I bought the book El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel) a few months ago for the unconvincing reason that the title put me in mind of my father (it’s lucky he doesn’t read English so he can’t take offence). That, and because I had liked Relato de un naufrágo (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor) which I read the month before. So I bought El coronel and then kept on not reading it, thinking it was just the right size to take on holiday in October. In the end I couldn’t stand it any longer and took it with me for the train on the day when we went walking on the South Downs’ Way. Just as well, because I finished it that very night, so it would have left me rather short of reading material during the holiday.
I spent the past thirty years thinking that I didn’t like Gabriel García Márquez because I didn’t like One Hundred Years of Solitude, of which the only thing I remember is somebody eating dirt and plaster from the wall. Not an episode which encourages me ever to pick up the book again, whether in the original or otherwise. Nevertheless, for some reason which I don’t recall, in March I suddenly decided that I had to give another chance to Márquez. This happened while I was roaming the fourth floor in Foyle’s – a practice that I much recommend – looking at Spanish novels and hoping very much that nobody would suddenly address me in Spanish in the mistaken belief that I would understand them.
There was, predictably, a good few shelves filled with the works of Gabriel García Márquez, and I eventually settled for Relato de un naufrágo, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor. The language seemed suitably easy, and according to the blurb the book was as far removed from magical realism as a book just could be, being in fact not a book, but a series of newspaper articles. A series of newspaper articles, incidentally, that was so disliked by the government of the time that Márquez thought it better to get out of Colombia; there, that should be recommendation enough for any rebel spirits. Besides which, it’s suitably gruesome (it’s the story of a shipwrecked sailor after all) and strangely uplifting (hats off to human endurance, in the sailor’s place I would have just lain down and died). Although to me the most interesting part of the story was easily the context in which the hero, shall I say victim, was lost overboard: a destroyer so overloaded with cargo and contraband that she bloody nearly capsized in heavy seas? (Note, not in a storm.) Leaving aside the question of contraband, the level of incompetence here is simply staggering… And seven men dead, just like that.
El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, No One Writes to the Colonel, is not like the Shipwrecked Sailor. It’s a proper novel. Ultimately, my father didn’t resemble the colonel at all although it’s debatable if this lack of resemblance is a compliment to him. But this is a very good book; beats One Hundred Years of Solitude hands down, and the only thing I don’t understand is how García Márquez ended up famous for Solitude, instead of The Colonel. Not to mention how it rather gratifyingly lacked magical realism. (Or maybe my Spanish wasn’t up to recognising it? Sobering thought.)
Loads of people probably disagree with me on El coronel, just as loads of people say that The Old Man and the Sea is boring. Granted, there’s not a lot that happens in the book other than the colonel waiting for a letter regarding his pension that clearly is never going to come; and putting it like that I suppose you’re reminded of Waiting for Godot (I hated that one when I was 18). But there’s so much about the human condition in this black humour infused ‘not a lot’. How could García Márquez express so much in so few words – the book is a mere hundred pages – while simply writing about an old colonel going out to meet the post every Friday and going home empty handed?
Easily one of the best books I read in years.
I’ve got two more of GMM’s books lined up for reading: Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) and Noticia de un secuestro (News of a Kidnapping), neither of which, I understand, suffers from magical realism – the delights of which I propose to leave to more refined minds.