I no longer have my copy of Strange Pilgrims, from which I first read this pure tale of how Toto and Joel navigate a rowing boat, complete with sextant and compass, on light rather than water, having smashed light bulbs in their crowded fifth-floor apartment. I almost always regret giving books away, and have been known to return to second hand book shops the day after to buy back my own copies. This is one certainly I must somehow retrieve.
First published as ‘La Luz es como el Agua’, in Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, Editorial Oveja Negra, 1992; and in English in Strange Pilgrims, Cape, 1993, available at the Independent)
It is a wonderful moment when you recognise in some minor sketch that a great surreal or abstract artist can draw classically and wow you with representational finesse. So it is here with Marquez’s chilly distillation of small-town corruption. None of the magical realist brushwork in this short tale. Instead, the style is spare, austere even, as Marquez relates the potential revenge of a dentist realising he has the slaughterer of his revolutionary friends in his chair and at his mercy. The accumulation of simple details mixes the human and the political, the barber wrestling with professional and filial duties. A great last line.
First published in Spanish in 1962, and in English in Collected Stories, Penguin, 1996. Read the story online here
Angela Carter fans, look no further. The fairytale, fable-like language in this story has always been fascinating to me. And so is the way García Márquez depicts the shared reality among the villagers: their collective action, and their absolute unswerving faith in the fiction they’ve created together. I often teach this story in classrooms alongside Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’. The transformation of the “dark and slinky bulge” in the opening, into the man in the closing paragraphs with a specific name and past, all invented – what does this say about the role that storytelling plays for us? Are the villagers delusional or wiser than any of us will ever know? Does it all come down to figuring out how to deal with death, when it’s staring you right in the face?
In Collected Stories, Penguin, 2014. Available to read online here
Márquez is here because he was such an influence on my young self. As a teenager, I pretty much wanted to be him (I’d have accepted the generous moustache), and my first ‘proper’ short story was a wholesale Márquez rip-off, of which I was quite proud. This story is resplendent with so many of the Márquezian traits I know and love. Days of rain have left Pelayo’s house infested with crabs, and ‘the world had been sad since Tuesday.’ Then he finds a ragged old man face down in the muddy yard. The man has enormous wings. Pelayo ignores his neighbour’s advice to club this apparent angel to death, and instead locks him in the chicken coop. Soon, visitors are flocking from far and wide, and Pelayo is raking it in. Only when a woman who has been turned into a spider arrives with a travelling fair are Pelayo, his family, and his aloof angel left alone. Infestations, transformations, curious crowds, extreme weather, and mystery make this classic Márquez. It strikes me now that all those elements have indeed snuck into my own writing, though I am sadly still short a generous moustache.
In Collected Stories, Penguin, 1996; first published in English in Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories, Harper & Row, 1978; available online here
‘Then she clung to her husband’s neck, screaming like a real madwoman.’
This is the first short story I ever read. I had an inspiring teacher at school who introduced me to Marquez. It felt like the first time I had read ‘in colour’. This story, however, is as dark as it gets. A woman is accidentally admitted to a sadistic psychiatric hospital where the consultant persuades her husband she is too dangerous to ever leave; something the woman herself begins to believe the longer she stays. Marquez is famed for his fantasies, but having worked a lot in mental health, the most terrifying thing about this story is its chilling proximity to the truth.
In Strange Pilgrims (Penguin, 1992)