“But I’m going to die,” Erendira said.
“My mother says that people who die in the desert don’t go to heaven but to the sea,” Ulises said.
“I never saw the sea,” she said.
“It’s like the desert but with water,” said Ulises.
“Then you can’t walk on it.”
“My father knew a man who could,” Ulises said, “but that was a long time ago.”
I’ve struggled to come up with an angle with which to write about Gabriel García Márquez’s story “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother.” My lack of familiarity with the work of Márquez (this is just the second piece of his that I’ve read) and with the history of Latin America puts me at a distinct disadvantage when trying to come up with any thoughts regarding this 16,000-plus-word novella. That’s not to say that it’s not an engaging story without the background; it’s just that it takes some getting used to this “magical realist” world in which women are changed into spiders for disobeying their parents, oranges are grown with diamonds inside, and those in love can change the color of glass with just a touch.
Despite such whimsy threaded through the story, “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” is ultimately quite bleak. You could say that it finishes with a happy ending, but Eréndira experiences more than her share of misfortune throughout. Portentous omens and harsh treatment fill the piece with an overwhelming sense of sadness and darkness. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story with such a perfectly descriptive title (except for maybe the only other Márquez story I’ve read, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”). Just as Márquez imbues his story with solemn fantasy, the character of Ulises is told that he liked for “the serious way” he “make[s] up nonsense.” In my ignorance, I suppose that part of the author’s genius is his ability to weave a story together with threads of shadowed myths and half-remembered fairy tales. This allusive effect serves to mesh the familiar with the strange, the real with the fantastic. And this is where I found my approach to write about “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother”—it’s a world of extremes circling back on themselves, opposites joining in space.
To my untrained mind, the main extremes of the story are the desert and the sea. It can hardly be an accident that the name of Ulises (according to him, “a sailor name”) recalls that of perhaps the most mythic sailor of all. But while Odysseus spent much of his story out at sea, the myth is ultimately one of escaping the sea—just as Eréndira (and her grandmother) are both desperately seeking to escape the desert. While the surface of this tale exposes a love story between the two star-crossed youths, the deeper undercurrent is one of two ships passing in the night.
Though the sea is presented as respite from “the impunity of the desert” (which “belongs to no one” except, perhaps, God), the imagery Márquez presents of the sea can be confounding. This starts with description of the grandmother as a “handsome white whale” with shoulders “so mercilessly tattooed as to put sailors to shame.” Furthermore, it is unclear if Márquez is equating the sea with heaven in the quotation that preceded this post, and the issue is even further muddied by the “envoy from the eternal life who announced the imminent coming of the fearsome astral bat, whose burning brimstone breath would overturn the order of nature and bring the mysteries of the sea to the surface.” What mysteries are these? Would this be the Second Coming or would it be Armageddon? Most evocative is the grandmother’s description of Eréndira’s father celebration of Eréndira’s birth:
[he] was so happy that afternoon that he sent for twenty carts loaded with flowers and arrived strewing them along the street until the whole village was gold with flowers like the sea.
This is all not to mention the angelic qualities of Ulises (the son of a Dutchman), who is described as having “an unreal aura about him and he seemed to be visible in the shadows because of the very glow of his beauty.” Additionally, apparently his grandfather had wings (was his grandfather an angel? Was he the old man from “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” who disappeared and became “an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea”?). This story brings up more questions than it answers.
“The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” continues its dreamlike admixture of opposites with language that at times contrasts the waking life and dream life, the world of animals and the world of humans, civil authority with military authority, religious power with temporal power, light and dark, Guajiro Indians with those with Spanish ancestors, and so much more that you begin to feel the story is a clear-cut fable of good and evil. The ending is problematic, however, as Eréndira, freed from “the spell that had dominated her since birth,” escapes both her dead grandmother and Ulises, heading away from her misfortune:
Without turning her head she ran past the salt-peter pits, the talcum craters, the torpor of the shacks, until the natural science of the sea ended and the desert began, but she still kept on running with the gold vest beyond the arid winds and the never-ending sunsets and she was never heard of again nor was the slightest trace of her misfortune ever found.