No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez takes place in the author’s familiar milieu–an isolated Latin American town, the sort that no one seems to enter or leave for decades, dusty, inactive, dying from entropy. The unnamed colonel has been waiting for his pension to arrive, waiting for fifteen years. His money and his options have run out, he has nothing left to sell, nothing except the fighting rooster his son left in his care before he was killed by government soldiers. If he can keep the chicken in fighting form for a few months, until it has a chance to win the big fight, he can sell it for 900 pesos, enough to support his wife while they wait for his long promised pension to arrive.
This probably does not sound all that promising to most readers, but there is much to enjoy in this novella. Garcia Marquez understands human nature enough to create complicated, layered characters, even when their actions are quite simple. The Colonel goes to town to try to sell a clock, to visit his lawyer, to see if his letter has arrived. Very little happens but all of the characters, major and minor, come to life in Garcia Marquez’ hands. We see only a few days of the Colonel’s life, but we can tell that the people he meets have known him for years, decades, shared much of his life and too much of his fate.
Waiting for the pension that never arrives while his situation continues to worsen, like waiting for a Godot who never appears, becomes a heart wrenching read. When we learn the lengths the Colonel’s wife has gone to just to keep her husband and herself clothed and fed they touch us as they touch the Colonel. Garcia Marquez is one of the best writers I know at depicting how love deepens in unspoken ways when it has lasted a long long time. He does this very well in No One Writes to the Colonel.
I first posted this review as part of The Novella Challenge back in 2008. I don’t read Garcia Marquez all that often. For some reason the weight of him, maybe the weight of the Noble Prize, puts me off. Though they are too few, every time I have read him I have been profoundly moved. If you’ve never read him, this is a good place to get a small taste of what makes him great. Then go and read Love in the Time of Cholera. You won’t be sorry.