Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
“Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon” is a short story by Gabriel García Márquez, which appears as the fourth story in his 1962 story collection “Big Mama’s Funeral.”
Centered around the character of Balthazar, and moving from poor neighborhoods to rich, and back again, the story explores the effects on the town of a cage Balthazar has built: but ultimately focuses most intently on the character of Balthazar himself.
Reading As a Writer: “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon,” by Gabriel García Márquez
Note: there are many, many writing exercises suggested in this close reading, designed to put into practice the story’s craft techniques. There are too many to do all: pick and choose the ones that appeal to you as practice exercises, for the purpose of generating new work of our own!
The cage was finished.
Sometimes a first line gives us, as writers, not only our physical situation, but our emotional and metaphorical one, as well. It’s an interesting exercise to read, throughout this story, all the ways that Balthazar could be seen as being “caged.” In four words: we get the inciting incident of this story, as well as the overarching theme.
Writing exercise: start a short story in such a way that gives us both the inciting incident (whatever that is), and provide a possible theme of the story.
Balthazar hung it under the eave, from force of habit, and when he finished lunch everyone was already saying that it was the most beautiful cage in the world. So many people came to see it that a crowd formed in front of the house, and Balthazar had to take it down and close the shop.
Notice here that it isn’t the narrative voice that says it’s the most beautiful cage in the world, nor is it Balthazar himself. By knowing that it’s the people of the town who are saying this, it adds to the richness and power of the judgment, and we, as the reader, believe it.
Writing exercise: in a closed, third-person story, present the opinion of a group of people about something. Maybe it’s a craft project, or a house remodel, or a child’s performace, or a surprising athletic feat by a non-athletic person, or a relationship beginning or ending. But let us see the opinion not from the author or the third-person character, but from a group of people somehow.
“You have to shave,” Ursula, his wife, told him. “You look like a Capuchin.”
“It’s bad to shave after lunch,” said Balthazar.
He had two weeks’ growth, short, hard, and bristly hair like the mane of a mule, and the general expression of a frightened boy. But it was a false expression. In February he was thirty; he had been living with Ursula for four years, without marrying her and without having children, and life had given him many reasons to be on guard but none to be frightened. He did not even know that for some people the cage he had just made was the most beautiful one in the world. For him, accustomed to making cages since childhood, it had been hardly any more difficult than the others.
We move from the crowd oohing and aahing over his cage to the dialogue with his wife, and then we move into character-description, and then backstory.
Writing exercise: begin a short story using the same techniques as this one: an opening sentence that sets the inciting incident and possible theme, followed by the opinion of a crowd, followed by two lines of dialogue (make it the character’s spouse?!) followed by a sentence that describes the character, followed by some backstory. Once this is done, the story itself will almost guide you to where it wants to go next.
“Then rest for a while,” said the woman. “With that beard you can’t show yourself anywhere.”
While he was resting, he had to get out of his hammock several times to show the cage to the neighbors. Úrsula had paid little attention to it until then. She was annoyed because her husband had neglected the work of his carpenter’s shop to devote himself entirely to the cage, and for two weeks had slept poorly, turning over and muttering incoherencies, and he hadn’t thought of shaving. But her annoyance dissolved in the face of the finished cage. When Balthazar woke up from his nap, she had ironed his pants and a shirt; she had put them on a chair near the hammock and had carried the cage to the dining table. She regarded it in silence.
Notice how much we learn both about the wife and the husband in these sentences. Through the specificities we see his attitude–and hers–toward both work and toward money, as well as toward the artistic process.
“How much will you charge?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Balthazar answered. “I’m going to ask for thirty pesos to see if they’ll give me twenty.”
“Ask for fifty,” said Úrsula. “You’ve lost a lot of sleep in these two weeks. Furthermore, it’s rather large. I think it’s the biggest cage I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Balthazar began to shave.
“Do you think they’ll give me fifty pesos?”
‘That’s nothing for Mr. Chepe Montiel, and the cage is worth it,” said Úrsula. “You should ask for sixty.”
Once we move from setup into story, the plot–the action of the story–begins in earnest, and move organically from the story’s set-up. Balthazar has plans for how he’ll sell the cage, although he has not yet confided those plans to his wife. His wife, on the other hand, sees the cage as more valuable than does Balthazar, and we can see the difference in their characters again in this paragraph, as we did before.
Writing exercise: put two characters into a situation where they are debating about the financial value of something. How does this reveal the character of each?
The house lay in the stifling shadow. It was the first week of April and the heat seemed less bearable because of the chirping of the cicadas. When he finished dressing, Balthazar opened the door to the patio to cool off the house, and a group of children entered the dining room.
Each of us, as fiction writers, handles our settings in different ways, depending on our particular styles. This is the first moment where we feel the Colombian countryside on our skins.
Write a paragraph set in April, in which you describe the physical setting. What kind of April do we have? Hot and muggy? Cold and rainy? Sunny? Overcast? How does this April affect the characters?
The news had spread. Dr. Octavio Gíraldo, an old physician, happy with life but tired of his profession, thought about Balthazar’s cage while he was eating lunch with his invalid wife. On the inside terrace, where they put the table on hot days, there were many flowerpots and two cages with canaries. His wife liked birds, and she liked them so much that she hated cats because they could eat them up. Thinking about her, Dr. Gíraldo went to see a patient that afternoon, and when he returned he went by Balthazar’s house to inspect the cage.
There were a lot of people in the dining room. The cage was on display on the table: with its enormous dome of wire, three stories inside, with passageways and compartments especially for eating and sleeping and swings in the space set aside for the birds’ recreation, it seemed like a small-scale model of a gigantic ice factory. The doctor inspected it carefully, without touching it, thinking that in effect the cage was better than its reputation, and much more beautiful than any he had ever dreamed of for his wife.
The line, “happy with life but tired of his profession” moves us from a closed, third-person point of view to an omniscient point of view. While it is rare for contemporary short stories to use these omniscient points of view, in which the author has the freedom to go into any consciousness they desire, they are worth playing with, and it is always worth re-visiting how this technique might be used in your own work.
Writing exercise: find a short story you’ve written and set aside, and play with point of view. What happens if you take a closed, third-person point-of-view story, and make it omniscient?
“This is a flight of the imagination,” he said. He sought out Balthazar among the group of people and, fixing, his maternal eyes on him, added, “You would have been an extraordinary architect.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“It’s true,” said the doctor. He was smoothly and delicately fat, like a woman who had been beautiful in her youth, and he had delicate hands. His voice seemed like that of a priest speaking Latin. “You wouldn’t even need to put birds in it,” he said, making the cage turn in front of the audience’s eyes as if he were auctioning it off. “It would be enough to hang it in the trees so it could sing by itself.” He put it back on the table, thought a moment, looking at the cage, and said: “Fine, then I’ll take it.”
“It’s sold,” said Úrsula.
“It belongs to the son of Mr. Chepe Montiel,” said Balthazar. “He ordered it specially.”
The doctor adopted a respectful attitude.
“Did he give you the design?”
“No,” said Balthazar. “He said he wanted a large cage, like this one, for a pair of troupials.”
The doctor looked at the cage.
“But this isn’t for troupials.”
“Of course it is, Doctor,” said Balthazar, approaching the table. The children surrounded him. “The measurements are carefully calculated,” he said, pointing to the different compartments with his forefinger. Then he struck the dome with his knuckles, and the cage filled with resonant chords. “It’s the strongest wire you can find, and each joint is soldered outside and in,” he said.
Upon a first read of this story, this scene does not stand out. We see Balthazar holding firm in his promise, and believe that’s the only reason for this scene. Upon later reads: we feel devastated. If Balthazar would sell to the doctor, he would make the money that he never ends up making. But he does not.
Writing exercise: a character has the opportunity to make a significant sum of money and turns it down–and never gets the opportunity back. How does it make the character feel? How does it make the people in his life feel? What are the repercussions in his life?
“It’s even big enough for a parrot,” interrupted one of the children.
“That it is,” said Balthazar.
The doctor turned his head.
“Fine, but he didn’t give you the design,” he said. “He gave you no exact specifications, aside from making it a cage big enough for troupials. Isn’t that right?”
“That’s right,” said Balthazar.
“Then there’s no problem,” said the doctor. “One thing is a cage big enough for troupials, and another is this cage. There’s no proof that this one is the one you were asked to make.”
“It’s this very one,” said Balthazar, confused. “That’s why I made it.”
The doctor made an impatient gesture.
“You could make another one,” said Úrsula, looking at her husband. And then, to the doctor: “You’re not in any hurry.”
“I promised it to my wife for this afternoon,” said the doctor.
“I’m very sorry, Doctor,” said Balthazar, “but I can’t sell you something that’s sold already.”
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. Drying the sweat from his neck with a handkerchief, he contemplated the cage silently with the fixed, unfocused gaze of one who looks at a ship which is sailing away.
“How much did they pay you for it?”
Balthazar sought out Úrsula’s eyes without replying.
“Sixty pesos,” she said.
The doctor kept looking at the cage.
“It’s very pretty.” He sighed. “Extremely pretty.” Then, moving toward the door, he began to fan himself energetically, smiling, and the trace of that episode disappeared forever from his memory.
The doctor tries a number of different techniques to get Balthazar to sell him the cage, and fails in each. Finally, he gives up, and “the trace of that episode disappeared forever from his memory.” He no longer is interested.
Writing exercise: have a character try to get something from another character. Whatever that thing is. Have the character fail.
“Montiel is very rich,” he said.
In truth, José Montiel was not as rich as he seemed, but he would have been capable of doing anything to become so. A few blocks from there, in a house crammed with equipment, where no one had ever smelled a smell that couldn’t be sold, he remained indifferent to the news of the cage. His wife, tortured by an obsession with death, closed the doors and windows after lunch and lay for two hours with her eyes opened to the shadow of the room, while José Montiel took his siesta. The clamor of many voices surprised her there. Then she opened the door to the living room and found a crowd in front of the house, and Balthazar with the cage in the middle of the crowd, dressed in white, freshly shaved, with that expression of decorous candor with which the poor approach the houses of the wealthy.
The description of José Montiel is that of an omniscient narrator: this is information that a closed, third-person narrative would not have access to, and would have to be accessed in another way. We see the advantage of the omniscient narrative voice, here, in how the camera can move from Balthazar to the Montiel household without skipping a beat.
“What a marvelous thing!” José Montiel’s wife exclaimed, with a radiant expression, leading Balthazar inside. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” she said, and added, annoyed by the crowd which piled up at the door: “But bring it inside before they turn the living room into a grandstand.”
Balthazar was no stranger to José Montiel’s house. On different occasions, because of his skill and forthright way of dealing, he had been called in to do minor carpentry jobs. But he never felt at ease among the rich. He used to think about them about their ugly and argumentative wives, about their tremendous surgical operations, and he always experienced a feeling of pity. When he entered their houses, he couldn’t move without dragging his feet.
We move back into Balthazar’s consciousness in these paragraphs. We only get José Montiel’s wife described from the outside (in the first paragraph) and then are moved back into the consciousness of Balthazar.
Writing exercise: give us the exterior of one character in one paragraph, and the interior consciousness of another character in the subsequent paragraph.
“Is Pepe home?” he asked.
He had put the cage on the dining-room table.
“He’s at school,” said Jose Montiel’s wife. “But he shouldn’t be long,” and she added, “Montiel is taking a bath.”
In In reality, Jose Montiel had not had time to bathe. He was giving himself an urgent alcohol rub, in order to come out and see what was going on. He was such a cautious man that he slept without an electric fan so he could watch over the noises of the house while he slept.
