No One Writes to the Colonel may seem unassuming, for the story line is simple and non-experimental in technique. However, its narrative exposes a corrupt town and its institutions. No One Writes to the Colonel, to date, continues to be considered one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s best works. The trilogy of Leaf Storm, No One Writes to the Colonel, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold emphasizes the theme of the individual against the government, along with the themes of war and solitude.
No One Writes to the Colonel has been praised for its economy of language. The Garcia Marquez reader will immediately recall the colonel in Leaf Storm, for the two novellas both portray an old colonel as the main character. Their differences, however, are clearly depicted. The two books, along with a third one, In Evil Hour (1966), hint at La violencia (the Violence), a bloody two decades of gunfire in Colombian history that started in 1948. This literary trilogy can be seen as the embryo for One Hundred Years of Solitude. No One Writes to the Colonel was first published in the magazine Mito in 1958. Three years later it was published again in book form.
The story opens with a series of incompletely explained occurrences. The morning when the colonel awakens is a difficult one for him, even though he has been waiting for nearly sixty years, states the narrative voice. The narrator, however, does not reveal what it is that the colonel has been waiting for. His asthmatic wife is introduced, but only to add more suspense to the story. Who are these people? Why are they not given proper names? As if the reader were not already sufficiently confused, the couple starts talking about some person’s funeral, for whom the town’s church bells are ringing.
The plot’s suspense now increases as the wife talks about the dead person. The colonel gets dressed and some children come through a hole in the fence to look, as if in awe, at the rooster in the back yard. The rooster, a fighting cock, captures the reader’s attention. The plot then brings to the foreground a piece of information that further adds to the suspense. The colonel and his wife comment that their son, Agustın, is “probably talking roosters” (121) with the dead man for whom the bells are tolling—but where is their conversation taking place? The reader is faced with numerous questions, yet the colonel has not even left the house. As if in telegraphic speech (a form of speech in which the speaker uses brief and abbreviated language that the reader must “decode”), the plot continues to present information that the reader must keep in mind to understand the apparently simple, yet deceivingly complex, plot. The dead man is the first to die of natural causes in many years and that, in itself, makes his death a “special event” (122). The increasing confusion felt by the reader is finally diminished upon learning that the town is under martial law. As a result, the funeral march cannot pass in front of the police barracks (125), so the cortege changes direction and continues to the town’s cemetery, where, the reader learns, the mourners will bury a poor musician loved by the town.
No One Writes to the Colonel, the reader eventually discovers, contains several intertwined plots. In addition to the plot concerning the colonel’s son Agustın, another deals with the political tensions of the town, and a third centers on the colonel himself. The plot involving the colonel, however, encompasses all the other two and dominates the narrative.
The feeling of having to wait, as if everything were suspended or trapped in a freeze-frame, pervades the entire plot of the story. For fifteen years, the poor, destitute colonel has been waiting for “mail,” a piece of mail that the narrative voice emphasizes is of sizable importance. Readers first learn of this long wait when the colonel leaves his house to go to the town’s harbor to wait for the launch that brings the mail to town every Friday. The plot surrounding the colonel revolves around waiting for this piece of mail. The title of the book foreshadows what the colonel confirms the first time readers see him go to the harbor. When the postmaster announces that there is nothing for the colonel, the colonel replies, “No one writes to me” (129).
While the reader’s attention may focus on the colonel, the town’s political tensions also play an important role. The country at large should be having elections, but no one except the naive colonel thinks this will happen, as the town is under martial law. The colonel’s wife summarizes it well when she says, “the world is corrupt” (130). The corruption mentioned by the colonel’s wife is also mentioned in other books by Garcia Marquez, such as In Evil Hour (1966). The economic conditions of the colonel and his wife are very poor indeed, as is their health. The colonel suffers from intestinal problems and constant fever, and his wife has asthma.
The doctor, who is young and handsome, looks after the colonel and his wife with much compassion and understanding. He brings “health” to the old couple as well as clandestine information for the colonel to pass on (133). The doctor charges nothing for his visits, jokingly saying he will bill them when the colonel’s rooster fights and wins. The rooster indirectly ties together the three different plots of the book. Seen as a symbol, the rooster is supposed to bring well-being to the colonel, his wife, the schoolchildren, and the town at large. The colonel prefers to provide for the rooster rather than for his wife and for himself. His wife begrudgingly tells him to buy corn for the rooster, although she adds that God knows how the two of them will manage (136). However, the rooster also suffers from the colonel’s dire circumstances and goes without corn for two days. The rooster suffers the same hardship that the colonel and his wife are going through, and just like the old colonel, the rooster shows pride by not eating what he does not like. The colonel’s wife wants the colonel to get rid of the rooster. She thinks roosters are accursed and that her husband’s rooster caused the death of her son, Agustın. However, the colonel insists that it is best to keep the rooster to honor their son’s memory and to sell it after the fight for a better price (147).
