Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I have a few things in common: We both discovered Kafka while studying in Bogotá, and we both knew we wanted to write forever after borrowing copies of The Metamorphosis. Reading that little novel — an exercise in the seemingly endless possibilities of fiction — proved to be a transformative experience for both of us.
"The first line almost knocked me off the bed," Garcia Marquez said in a 1981 interview with The Paris Review. "I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago." In 1982, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I, well, I turned one.
For all of his accolades and awards, Garcia Marquez never got too comfortable in his success. He only worked harder and produced more. And while it can be easy to focus most of our praise on One Hundred Years of Solitude, undoubtedly his most important novel, let us not forget the stories. Let us not trick ourselves into thinking the big books are the only ones worth our time.
I'm thinking particularly of No One Writes to the Colonel, his second book. This novella about a hapless colonel eagerly awaiting his pension is far from the magical realism Garcia Marquez became so popular for. There are no ghosts, no gypsies. You won't find any mention of levitation or flying carpets or crocodile children. It does, however, bring to our attention the author's grasp on subtlety, on the quiet moments that can give a story depth and beauty.
Here, he delves into themes of corruption and censorship like the poet-journalist he was. The day-to-day life of the colonel, which doesn't amount to much, is handled with the precise detail of a painter. Each stroke, each seemingly monotonous rant, is intentional and gives strength to the whole. Scenes of the colonel making coffee or checking the mail are heartbreaking ruminations on old age that stay with the reader like easy memories.
Then there are gems like "There Are No Thieves in This Town" and "One of These Days," a story that, although it spans only a few pages, is near perfect in its construction. It involves a poor, unlicensed dentist, Aurelio Escovar, who is called upon by the village mayor to remove an infected tooth. At first, Escovar refuses, but he concedes once he's threatened with violence. The dentist informs the mayor that the tooth must be removed using hot forceps and no anesthesia. "Now you'll pay for our twenty dead men," he says, and then we understand that the man we're dealing with is no honest official.
Their exchange is a short one, yet as power is reversed and the mayor occupies a vulnerable position, it effectively highlights the role of manipulation in a corrupt society. The last few sentences are more than telling. When asked where the bill should be sent, to him or to the town, the mayor replies: "It's the same damn thing."
"The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World," one of his earlier works, sees Garcia Marquez juxtaposing the ordinary and the fantastical. It concerns — as the titles suggests — a large man who drowns, then washes up on the beach of a small village. The people have compassion for him and do everything they can to offer dignity to the dead. "Fascinated by his huge size and his beauty, the women then decided to make him some pants from a large piece of sail." Their encounter with the dead man changes them, from the inside out.
Garcia Marquez has left us but, thankfully, his work remains. And many of his short stories and novellas — those brief yet dynamic interludes — should be approached with the same reverence as his longer, major works. Gracias, Gabo.
Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic from Miami. He tweets at @itsjuanlove.