Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories
A Manual for Manuel
It used to be the fashion, in literary conversations and the fiercer sorts of criticism, to proclaim solemn and exclusive preferences for certain patches of an author’s work: to praise the short stories of Henry James, for example, and grumble about the novels; to insist on the Baudelaire of the prose poems and disparage Les fleurs du mal. No doubt most writers are more of a piece than these easy divisions suggest, and criticism, one likes to think, is something more than the rattle of emphatic or excited opinions. So it would be a mistake simply to choose between the novels and the short stories of Julio Cortázar, or to use the novels of Gabriel García Márquez as sticks to beat his stories with. And yet, and yet.
A Manual for Manuel is a novel by one of the century’s most gifted writers of short stories; and Innocent Eréndira is a volume of short stories by the most famous of contemporary Latin American novelists. Differences of genre do matter, and it is a form of laziness to assume that everything an author writes is of equal value—more precisely, it is the lazy form of the sensible assumption that everything an interesting author writes is likely to be of interest.
The question is not particularly acute in the case of García Márquez, since I take it no one wishes to deny that his fame rests squarely and justly on his novels. One Hundred Years of Solitude was a narrative tour de force which captured for the first time the comic sadness of a world in which slaughter and miracle, old wives’ tales and ugly Americans, are joined in an inextricable confusion. The Autumn of the Patriarch pursued the theme of loneliness into the life of a great dictator, a man made up of a dozen Latin American autocrats, but also a grotesque vision of a sort of Franco-across-the-sea; and to say that the novel was not the disappointment that even the writer’s admirers were half-expecting is already to say a great deal for it. The stories, however, with the exception of two or three of the pieces collected in English in the volume No One Writes to the Colonel, which speak eloquently for themselves, come to us mainly as complements to the novels, clues, extensions, further reading. This is especially so for Innocent Eréndira, and even the book’s blurb insists on the virtues of García Márquez (“one of the world’s greatest living writers…in these stories one finds the uniquely original qualities that…”) rather than the merits of the actual merchandise.
Still, the title story—in its full form “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother”—is both charming and haunting, a fairy story of underdevelopment, the fable of an exhausted Cinderella who knocks over a candle and burns down her tyrannical grandmother’s house, and is forced by the old ogress to sleep with as many men as it …