In the meantime, the wife, who is frail and asthmatic, fears they may die of hunger. She believes she has found the solution to their problems when she decides they can sell their wall clock for forty pesos to Alvaro, the same person who bought their son’s sewing machine from them. (The colonel’s son was a tailor, who used to work for Alvaro.) Again, however, the colonel’s pride gets in his way. Agustın’s friends are at the tailor shop when the colonel arrives to sell the rooster, and so the colonel is too ashamed to say what has brought him to the store. Agustın’s friends, however, decided to feed the rooster after the colonel tells them he does not want to take care of it anymore, telling them, “I’m too old for that” (151).
On the second Friday, the colonel goes back to the harbor and waits, once again, for the anticipated piece of mail. The doctor gets his newspapers and personal mail, and when he asks the mailman if there is something for the colonel, the mailman emphatically answers: “No one writes to the colonel” (138). For fifteen years the colonel has been waiting for his pension as a veteran of war. In an attempt to solve this problem, the old colonel goes to see his lawyer, who insists that he be patient. At this point, the old colonel decides that he needs to hire a new lawyer.
On the third Friday, while the colonel is maintaining his pride by returning to the harbor, his wife tries to get a loan from Father Angel but fails. She then tries to sell the wall clock, only to find out that most people already own a better one. When she tries to sell the painting off their wall, she finds that nearly everybody has the same one. Her efforts to bring money home only upset the colonel, who bitterly replies, “so now everyone knows we’re starving” (159). His wife answers, “you should realize that you can’t eat dignity” (160). The colonel’s dignity might also be seen as lack of character, as his own wife tells him (163). He finally decides he must sell the rooster. However, when he arrives at the home of the rich man in town, Sabas, in order to do so, “he wished he had arrived an hour later and missed Sabas” (165). The young doctor is in Sabas’s home when the colonel arrives. Sabas offers to buy the rooster at a price that the doctor feels is less than half what the rooster is worth. The doctor seems to understand Sabas’s greed, ambition, and corruption better than the colonel. Sabas’s fortune, the doctor explains to the colonel, was created through his questionable connivance with the town’s mayor. When landowners were persecuted by the mayor’s armed forces—the same armed forces that killed the colonel’s son—Sabas bought the landowners’ properties at half their value just before they were driven out (168).
The colonel, however, wants to see Sabas in a different light. His dignity allows him to ignore Sabas’s material wealth and disregard what others say about him. The colonel lives in a world of make-believe, but he appears to be respected by people, nonetheless. At the town’s pool hall, he is shown considerable respect when the same policeman who killed his son catches him with a clandestine lampoon in his pocket. The policeman aims his rifle barrel at the colonel, but the colonel “gently push[es] the rifle barrel away with the tips of his fingers” and excuses himself, as if to ask the policeman to clear his way; surprisingly enough, the policeman answers, “you may go Colonel” (170).
As the reader approaches the end of the story, the colonel’s wife still looks at the rooster with disdain and cannot wait to get rid of the “evil-omened bird,” as she refers to him (170). The colonel continues to go to the harbor every Friday to wait for his mail, and the townspeople continue to cheer for the rooster. In fact, the rooster goes for trials at a local pit and, like a gold-medal athlete or a superstar soccer player, he is greeted with applause and loud shouting. The loud, frenetic applause for the rooster has an impact on the colonel’s psyche. He believes, with the townsfolk, that the rooster belongs to everybody, just as a pop star, movie actor, or folk hero belongs to the masses. The colonel himself takes the rooster back to the pit for trials and hopes for the quick arrival of January 20, the date when the rooster will fight. The colonel, in the end, seems to take complete control of his life. He cannot envision the rooster losing and thinks his pension from the civil war will eventually come. His wife, however, remains sceptical and does not believe any of this. When she finally finds herself running out of possible arguments, she loses control, grabs the colonel by the collar of his shirt, and shakes him hard while demanding “and meanwhile what do we eat?” (181). The colonel, without losing his composure, and obviously feeling rather invincible, quietly answers “Shit” (181).
GENRE AND NARRATIVE STRUCTURE
No One Writes to the Colonel was the second book published by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Like the book that preceded it, Leaf Storm (1955), No One Writes to the Colonel is also a novella, a fictional narrative most commonly identified by its length, which is generally between that of a short story and that of a full-length novel. Unlike Leaf Storm, No One Writes to the Colonel is not an experimental work focused on form and technique. The plot unfolds in straight, chronological order; this type of narrative is referred to as linear narration. No One Writes to the Colonel is structured in seven discrete, unnumbered chapters. The first three chapters of the novella pay particular attention to the colonel’s anguishing wait for the mail and close with his decision to change lawyers to better appeal for his veteran’s pension. To carry the narrative through to its dramatic end, the story of the rooster is added as a parallel narration in the present and as a symbol of hope for both the colonel and the townsfolk. The seemingly unassuming and compact narration of No One Writes to the Colonel, however, requires a careful reading. A superficial or hurried reading may leave readers with the idea that the whole story is trivial and nonsensical, or even superfluous, absurd, or totally irrational. Such a reaction, unfortunately, perpetuates a stereotype that No One Writes to the Colonel actually mocks in a most ironical way.
In almost traditional style, the narrative structure of No One Writes to the Colonel has an omniscient narrator outside the story line (not a participating character). The narrator is easily identified throughout the novella in scenes where, for example, the colonel took the top off the coffee; his wife raised the mosquito netting; we are told it was seven-twenty when the colonel finished winding the clock; and others.
The story line about the seventy-five-year-old colonel, his asthmatic wife, his dead son, and the rooster upon whom the colonel pins all his hopes is only interrupted by references to the past made by the omniscient narrator. The narrative structure of No One Writes to the Colonel, stated William Plummer, a critic of North American and Latin American literature, shows an overhauled prose, stripped of extravagance and thus made more efficient (Plummer 39). This comment Plummer makes also encompasses the novel In Evil Hour (1966) and the short stories.
Although linear narration is usually seen as traditional and non-experimental, as a form that presents mostly one viewpoint—that of the omniscient narrator—Garcia Marquez reveals a unique design for the use of time. To paraphrase the American literary critic Richard D. Woods, Garcia Marquez’s frequent indication of the exact hour and minute or a recurring mention of the day or the month (or both); a suggestion that time is static; and, finally, an occasional reference to clocks proves how effective the concept of time is for the development of both personality and theme (Woods 87). The narrative structure of the novella pays particular attention to the present time. The story starts on October 27 and ends on December 7, a period of six weeks. The narration, however, expands over a much longer period of time. From the very start, the reader is taken back in time when the colonel’s wife recalls the year their dead son was born, 1922. In fact, their son was born on March 7, 1922, and was killed by the police nine months before the start of the story on January 3, at a cockfight, where he was distributing clandestine literature. Their son, Agustın, worked at a tailor shop and was a cockfight fanatic. The omniscient narrator then recalls an incident when the family was happy and their son Agustın was eight. This makes the year 1930, but readers, in this instance, only get the reference to the incident, not the exact year when it happened. The present tense of the narrative elapses only one week before the colonel gets ready to go pick up the mail. Once again, however, a regression in time is noted by the omniscient narrator: “fifteen years of waiting had sharpened his intuition”(128). The colonel receives nothing that Friday, nor the following. The narrative structure refers to the past again, to August 12, 1949, to inform the reader that the colonel was put on the rolls to receive a pension on this date. Congress had passed the law to award pensions to those who fought to defend the Republic nineteen years ago, but it took eight years to prove the colonel’s claim and then six years to get him included in the rolls. The narrative structure moves in a linear fashion, both in the past and in the present. In relation to the past, it starts with the birth of Agustın in 1922 and moves on to 1949. The present time of the six weeks of narration moves from the end of October to the first week of December, although the year is never mentioned. The reader, if interested, has to play detective and pay attention to dates and incidents, piecing together disparate allusions to complete an accurate time line. Some dates are indeed those of historical events intertwined within the narrative’s fiction. The supposedly unassuming linear structure of the narrative is not as simple as it seems, however. The constant regressions in time by the omniscient narrator, although objective and insistently emphasized, contribute to the reader’s sense that the novella is most focused in nostalgia and the past rather than in the present. Nonetheless, the opposite is indeed the truth. The narrative structure and the treatment of time contribute to the plot. The current time of the novella, 1956, was a time when Colombia was undergoing a wave of violence referred to by historians as La violencia (the Violence); hence, the significance of the date when the colonel’s son was killed (January 3, 1956).
The language of the narration is as austere as the life of the colonel and the townsfolk. The use of language is also a harbinger of much discontent, for in this nameless Colombian coastal town, the only certain thing is death. As the postmaster tells the colonel, who thinks that by changing lawyers his pension might then be made to come, “the only thing that comes for sure is death, Colonel” (156). In a previous scene, Sabas cries, “this town stinks” (153). This is a very sanitized translation of the original Spanish, “este es un pueblo de mierda” (this is a shit town).
Character development in No One Writes to the Colonel depends on the consciousness of the omniscient narrator and the consciousness of the characters as they interact with one another as the plot unwinds. The main characters of the novella are the colonel, his wife, and the rooster. None of the three, however, is given a proper name. The secondary characters are numerous: they include Sabas; the doctor; the postman; the lawyer; the town’s mayor; Father Angel; Agustın’s friends, Alvaro, Alfonso, and German; Sabas’s wife; Moses the Syrian; and Agustın. With these main and secondary characters, Garcia Marquez creates the illusion that a whole town is present as the reader moves through the story. The consciousness of the omniscient narrator reveals the characters’ past, and the consciousness of the characters adds to their own personalities. In this manner, a character who is never present—never depicted in the text—becomes the most important of the secondary characters. Agustın first emerges as a mere reference but gradually evolves to become an important symbol of guidance and subversion.
Of the three main characters of the narrative, the colonel is the most important. The colonel, however, is developed in opposition to his wife. The husband and wife complement one another as if they constituted one whole made out of two parts, like two sides of one coin. However, they are indeed two different characters. The colonel cannot see things the way his wife does, but neither can she understand the way he thinks. The seventy-five-year-old colonel is part of a group of veterans who fought for their country at the end of the nineteenth century, and he now waits for his promised pension. The majority of this group of veterans has died or fled the country. The old colonel, nevertheless, continues to wait as the novella unfolds. In fact, waiting for his pension is what keeps the colonel going. The reader senses that the colonel should not have such high hopes; therefore, the irony of his wait becomes obvious, if not absurd. From the start, he is a character drowning in extreme poverty; the opening lines picture him scrounging to prepare himself a small cup of coffee in a country known for its coffee plantations. His umbrella is nearly completely destroyed by the moths; he has to shave by feel since he does not own a mirror; his house is mortgaged; and he and his wife often boil stones in the cooking pot to fool the neighbors into thinking they are not as destitute as they really are. What, readers may ask themselves, keeps the colonel hopeful when everyone else seems to have given up? Is it because he has hope that the letter, to confirm his pension, will be a form of recognition for his merit in war? These two rhetorical questions can be answered with one word: he has dignity. In fact, dignity is all that the colonel has left. He is not only poor, but the system that has impoverished him financially has also killed his only son.
From the age of twenty, the colonel has been going from one frustration to the next. His wife no longer trusts him or his decisions, for all have been failures. The country’s authorities are totally indifferent to his situation. The colonel, at first glance, appears pathetic. His wife, for example, is always reproaching him for his lack of character, for his stubbornness to keep the rooster, for his insistence in hoping for a letter that never arrives. His destiny, if there is one, seems to be a miserable one, yet he conquers all. His personality seems to be like that of Don Quixote. His dream, like Don Quixote’s, may also be impossible. The colonel continues to fight, never loses hope, and truly believes that, in the end— through the cock fight—he will finally win.
The colonel is redeemed because he never gives up. He keeps his son’s tradition alive by passing on clandestine literature, by keeping the rooster, and by never losing his sense of pride. To the end the colonel is the idealized strength that can face the misery of everyday life with a spiritual richness. He is never defeated, because he never gives up. He is far removed from the reality that surrounds him, but not blind to what he experiences. The ominous present does not stop him from dreaming of a better future.
In contrast, the colonel’s wife is not a dreamer or idealist. Her world is as real as her asthma and the routine of her everyday life. She is simple, strong, faithful, hard-working, long-suffering, and a true religious believer. She is small, thin, and asthmatic. If she undergoes a flare-up in her asthma, she simply waits until the crisis is over. When the crisis is over, she cleans the house and keeps it as best she can. She is capable of performing the miracle of multiplying the bread, says the colonel. She can also sew, mend, and restore. It is as if she had found a key to sustaining a domestic economy where money is non-existent. She adapts to their poverty, although it begets misery. However, little by little she starts to question her husband until finally she rebels against the situation into which they have fallen. She rebels with a voice filled with anger, stating that she is up to her tonsils with resignation and pride. This state of affairs reminds her of the conditions that destroyed the town’s economy. She remembers the time when senators would make a thousand pesos a month for twenty years without doing anything. She remembers their friend Sabas, a man who came to town selling medicines on the streets with a snake around his neck and who now lives in a two-story house and enjoys great wealth. She screams all this at her husband to convince him that dignity cannot feed them.
The colonel’s wife has a harsh and strong temperament. This makes her inflexible, especially in the face of adversity. The death of their son caused her to shed not a single tear, but the unjustified situation in which they live makes her scream, against her own husband and against society as a whole. Unlike the colonel, she is forceful and decisive. Her decisions are all practical. Also unlike the colonel, however, she is the one who suffers most from reality.
The rooster’s presence throughout the novella seems both obsessive and symbolic. The rooster catches the reader’s attention in the same way that it becomes the focus of the colonel’s life. Its symbolism depicts the absurdity of a reality that combines hope and despair. However, the rooster is not an ordinary bird. It is an inheritance from the colonel’s son; it is a fighting cock; and it is the talk of the town. In fact, the rooster’s success as a breeding stud is compared, by the colonel, to that of Colonel Aureliano Buendıa (157). To emphasize the absurdity of the novella, the rooster is the sole hope of the colonel, the doctor, the children, and everybody else—except for the women. The colonel’s wife finds the rooster ugly. To her, it looks like a freak: “his head is too tiny for his feet” (127). The rooster, in short, goes through a personification; that is, the rooster is given human attributes. For example, according to the narrative voice, the rooster seems to be aware of the colonel’s poverty and also of the townsfolk’s near-delirious expectations (173).
Of the secondary characters, it is interesting to note that the most important one is somehow outside the text. Agustın is already dead by the time the narrative takes place, yet his memory is more influential in determining the course of events than the interaction of most characters within the novella. Once again, like the rooster, Agustın is a symbol. His influence is passed on to the friends who survived him, Alvaro, Alfonso, and German. His heritage is passed on to others through his rooster. Agustın, at the time of his death, was raising the rooster for a cockfight. The rooster is Agustın’s inheritance to his family and his friends. Symbolically, it is the inheritance of rebellion: the rooster is a fighter in the same way that Agustın is remembered for inciting the town to rebellion. The rooster, in the end, belongs to everybody. In the same way, the clandestine literature that is passed on to others by the colonel, the doctor, and those who go to the tailor shop is a form of Agustın’s heritage. The police shot Agustın for distributing such literature. His death, however, gives relevance to the novella as a symbol of the repression perpetrated by the regime of the time. The head of state, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, ruled Colombia in a totalitarian dictatorship during which hundreds of people who opposed his rule were killed. Pinilla’s totalitarianism exercised absolute control over all aspects of life in Colombia. His dictatorship outlawed any form of opposition. Agustın is not a character within the narration, but he is as visible as the violence that permeates the novella.
Agustın’s character development is analogous with the life of Saint Augustine. He, too, lived a life of rebellion against his mother’s will. Agustın rebelled against the town’s police and incited his friends to do likewise, as did Saint Augustine, who incited his friends to fight against those who were taking heaven by force (Wallace 125). The leadership of Saint Augustine was passed on to the order he founded, the Augustinian Order. Agustın’s legacy in the novella is passed on to others and left open-ended. His father, the old colonel, decides both to carry on the cockfight tradition (by keeping the rooster) and to distribute clandestine literature.
Sabas is one of the few characters with a proper name in No One Writes to the Colonel. He represents the sector of society that has benefited from the violence suffered by the townsfolk. He is the only member of the colonel’s political party who escaped political persecution, which he did by siding with the government forces through his friendship with the town’s mayor. His house is a new building reflecting his newfound wealth. Sabas is a person without scruples, dedicated to business whether honest or not. He comes across as a hateful character; not by coincidence, the narrative describes him as fat and physically ill. Sabas represents the new ruling class. The humanitarian qualities of the doctor are the antithesis (direct contrast) of Sabas. Through him, the reader gets a fresh and critical viewpoint of the outside world. It is through the doctor that news from abroad comes to town, and he passes it on along with subversive literature. To the needy, like the old colonel and his wife, he charges nothing for his services. His likable characterization is a precursor to the character of the doctor, Juvenal Urbino, in Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).
The lawyer is depicted as the bureaucrat representing the political system in the town. In fifteen years he has not accomplished what he was hired for, to make sure that the colonel received his pension. The lawyer is shown as disinterested, only capable of arguing in terms of names, dates, and excuses. The town’s mayor is another petty official whose authority is exercised in a dictatorial manner. When he persecutes people, they either die or leave the town. His accomplice in crime is Sabas.
Father Angel adds the moral censorship of the Church to the already repressive system. He announces, by ringing the church bells, which movies are appropriate for the public and which are not. However, Father Angel does not decide on his own. He receives, from the central government offices in Bogota ́, a list of films that are morally approved for the townsfolk. In nearly a year’s time, not one movie has been approved. The colonel’s wife, however, seems to agree with the classification of films and is heard saying, “the world is corrupt” (130). Sabas’s wife is the antithesis of the colonel’s wife. Her husband, who finds her useless and thinks she talks too much, verbally abuses her. She is described as superstitious and preoccupied with death. Unlike her pragmatic husband, she lives in a world of dreams. Moses the Syrian seems to add to the background of the novella. His role is as vague as that of the postman. He is supposed to be a member of a group of merchant Syrians.
All characters, main and secondary, are developed in relation to the community, and the community is viewed through the interaction of characters. However, the violence within the community and the decadence shown by the petty officials is dictated from the outside by a head of state whose name is never disclosed. Thus, in the end, the reader may have to accept that the careful development of characters is intended to create atmosphere. An atmosphere of violence, poverty, corruption, and solitude is created through the depiction of the most important character of all—the community itself, or the town.
It is obvious that corruption is the main theme of No One Writes to the Colonel. The colonel’s naive hope leads him to fight yet one more battle, the humiliating battle of having to wait for a veteran’s pension that never comes. Through the open-ended theme of corruption, the novella also explores themes such as violence, hope and despair, the injustices suffered by the townsfolk, the disparities of wealth among the country’s people, and the theme of solitude.
The corruption and violence that Colombia has undergone from the civil wars of the nineteenth century right through to the twentieth century are portrayed in No One Writes to the Colonel through two generations. The old colonel, his wife, and those in power represent the older generation, and Agustın and his friends, the younger generation. As the younger generation protests the dictatorship of the 1950s, the old colonel, with indignation, remembers the last war of the nineteenth century and points out the corruption of the bureaucracy and its chief officials that accompanied it. At that time, the old colonel was a very young man living in Macondo. The Treaty of Neerlandia had been signed, yet the colonel had to wait for ten years to see the promises of the treaty fulfilled. Meanwhile Macondo was inundated with people from out of town who came there to work in the booming economy of the banana plantations. This new social and economic wave forced the proud and dignified colonel to leave Macondo. It also marked the beginning of a period in which the country was engulfed by despair, frustration, oppression, corruption, solitude, violence, and death. The colonel’s misfortune, which began when he left Macondo, permeates the entire book. Initially he was still young and strong and believed that things might change for the better. The colonel was, and continues to be throughout the book, hopelessly optimistic, yet life in the story only gets worse. The young colonel and his wife grow old, physically decrepit, weary, sick, and shamelessly poor; moreover, the violence of the time of the narrative is so pervasive that their only son is killed by the police for distributing clandestine literature. In fact, the magnitude of the violence at the time of the narrative can be measured by the fact that the burial that occurs in the opening chapter is the town’s first burial for natural causes in many years.
The theme of hope versus despair is best exemplified by the rooster, which is a symbol of both forces. The narrative introduces the story of the rooster to counterbalance the mostly nightmarish reality and hopelessness of the historical facts of the backdrop of No One Writes to the Colonel. The town’s doctor, the old colonel, and the townsfolk at large all put their hopes on the rooster. Thus, it serves to partially offset the tension brought about by the police and the town’s martial law. But will the rooster win the fight that is yet to take place and thus “save” the town? The reader has to decide independently because the story ends before the rooster is scheduled to fight, at the point when the old colonel decides to keep the rooster even if it means that he and his wife must do without. The abrupt end seems absurd, but it is an absurdity that calls for examination on behalf of the reader. The old colonel—and all those who pin their hopes on a victory by the rooster—are simply looking for a form of victory against the oppressive government forces that control their very existence. When the old colonel closes the book’s narrative, he feels pure and invincible at last—at seventy-five years of age— because he thinks he can finally win his battle. His rooster “can’t lose” (181). His victory is certain; at last he is on the verge of victory, at the end of both his life and the book.
