No One Writes to the Colonel

marquez-no-one-writes-to-the-colonel

I bought Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ story collection, No One Writes to the Colonel, about a decade ago. I bought it because it was cheap and I recognized the author, not as someone I’d read but as an oft-mentioned name in world literature. I read and enjoyed the title story, which is really more of a novella, and for reasons I can’t remember didn’t read any of the rest.

I picked the book up again in April—what a joy to physically pick up a book and open it, flipping pages as I read, seeing the progress I’d made, and feeling the weight of ink and paper in my hands—and read it all the way through, starting with a re-reading of “No One Writes the Colonel” and ending on “Big Mama’s Funeral”, which despite not being my favourite story in the collection is a remarkable way to close out the book: both the technicality of the prose and the immensity and pomposity of what its describing barrelling forward like a banana truck down a bumpy hill. It’s hard to keep up. Your eye wants to skip over entire sentences. You scan lists that the story’s tempo renders too monotonous to read in detail. It’s wonderful.

However, my favourite stories in the collection are neither the novella nor “Big Mama’s Funeral” but about a very short story about two women, a thief and a priest, and another about a thief who steals billiard balls, “There Are No Thieves in This Town”, in which the main character sits in a bar, contemplates his crime, and watches as several young woman dance with an old man whose enthusiasm, evidenced by the man’s grotesque smile and flailing limbs, he describes as such that the old man would clearly have been overjoyed to sprout a tail because it would have been yet another body part to flail.

In my other favourite, “Tuesday Siesta”, a mother and daughter arrive in town on a train:

The 
train 
emerged 
from 
the
 quivering 
tunnel
 of 
sandy 
rocks, 
began
 to
 cross 
the 
symmetrical, 
interminable
 banana 
plantations, 
and
 the 
air
 became 
humid
 and
 they
 couldn’t 
feel 
the
 sea
 breeze 
any
more. 
A
 stifling 
blast 
of smoke
 came 
in
 the 
car 
window.
 On
 the 
narrow
 road parallel
 to 
the
 railway 
there 
were 
oxcarts 
loaded 
with 
green
 bunches 
of
 bananas.
 Beyond the
 road, 
in 
uncultivated 
spaces 
set 
at 
odd 
intervals 
there 
were 
offices 
with
 electric 
fans, 
red‐brick
 buildings, 
and 
residences
 with
 chairs 
and 
little 
white
 tables
 on
 the 
terraces
 among 
dusty 
palm trees
 and
 rose bushes. 
It 
was
 eleven 
in
 the 
morning, 
and
 the
 heat
 had not
 yet 
begun.

They’re here to visit the grave of their son and brother, a thief who was recently killed. They’ve arrived during a siesta. Heat radiates from the words on the page. I almost dropped the book. The woman and the girl visit the local church. The priest is asleep so his sister greets the visitors. The sister is hesitant to disturb the priest, but the woman is determined and the priest wakes and gives them the keys to cemetery gate. He seems torn between his role as a priest, in which every soul is precious, and his role as a member of the town, in which the spiritual well being of a thief is not. His priesthood carefully triumphs, and he suggests that they at least wait until sundown lest they melt. The woman says they have a train to catch. The priest’s sister offers them an umbrella. The woman thanks her but refuses. She and the girl look outside, where the drowsy townspeople have come out of their slumbers and formed an ominous, staring presence that we understand is meant to deter them from visiting the grave. The image wouldn’t be out of place in a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film. Society—the eyes tell us, the woman and her daughter—disapproves. But the woman is strong. She will not be deterred.

She took the girl by the hand and went into the street.

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