The Serenity of Poverty

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Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, is most famous for his novel Cien años de soledad  (One Hundred Years of Solitude), perhaps the best single example of the magical realism that was at the heart of the Latin Boom in literature that took place during the last half of the Twentieth Century.

Five years before this novel was published in 1967, he published a book of eight shorts stories called Los funerales de la mamá grande  (Big Mama’s Funeral). The third story in this collection is La siesta del martes  (Tuesday Siesta), a seemingly simple story of a poor mother who takes her young daughter by train to a town where her son had already been killed and buried. She needed to find more meaning, more substance to make sense of her mourning.

García Marquéz spends little time before showing us her extreme poverty; it is at the heart of the story. They travel in a third class coach situated so the smoke from the engine will pass through its windows. He tells us of the mother:

“Viajaba con la columna vertebral firmemente apoyada contra el espaldar del asiento, sosteniendo en el regazo con ambas manos una cartera de charol desconchado. Tenía la serenidad escrupulosa de la gente acustombrada a la pobreza.”

Translation:

“She was riding with her spinal column braced firmly against the back of the seat, and held a peeling patent-leather handbag in her lap with both hands. She bore the conscientious serenity of someone accustomed to poverty.”

I enjoy page-turners, but the main reason I read fiction is to find those rare authors who can make me stop abruptly because some sentence or phrase is just too good to pass by on the fly. In my opinion, García Márquez is one of the best at this. It’s a call to stop and think, forcing you to confront yourself and take sides sometimes.

“She bore the conscientious serenity of someone accustomed to poverty.”

I lived in Colombia, mostly Bogotá, for more than ten years. I met the poor and saw this serenity often while with them. Serenity without food but always with a cup of coffee to offer a visitor. Worn clothes but freshly creased by an iron (often borrowed). I marveled at it. Humor in conversations, hope for better days, and trust in God, always.

If you’re familiar with the Bible you may have come across the scene when Jesus, after his resurrection, enters the locked upper room and greets his frightened disciples. He gives them a gift, the gift of his peace. Why peace? I used to think. Why not strength, health, happiness, perseverance, prosperity or other attributes? We, as Americans, are guaranteed “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. What happened to peace?

This story helps me find the answer; no government can grant us peace, and yet peace is the only inner feeling that can get us through any adversity. García Márquez tells us the mother bore conscientious serenity, conscientious peace. She herself was aware of it, and she bore it proudly.

García Márquez’ novels and stories are filled with these lines that pack a punch. They always make you stop and think; sometimes leaving you angry, laughing, marveling, crying, or maybe even serene.

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