By Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
170 pages
London: Picador, 1971
ISBN: 0-330-25687-4

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2001

This collection of 9 stories brings the reader into the lives of simple people struggling for survival and meaning in a harsh world. Gabriel Gracia Marquez gives vivid and pulsating life to the characters and poignancy to their struggles.

The title story, No One Writes to the Colonel is especially brilliant in form. The colonel is in his mid seventies and he and his wife are down to their very last money, selling off family heirlooms to eat. They are waiting for his pension to begin, awaiting the letter which will announce it and bring them the income for life to which he is entitled. However, they've been waiting now for more than 15 years, the colonel going everyday to the post office to see if the letter has come. The pace of the story is as slow and ponderous as the colonel's resolve and faith that the pension must come. Even in their growing hunger they maintain the life of the fighting cock which their son left when he supposedly was killed for political reasons a year ago. While the colonel's wife is in deep mourning for her son, the colonel knows that actually, he lives and is in hiding. He keeps his son's cock alive for much the same reason he keeps hoping for his pension -- to seek a meaning to living beyond the mere fact of eating. All the while Marquez makes us feel the pace of their lives in the slow moving, somnolent pace of the story.

I was also delighted with the humor, brilliance and lightness of Balthazar's Marvelous Afternoon in which the wire sculptor Balthazar has made the most beautiful bird cage ever seen by the village. His pride is pumped by the extravagant praise of the village, but the young boy for whom he has made it had not secured his father's permission and no money is forthcoming for the cage. But Balthazar rises above this, gives the cage to the boy for free, lies about the fee and gets gloriously drunk with his admiring fans. The warm humanness and deep insights into human pride and sense of self make this a very special story.

I think few others would single out the story Artificial Roses, but it specially pleased me. In a very short tale, Mina has had some heart break in love and her blind grandmother senses it. Further, in Mina's hiding of what's going on the grandmother senses Mina's guilt at what's happening and chastises her. This theme of guilt fascinated me in Marquez's treatment. It's not so much what has happened to Mina, which we never really learn though we suspect, but it is that Mina herself has the guilt which her grandmother only presses her to confront. I could see a million Minas in this simple story, people who live and suffer pains of the heart and yet somehow impute their own guilt in suffering rejection from another.

The collection closes with the more epic, but still very short, story Big Mama's Funeral which concerns the death of a matriarch who has ruled a huge area of the country for the past 60 or more years. However, with her passing this time it is not merely the passing on of the wealth and power to the next family ruler, but the end of an era, the entrance into the 20th century, belatedly, for this backward and poor area of Columbia. The story reads like a 19th century tale set in the wrong century, but the final recognition that this is indeed an anachronistic tale, but one where history herself is anachronistic, not the telling of it.

In all these stories Marquez is a master of economy of words and tactics in telling the stories that effect people in the everyday simple things that go on in life. They are set in a particular historical time and place, yet uncover much that is universal in human existence and suffering.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett