Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon by Gabriel García Márquez, 1968
The magic trick:
Showing our protagonist in a variety of lights
This is just a fantastic story today.
So we’ve got a very interesting protagonist in Balthazar, and a lot of very interesting things happening in a very short period of time, as far as his character goes. We see him in a lot of different lights. He’s weak; he’s strong; we see him as being selfless, community-minded; we also see him in a way that is not so heroic at all. The story ends, and our last glimpse of him puts him in a pathetic light. So there’s a lot to take in here.
It feels like a fable of a kind. Balthazar is up against a cartoonish villain, whose only concern is money. And we’ve got another villain later whose concerns are control and pride and power. So, what we end up seeing is a character who we think has a good heart but is kind of undone. He fights the good fight against the evils of society, but ultimately can’t get past the temptations. He gives in to selfish and irresponsible behavior. It’s certainly a journey over seven pages.
And that’s quite a trick on García Márquez’s part.
Jose’ Montiel let the child go and turned toward Balthazar in a fary. “I’m very sorry, Balthazar,” he said. “But you should have consulted me before going on. Only to you would it occur to contract with a minor.” As he spoke, his face recovered its serenity. He lifted the cage without looking at it and gave it to Balthazar.
“Take it away at once, and try to sell it to whomever you can,” he said. “Above all, I beg you not to argue with me.” He patted him on the back and explained, “The doctor has forbidden me to get angry.”
The child had remained motionless, without blinking, until Balthazar looked at him uncertainly with the cage in his hand. Then he emitted a guttural sound, like a dog’s growl, and threw himself on the floor screaming.
Jose Montiel looked at him, unmoved, while the mother tried to pacify him.
“Don’t even pick him up,” he said. “Let him break his head on the floor, and then put salt and lemon on it so he can rage to his hearts content.” The child was shrieking tearlessly while his mother held him by the wrists.
“Leave him alone,” Jose Montiel insisted.
Balthazar observed the child as he would have observed the death throes of a rabid animal. It was almost four o’clock. At that hour, at his house, Ursula was singing a very old song and cutting slices of onion.
“Pepe,” said Balthazar.
He approached the child, smiling, and held the cage out to him. The child jumped up, embraced the cage which was almost as big as he was, and stood looking at Balthazar through the wirework without knowing what to say. He hadn’t shed one tear.
“Balthazar,” said Jose Montiel softly. “I told you already to take it away.”
“Give it back,” the woman ordered the child.
“Keep it,” said Balthazar. And then, to Jose Montiel: “After all, that’s what I made it for.”
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