In the collection of stories entitled No One Writes to the Colonel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez presents a series of cameos of life in South America where personal dignity is upheld in the face of extreme poverty to a remarkable degree. The characters are, on the whole, resigned – through their complex history of political vacillation – to their grim lives and rarely question the fairness of the political powers under which they have to survive. Despite their deprivation, many of these characters portray a dogged optimism. Marquez delicately explores their relationships and the balance of power within them. Ethical considerations do not, for the most part, enter into their world, and the author remains aloof from moral judgement, leaving the onus of this to the reader.
In the title story, life has left the colonel and his wife devoid of all else except their dignity. If the colonel is not yet resigned to the hopelessness of his life, his wife surely is. She accepts reality and strives to cope with its grimness in a practical manner. Yet pride and dignity are paramount in her character. Her health is almost destroyed by impoverishment, yet she recognizes the need to maintain dignity. She has had to discover ‘the key to sustaining the household economy with no money’ [p.19]. She patches her husband’s shirts and with dry humour simultaneously defends and preserves his dignity, suggesting: 'at the carnival all you have to do is take off your jacket’ [p.18] – an unlikely act for the dignified colonel in whose appearance they both take considerable pride. There is no lack of sympathy or conspiracy between the couple. The colonel gives his wife the last scrapings of coffee, and lies [p.13]; the wife makes meals from the rooster’s corn [p.38], and confesses to having boiled stones to deceive the neighbours [p.41], an act which offends and humiliates the colonel. The wife is torn by desperation and complicity with her husband. She has to remind him that hope and dignity will not feed them. Although ‘fed up with resignation and dignity’ [p.42] she nevertheless recognises the colonel’s sustaining need for optimism, taking it as a ‘bad sign’ when he begins to resign himself to the truth that the pension will never be forthcoming [p.39].
Resignation and dignity weave a cloak that fits the women in Marquez’ stories rather better than the men. To the colonel the sale of the rooster to Sabas is tantamount to begging alms, but his wife, with her practical common sense, views it differently: ‘You ought to go there with your head high’ she asserts [p.45], turning dignity into something almost tangible, like a garment to be worn with pride.
In Tuesday Siesta, the woman seems to wear a similar ‘garment’, bearing ‘the conscientious serenity of someone accustomed to poverty’ [p.66]. She is also pathetically practical in her advice to her daughter, being mindful of the effects of heat and tears on thirst [p.67]. She is a proud, determined woman, well acquainted with privation and reality. She offers no explanations or apologies for her dead son, ‘the thief’ and equally has no use for pleasantries or euphemisms, nor for the priest’s sermonizing. Marquez is not concerned with teaching moral lessons, which belong to a world this woman will never inhabit. The code of conduct she passed on to her son was relative to their circumstances and unquestionably logical in a world of extreme hardship, where survival is the first rule.
There is little optimism in There Are No Thieves in This Town and no dignity in Damaso’s poverty, but only hopelessness and boredom. Once again the wife is presented as practical and protective and again something of her history is displayed in her demeanor: ‘her movements had the gentle efficiency of people who are used to reality’ [p.80]. Heavily pregnant, she nevertheless supports her husband, rising at five to earn money for the rent, food and to keep her young husband in pocket money and cigarettes while Damaso dreams and schemes his childish plans. Ana shares his guilt, shields him from reality and even offers to take the responsibility for his crime [p.101].
These three women therefore are interrelated by the quality of their strength and endurance, which is the consequence of hardship. All three are made admirable by their realistic attitudes to life. To them, hope is an indulgence which, as the colonel’s wife points out, cannot be eaten. But hope is the commodity that has sustained such people as the colonel for so many years that it has become synonymous with his survival.
Damaso’s ludicrous scheme to travel from town to town stealing and selling billiard balls [p.88] is paralleled by Balthazar’s ‘fabulous project of a thousand cages, at sixty pesos each, and then of a million’ (Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon, p.113). Poverty imposes no limitations on dreams and in their dreams there is no room for reality or doubt – which is why the colonel will never consider the possibility of the rooster losing the fight. The hope the men indulge in is symptomatic of the poverty from which it is born.
