wept in the womb and predicted the future even as a youth proves that there is something innate in Aureliano that determines these features, preventing him from behaving in any other way, a fatalist view of human nature.
José Arcadio Buendía recommits himself to family life, teaching the children to read, write and do math. He teaches them about the wonders of the world, making up many as he goes along. A different band of gypsies comes to town with even more fantastic inventions including a machine that makes people forget bad memories and treatment that causes time to be lost. Melquíades is revealed to have died. José Arcadio Buendía takes the children into a large tent where they see what he believes to be the largest diamond in the world, but indeed it is just ice. He pays for all three of them to touch it. José Arcadio (I) won’t, but Aureliano Buendía places his hand on the block and withdraws it, afraid that it is boiling. José Arcadio Buendía pays more money so that he might touch the ice again, declaring it “the greatest invention of our time.”
Because Macondo is as isolated as it is, and they lack proper school books, José Arcadio Buendía decides to make up history and information about faraway places and scientific discoveries. This shows the way that fantasy can be as real as reality, and also the arbitrary nature of fact, emphasizing the importance of belief over truth. The arrival of the gypsies’ new and exciting machine that allows people to forget with the side effect of losing time establishes the connection between time and memory that is deepened over the course of the novel. The moment of the three men of the Buendía family touching the ice, that has previously been referenced, provides detail around an image that is harkened back to as a perfect moment of wonder and nostalgia throughout Aureliano’s life.