Another theme, the injustices suffered by the townsfolk, can be immediately seen in the poverty in which the old colonel and his sick wife exist. Their house and their lives are pathetic; they seem to be dying in quiet desperation. Theirs is not a really even life, but an agony that the reader must feel as well. They lack money, possessions, and essentials. They lack health and everything else; as the colonel says, they “are rotting alive” (122). As the reader might imagine, the injustices that they suffer are also suffered by most of the townsfolk. This is certainly the case for the people at the tailor shop, the children who come to see the rooster after school, and the cockfight fanatics who save their money to bet on the rooster. The crises that the poor endure are more like a purgatory than a life. One example is the fact that the townsfolk are not free to walk by the police barracks during the procession to bury the poor musician. The townsfolk are both economically and socially oppressed. Sabas is the only leader of the colonel’s party (the Liberal Party) who escapes political persecution and continues to live in town. The injustices of the poor in general are exemplified by what happens to the old colonel. He is not merely poor, he is impoverished and let down by a social and political system that fails to pay what is legally his, his pension for having served the country. Other members of the middle class who are shown as impoverished complement the poverty apparent in the portrait of the colonel; these include the doctor and the black, toothless lawyer. The poverty of these three middle-class characters is a microcosm of the poverty of the town, a sample of the injustices of a government that is incapable of providing, or unwilling to provide, for its citizens. The injustices suffered by the townspeople, in turn, are a constant reminder of the Colombia of the period when No One Writes to the Colonel was written.
Disparity of wealth, as a theme, can be recognized in the descriptions of a relatively small group of government officials, a few men who have umbrellas to protect themselves from the rain, and, most obviously, Sabas. At the time of the burial, the town’s mayor is still in bedclothes, a sign that he does not need to be at work to earn his money. He is described as standing on the balcony of the barracks, unshaven and swollen in the face. The men with the umbrellas, also attending the musician’s funeral, are members of a social class that can afford to dress in white with black ties (123). However, of all people, the one who has benefited the most from knowing how to manipulate the system is Sabas. The English translation omits the social title that Sabas goes by in the original Spanish: Don Sabas. The word Don before his name is an appellation of economic success. He is not just Sabas, as the English translation goes, he is Don Sabas. A translation using Mr. Sabas would not do justice to what Gabriel Garcia Marquez intends. His Don Sabas is someone who is economically and socially special. He lives in a new, two-story house with wrought-iron window gratings (126). Although the colonel and Sabas live in the same town, they lead as separate a reality as they would if they lived in two different latitudes. As the colonel and Sabas watch the rain come down, the colonel says that the rain from Sabas’s window is like watching it rain in another town (153). Sabas has an office in his house in which to conduct business. He employs a foreman and a group of men to take care of his ranch and animals. His new wealth is such that he requires the use of a safe. Don Sabas, or Sabas as the English translation calls him, is the economic antithesis of the colonel. Sabas was not born rich. Both he and the town’s mayor have become rich by taking advantage of the political turmoil that prevailed at a time before the narrative begins. The townsfolk who were persecuted had to choose between death and immigration to the urban centers. The mayor at the time threatened those who were persecuted with the loss of their property. To avoid this fate, they were forced to sell their lands. People like Sabas benefited by buying their properties at half-price. Sabas has gotten so used to taking advantage of the less fortunate that he tells the colonel that he could sell the rooster for 400 pesos, less than half what he had originally offered. The doctor warns the colonel that the rooster is worth a lot more than what Sabas has offered. Sabas, reveals the doctor, is the epitome of corruption; he enjoys a “sweet deal,” along with the town’s mayor. The colonel defends Sabas by saying that he had to side with the mayor and the Conservative Party (which is in power) to save his own life, but the doctor insists that Sabas is more interested in money than in his own life.
The final theme that is presented to readers in No One Writes to the Colonel, once again, is the theme of solitude, a theme that ranges throughout Garcia Marquez’s works. There is the solitude inflicted upon the town by its geographic isolation. Its only contact with the outside world takes place once a week in the form of mail. The long wait of the colonel is another act of solitude. He is an individual acting alone, in the same way that the colonel of Leaf Storm acts alone to bury the foreign doctor of the novella, against the will of the townspeople. If the colonel’s wait is an act of solitude, his wife’s lifestyle is even more so. She only leaves the house once, to try to sell the clock and the painting (the only two possessions, other than the rooster, that they have left). The two of them form a couple that lives in solitude. The solitude of this old couple also evokes the solitude of the old couple in Love in the Time of Cholera.
SOCIAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT
The social, political, and economic events of No One Writes to the Colonel take place in an anonymous fictional town in Colombia in the coastal northwest part of the country. The action of the novella symbolically, yet realistically, depicts the extreme poverty of the majority of the population of all Colombia compared to the wealth of Colombia’s very small elite in the 1950s. The town is under martial law and almost everything is either censored or controlled by the state or the Church. No One Writes to the Colonel, like most of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works, shows concern with the Colombian civil wars that had afflicted the country at the end of the nineteenth century. As if to sketch the social and historical events that unfold later in Garcia Marquez’s seminal work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, No One Writes to the Colonel deals with several historical events that might normally pass unnoticed. The three most important events as they appear in the narrative are the War of a Thousand Days, La violencia (the Violence), and the banana strike of 1928.
