El coronel destapó el tarro del café y comprobó que no había más de una cucharadita. Retiró la olla del fogón, vertió la mitad del agua en el piso de tierra, y con un cuchillo raspó el interior del tarro sobre la olla hasta cuando se desprendieron las últimas raspaduras del polvo de café revueltas con óxido de lata. (p. 7)
The colonel took the top off of the coffee can and saw that there wasn't more than a spoonful. He removed the pot from the stove, poured half of the water on the earthen floor, and with a knife scraped the the last bits of the ground coffee, mixed with rust, into the pot.
It is all too easy sometimes to think of Gabriel García Márquez writing in one form, retelling the same type of magical adventures with butterflies fluttering in while innocent maidens are assumed into heaven. Yet some of his more famous stories are grounded in a rough, sometimes brutal realism that contain a terrible beauty of their own. In his 1961 novella (actually written in 1957, but not published for another four years), No One Writes to the Colonel, García Márquez captures in miniature much of the disillusionment that pervaded Colombia in the aftermath of the Thousand Days' War of 1899-1902. It is an atmospheric, brooding tale that builds slowly to a famous closing line that encapsulates in a single word the entirety of the events that unfold.
The titular colonel, purposefully left unnamed in order to capture better the pervasive sense of endemic lack of faith in the (conservative) government's promises, is seventy-five years old at the time of the story. A veteran of the Thousand Days' War (fighting for the Liberals), he has long awaited the long-promised and yet long-delayed pension granted to veterans on both sides of that bloody civil war. He and his wife live in straitened conditions, as shown in the opening paragraph quoted above. He continually makes plans for that future in which the pension has finally arrived. Much of the narrative is devoted to contrasting his misplaced faith with the deprivation that surrounds him. This creates a conflict in belief/appearance that makes each individual statement all the more interesting to read, because each self-delusional comment serves to add to the oppressing despair that García Márquez has carefully built here.
At the heart of the colonel's dreams lies a rooster that he has inherited from his now-dead son, yet another victim in the long period of La Violencia that plagued Colombia in the early-to-mid 20th century. In this rooster he sees a cockfighter that will earn him much-needed income, allowing him and his wife to live their remaining years in better conditions. As he trains this rooster, putting much care and resources that he could ill-afford to squander on it, the reader is led to feel sympathy, mixed with puzzled dismay, over this old man's misplaced faith in things that he will never achieve.
It would be too easy here to dismiss the colonel as a deluded old fool, worthy of the reader's contempt. Yet García Márquez imbues the colonel with a sort of quiet, enduring dignity that it is difficult to not wish that his quixotic hopes would become a reality. But alas, reality does get in the way all too often of our aspirations and it is in the crushing of the colonel's latest hope that leads to a singular moment that is devastating precisely because the colonel has been developed so well.
No One Writes to the Colonel succeeds as a narrative because García Márquez has created a memorable character whose travails serve not only as a symbol of the widespread crushing of dreams in Colombia, but also because even those readers such as myself who are not Colombian natives can see bits of ourselves in the colonel and elements of his difficulties in our lives. It is this mixture of the particular and the universal that make this novella such a powerful read. If it were not for the 1967 novel that followed, No One Writes to the Colonel perhaps could have been remembered as a powerful longer story by a master of short fiction. Even so, it still is a fine introduction to García Márquez's fiction for those who might be daunted by the size and complexity of One Hundred Years of Solitude.