“Bon Voyage, Mr President” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A short book of four short stories. I liked the main one, Bon Voyage Mr President. It’s quite a straightforward story, with none of the magical realism for which Marquez is known. The dying ex-president of a Caribbean nation is in Geneva, seeing doctors about a mysterious ailment. A man from his home nation recognises him and invites him to his house, with the initial intention of making money out of him by selling him funeral services (the man is an ambulance driver and makes extra money working for funeral parlours, selling their products to dying patients). But as they have dinner and talk, the relationship becomes more complex, and they end up giving more than they take.

Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane is just a snapshot about a beautiful woman who sits next to the narrator on a long-distance flight. He watches her sleep and admires her beauty, imagining things he will say to her but finally saying nothing and letting her leave the plane and disappear into New York. It’s well-written but didn’t really feel like a story, more a scene from a potential story.

In I Only Came to Use the Phone, a woman breaks down on the way home and goes to the nearest building to use the phone and call for help. Unfortunately, the nearest building is a mental asylum, and because she enters at the same time as a new batch of patients, she is taken for one of them. Her story about a breakdown and a husband to call is seen as a symptom of her mental illness: her notes reflect the doctor’s concerns about her obsession with the telephone. Years pass, and she finally finds a way to pass a message to her husband, but when he arrives, he believes the doctor’s diagnosis of her and treats her with the same patronising condescension as the nurses, telling her he’ll visit her but she can’t leave just yet. She is furious, and her anger and violence are noted as more symptoms. It’s a good story, not entirely believable but making some good points about the institutionalisation of people, the way we believe anyone in a white coat and discount the words of anyone tainted with a diagnosis of mental illness.

The last one, Light is Like Water, is a short piece of pure fantasy. A child asks why the lights come on with a flick of the switch, and the narrator makes a flippant response, “Light is like water. You turn the tap and out it comes.” After that the boy and his brother ask their parents for a boat, and every time their parents go out they break a light-bulb and let light pour out to a depth of three feet, and go sailing around the house. It works OK until, one night, they turn on too many lights at once and the apartment becomes flooded, drowning the children and their friends. Weird but captivating little story.

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