At the start of the novella, the War of a Thousand Days is the first reference to appear. The narrative implies that the colonel participated, nearly sixty years before the time of the narrative of No One Writes to the Colonel , in “the last civil war” (119). This reference alludes to the civil wars of 1899 to 1902. This period, referred to as the War of a Thousand Days, resulted from a fragile and divided political structure between the Liberal and Conservative Parties. The origin of the War of a Thousand Days may be dated back to 1863, when the Liberal Party was dominant but the Conservative Party was favored by the federalist constitution instituted in that same year. In Colombia at that time, it was difficult to even talk of the constitution as a single document. Between 1821 (eleven years after Colombia gained its independence from Spain) and 1945, Colombia formulated eleven national constitutions. The cease-fire of the War of a Thousand Days ended with the signing of several peace treaties. The Treaty of Neerlandia mentioned in No One Writes to the Colonel was signed in 1902 by General Juan B. Tovar of the Conservative Party and Rafael Uribe Uribe of the Liberal Party. In November of that same year, two other peace treaties were signed, but they are not mentioned in the novella; they were the Treaty of Wisconsin and the Treaty of Chinacota. As is the case in most of Garcia Marquez’s work, fiction and fact are combined in the novella. Garcia Marquez’s grandfather, Colonel Nicolas Marquez Iguaran, was a colonel who fought in the civil war of 1902. Although the old colonel in No One Writes to the Colonel is modelled after Garcia Marquez’s own grandfather, Colonel Aureliano Buendıa is pure fiction. (Colonel Aureliano Buendıa is the same colonel who features prominently in One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Although the town of Macondo is fictional, the historical events that occur there are based on events of the nineteenth century combined with those that Garcıa Marquez witnessed himself from 1948 to the time of the publication of No One Writes to the Colonel.
The second important event, the killing of Agustın, the colonel’s only son, is Garcia Marquez’s way of aesthetically writing about the violence that engulfed Colombia during the 1950s. Agustın is killed in 1956, while the fictionalized town is under martial law. First published in 1958 in the magazine Mito, No One Writes to the Colonel hints at the dictatorship of Colombia’s then chief of state, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, and the brutality of the period of La violencia.
The colonel’s departure from his hometown, Macondo, in 1906 provides another important historical development as it hints at the exploitation in Colombia by the United Fruit Company. The civil war known as the War of a Thousand Days had ended in 1902. The old colonel waited patiently for his pension, but after four years, he had begun to despair. His despair was intensified by the arrival of the United Fruit Company, finally forcing him to leave Macondo. The arrival of this so-called banana company, and the large wave of newcomers that the company attracted, is known as “banana fever.” No One Writes to the Colonel mentions the banana fever with which Leaf Storm begins. One Hundred Years of Solitude culminates with the banana strike of 1928, the year when Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born. The strike came as a result of workers receiving only poor wages, no medical benefits, and no rights to organize. When the workers struck in December 1928, at the Cienaga train station, a massacre took place. The death count may or may not have been exaggerated, for most accounts vary from a handful to 3,000 casualties. These newcomers to Macondo, so highly despised in Leaf Storm, are just a memory in the old colonel’s mind in No One Writes to the Colonel, but the tone with which he refers to the event surrounding the banana fever remains one of outrage: “The odor of the banana is eating at my insides” (161).
Carlos, Alberto J. “Review of No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories.” In Critical Essays on Gabriel Garc ́ıa Ma ́rquez. Ed. George R. McMurray. Critical Essays on World Literature. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. 31–33.
Gutie ́rrez Mouat, Ricardo. “The Economy of the Narrative Sign in No One Writes to the Colonel and In Evil Hour.” In Gabriel Garc ́ıa Ma ́rquez and the Power of Fiction. Ed. Julio Ortega. The Texas Pan American Series. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988. 17–33.
Library Journal, May 15, 1968: 93.
The Nation, December 2, 1968: 207.
New York Times Book Review, September 19, 1968: 56.
Saturday Review, December 21, 1968: 51.
Woods, Richard D. “Time and Futility in the Novel El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.” In Critical Essays on Gabriel Garc ́ıa Ma ́rquez. Ed. George R. McMurray. Critical Essays on World Literature. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. 86–93.
Source: Rubén Pelayo – Gabriel García Márquez A Critical Companion (2001, Greenwood)