No One Writes to the Colonel (El Coronel no Tiene Quien le Escriba) by Gabriel García Márquez, 1961

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NO ONE WRITES TO THE COLONEL (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba)
by Gabriel García Márquez, 1961

The Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez began to publish his work in the early 1960s. His monumental best-seller One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de Soledad), published in 1967, established a distinguished literary career.

Published four years after it was written in Paris and considered by critics to be one of García Márquez's most finished works (he has said that he rewrote the story more than 11 times), "No One Writes to the Colonel" ("El coronel no tiene quien le escriba") demonstrates the qualities that were to mark his style. Parting from the single image of a solitary old man who waits in vain—a technique the author himself has identified as the basis for most of his works—the story communicates repression and violence in a subdued and pathos-ridden village.

The action covers a few months in the life of a colonel whose pension, delayed 15 years by an overwhelming bureaucracy in a marginalized world, becomes an obsession. Reduced to penury and near starvation despite his veteran status, the protagonist and his asthmatic wife live in anticipation of his pay. But every Friday the mail launch, the only apparent contact with the outside world, comes and goes with the same declaration from the postmaster, "Nothing for the colonel. No one writes to the colonel."

An understated tone and quotidian descriptions typify García Márquez's prose. Along with the townspeople's attitudes of resignation, these stylistic qualities offset an implied reality of violence and repression to create a heightened sense of irony. Martial law reigns in the town. Everything, including the movies, is censored. Yet the repressive observances are such a part of daily life that they have become ingrained in a familiar pattern. On his way to a funeral the colonel cynically observes that the dead man is the first to die of natural causes in many years. During the procession he is reminded that a burial must not pass before the police barracks. There are constant references to clandestine activity that seems to lead nowhere and be taken seriously by no one. When the colonel mentions the possibility of elections, the town doctor says, "Don't be naive. We're too old to be waiting for the Messiah."

Despite the repression the inhabitants appear not to be in immediate danger. Habituation, rather than fear, drives them forward in their daily activities. The potential for tragedy remains implicit with Agustín, the colonel's son who was murdered nine months earlier for distributing clandestine leaflets at a cockfight. We expect a similar outcome near the story's end. During a heart-stopping moment Agustín's killer, cocked gun in hand, blocks the colonel's path. In his characteristically ironic way, however, García Márquez deflates the scene. Demonstrating the courage and strength that he must have displayed as a young soldier, the immutable old colonel passes without incident, noting that his enemy, "small and Indian looking," emits a "baby scent."

As does all of García Márquez's work, the story contains an implicit social protest toward Latin American politics and society. Don Sabas, the colonel's compadre, is "the only leader of his party who had escaped political persecution." True to type, however, as the doctor characterizes him to the colonel, Sabas is the double-crossing land baron who has accumulated great wealth at the expense of the weak and the poor. The politicians, also through the enlightened doctor, are portrayed as anonymous forces with no immediate impact. Yet their repressive practices remain tacit in the consciousness of the apathetic people. Not even the colonel escapes criticism as his wife admits with shame that she "even went to the Turk's" to sell the clock.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the story resides in García Márquez's ability to create resonance with a single concrete object. Agustín's rooster, a legacy to his parents and a representation of his rebellion and demise, constitutes the greatest element of redemption for the colonel and the town. Secondary to the promise of the money it will earn in January as the cockfighting season begins, the rooster augurs hope for change. During the entire story the hunger motif makes itself felt as the colonel and his wife sacrifice their food to the bird. They peddle it to Agustín's friends and don Sabas with the expectation of getting as much as 900 pesos. But in the end, as he rescues the rooster from a trial fight, the colonel has a revelation, feeling "that he had never had such an alive thing in his hands before." Reminiscing about better days when his son was alive, the colonel decides that the rooster is not for sale. As his wife asks what they will eat if they keep the rooster, the old man ends the story with his powerful one-word reply: "Shit!" In the rooster's palpitating heart Agustín has returned to the town, fulfilling his father's lifelong hope of assertiveness and action.

As García Márquez successfully accomplishes later in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Crónica de una muerte anunciada), in "No One Writes to the Colonel" he creates characters whose earnestness and persistence allow the reader to hope against the inevitable. Along with the protagonist, we lift our expectations to prevent sorrow and hopelessness from settling into our consciousness. The work's deadpan style, which recalls oral storytelling at its best and which often reaches very humorous levels, provides a vivid experience that shows us how grace and courage can overcome repression and fear.

—Stella T. Clark