Wednesday 10th August, 2005


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A novel way to learn

A look at the novel and film El Coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No one Writes to the Colonel)

“¡Nos estamos pudriendo vivos!” (We are rotting alive!) is a mantra of sorts that suffuses El Coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No one Writes to the Colonel), an exceptionally fascinating novel written by Gabriel García Márquez, a Colombian novelist and short-story writer.

Born in 1928 in Aracataca, Colombia, Márquez went on later to cop the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature. Considered a scholastic pioneer by his fans and colleagues alike, Márquez’s Cien años de Soledad (100 Years of Solitude) has earned him international acclaim and evidences his literary prowess.

In T&T, sixth form and university students studying Spanish have been introduced to El Coronel no tiene quien le escriba. Some have even seen Arturo Ripstein’s screen adaptation which slowly intrigues its audiences as they view the colonel despairingly going to the dreadfully battered post-office every day in a desperate bid to find out if the cheque he has been awaiting for nearly 20 years has finally arrived.

Fully cognizant of the fact that the cheque will perhaps never come, each day grows increasingly daunting and wretched for the colonel and his wife. Not only is the family poverty-stricken, but so too they are grief-stricken since the death of their only son, Agustín.

The plot is set in a small town, in the late 1940s. In brief, Márquez’s novel is a heart-felt story of a couple’s struggle to endure poverty and pain during their golden years.

In both the film and the novel, the society is portrayed as a disproportionate fusion of affluence and abject poverty. Destitution becomes the abyss in which the colonel and his wife have plummeted.

Both film and novel display a quite vivid, mirror-like reflection of the devastating poverty that permeates the society. In Ripstein’s cinematic production, dilapidated and rickety buildings fashion the backdrop of the drama.

Tarnished unpainted pillars and walls lurch under the weight of the buildings they endeavour to support. Additionally, potholes and other gaping fissures plague the street’s surfaces.

Márquez aptly and exhaustively describes the malnourished, lanky colonel. However, Ripstein’s version contradicts this factor. In fact, the character that represents the colonel is well built.

The film does not corroborate the notion that “era un hombre árido, de huesos sólidos articulados a tuerca y tornillo (he was a dry man, with solid bones articulated as if with nuts and bolts).” There is no evidence of protruding bones in the film. Instead, fatty, sagging skin successfully clothes his bones.

The colonel’s wardrobe also manifests itself as a marked distinction between film and novel. In the latter, it is cited that his “trousers were as tight as long underwear, his shirt terribly stiff and fastened with a copper stud (los pantalones, casi tan ajustados a las piernas como los calzoncillos largos, cerrados en los tobillos con lazos corredizos).”

Contrarily, the film depicts the colonel in loose-fitting trousers with shiny black shoes, another inconsistency between film and novel, which states that his shoes were old and muddy. At one glance, the colonel in Ripstein’s film suffers at the hands of nature’s clock; age, and not poverty.

The colonel’s wife who is named in the film (Lola) is vibrant, charismatic and strangely vociferous. In the novel, however, she appears more passive and docile.

What remains characteristically distinct in both presentations, though, is her acute aversion toward “el gallo,” the colonel’s pet (cock). She ferociously attacks its ugliness, often tossing it from where it rests.

The film names the cock Taldeo and even assigns a nickname, Buttercup. Near the end of the film, however, Lola’s intense dislike seems to turn to passionate concern as she braves the rain to seek medical assistance for the cock.

Ripstein’s cinematic representation of El Coronel no tiene quien le escriba introduces a new character. Agustín, the colonel’s son, has a companion named Julia. She is labelled the “town hooker” and becomes the reason for his attendance at the “peleas de gallo” (cockfights.) It is at one of these cockfights that Agustín is killed and thus Julia becomes culpable for his demise.

There are other distinctions that set novel and film apart. The novel speaks of “un abogado negro” (a black lawyer) but which is not manifest in the film since this character is portrayed by a Caucasian actor.

The novel also illustrates the port as a central meeting point where the town folk gather every Friday. This is not so in the film. There is a discernible absence of a crowd and not even the decrepit boat that approaches the port brings with it vital human presence.

It goes without saying, then, that there are many distinctions between the film and the novel El Coronel no Tiene Quien le escriba. However, the fundamental plot remains the same, that is, the colonel and his wife struggle to overcome a life of miserable destitution.

Reference: Gabriel García Márquez, El Coronel no Tiene Quien le escriba.

For more information on the Spanish

As the First Foreign Language (SAFFL)

initiative, please contact the Secretariat

for the Implementation of Spanish (a division of the Ministry of Trade and Industry) at 624-8329/ 627-9513

Vocabulary List

Los pantalones.....................the trousers

Los huesos.............................the bones

Las piernas...............................the legs

El gallo.......................................the cock

La pelea de gallos..................cockfight

Some other Latin American novels you may enjoy:

Como agua para chocolate—Laura Esquivel

Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada—Pablo Neruda

La casa de los espíritus—Isabel Allende

Pedro Paramo—Juan Rulfo

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