Rich and incident-full tales of life in South America, Marquez’s magic is only too apparent in his 1961 novella, No One Writes to the Colonel, coupled with the short story collection Big Mama’s Funeral (1962).
Evocative narratives of oppressive heat and humidity, time passing slowly, waiting, watching, looking as, in the novella, the Colonel, a veteran of the 1000 Day War, awaits at the dock for the Friday postal delivery, bringing news of the promised pension of fifteen years earlier. Almost penniless, virtually every worldly good sold, the proud Colonel and his wife scrimp to survive. With the recent death of their son (killed by government forces), the old couple have inherited a potential champion rooster – and the scheduled battle of champions will bring them and the town much-needed wealth. In a country under martial law, no-one in the novel is named, adding to the insignificance of individuality. Hope keeps them alert.
Corruption and stagnation are endemic in Marquez’s novels and short stories of his native Colombia. Big Mama’s Funeral – the longest of the short stories in the collection – is no different as the all-powerful Big Mama, more than a passing reference to a cacique or political boss, lies in state. Through his magical descriptions, Marquez captures the oppressive somnolence of the occasion, a sense carried through other short stories such as There Are No Thieves in This Town (a personal favourite and a tale of the theft of billiard balls) and Tuesday Siesta. Communities are torn apart by dispute, poverty and superstition, freedoms restricted, power lying in the hand of the few.
No One Writes to the Colonel is reportedly a favourite of Marquez himself and, in its sixty or so pages, encapsulates so many of the themes the novelist explored in his later, longer works. It may lack the complexities of those works, but No One Writes to the Colonel remains a dignity of a narrative that celebrates the nameless and the powerless.
Early in 1955, as the Colombian destroyer Caldas ploughed through the seas of the Caribbean, having been in dock in Mobile, Alabama for many months, eight crew members were swept overboard. Only one survived, discovered ten days later barely alive. He had survived afloat without food and water, exposed to the elements and the dangers lurking beneath the waves.
Hailed a hero, the reluctant Luis Alejandro Velasco, just twenty years old, became the toast of Colombian society and the military dictatorship of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. For a short time, at least. A man with enough uncultivated dignity to be able to laugh at his own heroism, Velasco told the budding journalist Gabriel Garcia Marquez the tale of his survival. The real story – the one unfettered by military censorship and revealing the carrying of illegal contraband on a naval ship, a cargo so heavy it was unable to manoeuvre a rescue. Having directly challenged the official version of the storm, denials followed its publication leading to reprisals and the eventual shutting down of the fledgling, idealistic newspaper. It resulted in Marquez himself being sent, for his own protection, to Paris.
The book The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor was first published in 1970. Divided into fourteen short chapters, it follows the published articles in El Espectador in 1955. From the ship’s Mobile departure to the discovery of the half-dead Velasco on a north-Colombian beach, we experience the extraordinary survival, told in his own words but with the inevitable journalistic flourish of the writer. With newspaper article headlines – The Desperate Recourse of the Starving Man, Hope Abandoned… Until Death, each article/chapter tells of the man’s struggle to survive and the belief he would not survive his ordeal. Thirst, the lack of food, an unmerciful sun followed by pitch black nights, the arrival of sharks at 5pm every day (Velasco’s watch worked throughout) – all are recounted, as is the killing of a young seagull but which remains uneaten through to a description of the remote village of Mulatos in northern Colombia and survival.
It’s a familiar story of sailors cast adrift at sea and the battle with the elements for survival. Marquez writes in eloquent simplicity with clarity and to the point. And it’s short – a novella of barely one hundred pages. But its writing had such life-changing impact.
A plethora of characterisation, Leaf Storm is a novella of memory and myth, of decay and loss as the ancient former doctor awaits burial in a small town in the early part of the 20th century, long forgotten by most.
Scorned by the townsfolk having refused to help treat the injured during civil war many years earlier, the doctor died alone – likely by suicide. Only the colonel, his daughter Isabel and grandson are in attendance at the wake.
Told through the perspective of the three, the narrative of Leaf Storm is a series of streams of consciousness as they sit in the oppressive heat of the enclosed space. Each adds to the past history of the doctor and the town of Macondo itself – even though the boy’s thoughts are more with the present and the things he is missing by sitting in front of the coffin of a dead man.
It’s an odd yet poetic narrative (early magic realism very apparent). Isabel recalls the arrival of the doctor many years earlier, a man with a mysterious past and no clear name but who carried a letter of recommendation. The colonel also recalls that same arrival, but over the course of the story, the two recollections are seen from different perspectives, different viewpoints, different insights. Memory and myth merge of a once prosperous town left to decay as the banana company moved out. The leaf storm of external detritus – people, services, memories, experiences – that arrived with prosperity are left behind – or move on.
Started in 1955 (first published in 1962), Leaf Storm is a precursor to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude – even to the point of being set in the same fictional town and introducing key characters. Like that later novel, Leaf Storm explores loss, betrayal, solitude – even the rituals of death. It is a quiet, pensive, introspective stand-alone narrative – but it has a sense of an author’s maquette or study for that classic of South American and world literature.
I’ve never been a great fan of short stories. The lack in depth of narrative or characterisation results in a shortcoming, a dissatisfaction. Yet in 38 pages of Innocent Erendira(or, to give it its full title, The incredible and sad tale of innocent Erendira and her heartless grandmother), there is depth of narrative and characterisation by the bucket load – and a great deal more. It is the story of a young girl who accidentally burns down the desert home of her obese grandmother – and, as a result, is forced into the life of prostitution and slavery to repay her debt. It’s a magical story – a larger-than-life grandmother who builds her retinue and revenue on the basis of Erendira’s earnings as they move from isolated town to isolated town across haunting desert landscapes. But eventually, Erendira meets the young Ulises, and they plot to kill the grandmother.
Written in 1972, The incredible and sad tale of innocent Erendira and her heartless grandmother is the longest (and newest) of stories in the Picador 1982 publication – with other stories from as early as 1948 and only a few pages long. True magical realism, which juxtaposes the mundanity of reality alongside the fantastical and magical: folktale magic and the supernatural, qualities that make disturbing subjects more palatable. The abuse of Erendira by her grandmother: the beautiful Laura Farina dispatched by her own father to bestow sexual favours on Senator Onesimo Sanchez (Death constant beyond love).
Marquez, in his stories, is not condoning but highlighting the plights of young girls within the sex trade – the abuse is part of the patriarchal establishment, from family to politics to church. But his focus is much wider – the oppressed, the dispossessed, the powerless. Identifying as both a native of Colombia and South American, Marquez is only too familiar with a history that is full of bloody doctrines and dictators – and his short stories poetically but critically highlight this. Erendira is beautifully accessible – unlike many of the other stories contained within this compendium. Prime examples of magic realism they may be, but my personal preference lies with the novels of Marquez, where time spent allows more immersion than a five-page story such as Eyes of a blue dog (1950).