Power has been a prominent feature in Marquez’ national heritage, with his country’s history of political upheaval and conflict, and this subject understandably forms an integral part of his stories. Many different aspects of power are explored. Everyone is allowed some taste or some form of rebuttal of it. Big Mama’s Funeral describes the power of wealth on an awesome scale. Big Mama, ‘infinitely rich and powerful, the richest and most powerful matron in the world’ [p.155], was a legend in Maconda, ‘the town founded on her surname’. Her family’s wealth and power was protected by a complicated pattern of intermarriage which created ‘an intricate mesh of consanguinity’ [p.154]. The limits and value of her estate, visible and invisible, were beyond comprehension, but, since ‘the government had to pay her for the use the citizens made of the streets’ [p.160], Big Mama must have been an invincible power force.
The colonel, for all his dignity, appears to suffer discomfiture when forced into confrontations with the postmaster and Sabas. Their authority contrasts sharply with the colonel’s diffident, apologetic air. The colonel does not himself taste power until his final decision to keep the rooster has been made – a decision born of a profound sense of duty and years of despair. Once taken, this decision acts as a catharsis, leaving him feeling ‘pure, explicit, invincible’ [p.62].
When the wealthy Jose Monteil refuses to honor his son’s order for the beautiful cage, Balthazar responds by giving the cage to the boy with a lie. This act of power combined with dignity is the privilege of the poor. Balthazar, at great personal expense, saves his face and insults the wealthy Monteil, triumphing in one of the few ways open to the poor against the rich.
The dentist, Escovar, in One of These Days, receives his taste of power over the Mayor when the latter submits himself for the extraction of an infected tooth. It is difficult to judge the degree of satisfaction afforded to the dentist by this temporary power-reversal. He does not seem to experience any of the colonel’s exhilaration, nor any degree of personal revenge, but the utterance: ‘Now you’ll pay for our twenty dead men’ hints at a grim sense of justice and satisfaction at the Mayor’s pain.
The power of the church is represented in Father Angel and Father Anthony Isabel, one or other of them appearing in almost all the stories to remind us that the church is an accepted form of authority in this world. Father Angel tries to guide his flock along the correct recreational path in his brand of censorship of films and his sitting guard over the cinema entrance ‘to find out who was attending the show despite his twelve warnings’ [p.40]. And instead of being sympathetic to the dire need of the colonel’s wife, tells her ‘It’s a sin to barter with sacred things’ [p.41] when she treis to raise a loan on her wedding ring. The definitive authority of the church is an essential and accepted part of life in this world. In Artificial Roses, Mina has to don wet sleeves knowing communion will be denied her with exposed shoulders; the rules of the church are rigid and no concessions made to poverty.
Father Anthony Isabel looks for portents with which to browbeat his errant flock. While the devil seems to hold few fears for them, the individual conscience or interest is stirred at the prospect of a visit from The Wandering Jew. The idea makes Rebecca’s ‘skin crawl’ [p.143] – perhaps because of the unknown thief she shot in Tuesday Siesta.
The delicate balance of power and dependency that exists within family relationships is portrayed with the tenderness and clarity of a writer who knows his characters as intimately as they know each other. The dialogues show an economy of words but no lack of communication or instinctive understanding. This was particularly evident between Ana and Damaso who, for all their differences, seem to understand each other’s thoughts so that they respond not to the spoken words, but to the unspoken. This intimate knowledge based on proximity and sharing, is also evident in Artificial Roses where the blind grandmother articulates her instincts and doggedly presses Mina for honest answers. This almost animal form of understanding is fundamental to the lives of these people and necessary for unity and survival in this unstable community.
Marquez, in his acquaintance with poverty, has seen elements of virtue as well as vice and has presented these with great sensitivity. He observes speech and actions from the outside and tells little of his characters’ inner lives. There may be two reasons for his refusal to enter into the ethical considerations of the world he describes. In the first place, a long history of conflict has imbued these characters with disillusionment and resignation – their aim is merely to survive the tyranny that has become an established part of their existence. Secondly, the contiguity and empathy that exists between Marquez and his characters does not permit him the necessary emotional distance for moral judgement. Instead, he has concentrated on the incidents which enrich life and illustrate the underlying history in a revealing and memorable way.
(Page numbers are taken from the Picador edition of No one Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories).
Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School. She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction. You can read about her novels on her website: http://www.lynettesofras.com
A Perennial Classics edition of this collection is available from Amazon.
Further online essays relating to this text:
To Read or Not to Read (blog)
A Study of Socio-Political Cynicism and Individuals Under the Impact of Martial Law and Under the Impact of Inevitable Forces of Global Capitalism - Academia
A Critical Companion to this text is available from Google Books
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