Gabriel García Márquez: No One Writes To The Colonel

Gabriel García Márquez is one of those authors who I seem to acquire the titles of without actually reading them, partly because I found his most recent release, Memories Of My Melancholy Whores, despite its brevity, to be a rather dull and unmemorable read. Last year, however, I enjoyed his early non-fiction piece The Story Of A Shipwrecked Sailor enough not to write him off.

So, feeling that I should at least make a dent in my Márquez collection, I scanned my shelves, passing over his longer novels – and better known – novels, eventually plumping for brevity once more and read No One Writes To The Colonel (1961), which, at sixty-nine pages, could really have been bundled with some other short stories, if only to justify its £7.99 price tag. In the US, at least, it was released as the lead in a short story collection.

In a small town in Colombia the titular colonel and his asthmatic wife are living day to day as best they can, selling off their possessions and whatever else they can in order to buy food and medicine. Every week the colonel heads to the post office in the hope that there will be a letter for him, bringing the pension that he is owed. But he’s been waiting for over a decade and no letter has ever arrived, or looks likely to, but he stumbles on with optimism:

The following Friday he went down to the launches again. And, as on every Friday, he returned home without the longed-for letter. ‘We’ve waited long enough,’ his wife told him that night. ‘One must have the patience of an ox, as you do, to wait for a letter for fifteen years.’ The colonel got into his hammock to read the newspapers.

‘We have to wait our turn,’ he said. ‘Our number is 1823.’

‘Since we’ve been waiting, that number has come up twice in the lottery,’ his wife replied.

Aside from the pension, what gives the colonel hope is a rooster, the last possession the couple have of their son, “shot down nine months before at the cockfights for distributing clandestine literature”. While it’s a nuisance now, being only another mouth to feed, it’s only a few months until the fighting season resumes and the colonel, his optimism never waning, expects it to turn a profit, therefore, in the short run, it’s life becomes more important than his own:

Exhausted, his bones aching from sleeplessness, he couldn’t attend to his needs and the rooster’s at the same time. In the secong half of November, he thought that the animal would die after two days without corn. Then he remembered a handful of beans which he had hung in the chimney in July. He opened the pods and put down a can of dry seeds for the rooster.

No One Writes To The Colonel follows the weeks from October to January as the drudgery of everyday life under military rule drives the characters to the brink of starvation. And even with January heralding a new year, you can be sure that things are going to go on just as they are, if not worse. But it’s the notion of hope that keeps the pages turning, wondering what will happen to the colonel (and his wife) as he sticks to his guns, rather than just sell the rooster and dine out on it, relieving the pressure of waiting for the pension.

While Márquez is better known for being at the forefront of the subgenre tagged ‘magical realism’, No One Writes To The Colonel, eschews the magical part and gets right down to the realism, tackling the effects of censorship, poverty, and hope with an undercurrent of humour. Its cast infringe a little on the realism, being grotesques, but at the same time they are everymen suffering the hardships of Colombian life under martial rule.  And if no one is writing to the colonel, at least someone’s writing about him.

January 23, 2008

3 responses to Gabriel García Márquez: No One Writes To The Colonel

  1. Katie said:

    I remember studying this book in Spanish class when I was about 17. My Spanish was not 100% and my attention span was definitely nowhere near that! Maybe I should give it another go…

  2. Mandy said:

    Does anyone know if there is a more modern English translation of “El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba”?

  3. Stewart said:

    It doesn’t look like it, Mandy. From what I can see all publications have used the J.S Bernstein translation from 1968. But, from my memory of the book, I don’t think it warrants another translation. I don’t recall anything sticking out as having dated in any way.

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