“Adelaide!” he shouted. “What’s going on?”
“Come and see what a marvelous thing!” his wife shouted.
Jose Montiel, obese and hairy, his towel draped around his neck, appeared at the bedroom window.
“What is that?”
‘Tepe’s cage,” said Balthazar.
His wife looked at him perplexedly.
“Pepe’s,” replied Balthazar. And then, turning toward Jose Montiel, “Pepe ordered it.”
Nothing happened at that instant, but Balthazar felt as if someone had just opened the bathroom door on him. Jose Montiel came out of the bedroom in his underwear.
“Pepe!” he shouted.
“He’s not back,” whispered his wife, motionless.
Pepe appeared in the doorway. He was about twelve, and had the same curved eyelashes and was as quietly pathetic as his mother.
“Come here,” Jose Montiel said to him. “Did you order this?”
The child lowered his head. Grabbing him by the hair, Jose Montiel forced Pepe to look him in the eye.
The child bit his lip without replying.
“Montiel,” whispered his wife.
José 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.
José 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.
The unexpected movement of this story–the sale that Balthazar thought was a sure thing slipping throught his fingers, and with it, not only money, but also his status with his wife and his community–makes subtle use of power, power dynamics, and character. “Only to you would it have occurred,” José Montiel tells Balthazar, emphasizing the flighty, perhaps overly artistic frame of mind that the highly focused cage-carver lives in. We also see José Montiel’s businesslike frames of mind, and we see the particular challenges that the son faces (and causes his family to face.) We also see that the wife and the husband do not see eye-to-eye in the raising of their son. All this happens simultaneously with the loss of Balthazar’s income.
Writing exercise: present a character attempting–and failing–to sell something to a couple, but let us see the couple and their life in intense detail during this scene. Perhaps also introduce a child with severe behavioral issues, of some kind. How can this deepen and complicate our characters?
“Leave him alone,” José 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, Úrsula 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 José 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 José Montiel: “After all, that’s what I made it for.”
José Montiel followed him into the living room. “Don’t be foolish, Balthazar,” he was saying, blocking his path. “Take your piece of furniture home and don’t be silly. I have no intention of paying you a cent.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Balthazar. “I made it expressly as a gift for Pepe. I didn’t expect to charge anything for it.”
As Balthazar made his way through the spectators who were blocking the door, Jose Montiel was shouting in the middle of the living room. He was very pale and his eyes were starting to get red.
“Idiot!” he was shouting. “Take your trinket out of here. The last thing we need is for some nobody to give orders in my ,house. Son of a bitch!”
Despite the fact that García Márquez has set up as an omniscient narrator in this story, he chooses to stay outside the consciousnesses of each of his characters in this section. Why do you think that is? We see it all from the outside, as if from a camera. What would happen if we were in one consciousness or another?
Writing exercise: show an emotionally fraught scene but don’t let us hear the thoughts or experience the consciousness of any of the characters. Limit yourself to 400 words, and see what happens.
In the pool hall, Balthazar was received with an ovation.
Until that moment, he thought that he had made a better cage than ever before, that he’d had to give it to the son of Jose Montiel so he wouldn’t keep crying, and that none of these things was particularly important. But then he realized that all of this had a certain importance for many people, and he felt a little excited.
“So they gave you fifty pesos for the cage.”
“Sixty,” said Balthazar.
He has received no money, yet he lies and says he has. Why?
Writing exercise: have a character lie about how much money they were paid for something. Why do they do this?
“Score one for you,” someone said. “You’re the only one who has managed to get such a pile of money out of Mr. Chepe Montiel. We have to celebrate.”
They bought him a beer, and Balthazar responded with a round for everybody. Since it was the first time he had ever been out drinking, by dusk he was completely drunk, and he was taking about a fabulous project of a thousand cages, at sixty pesos each, and then of a million cages, till he had sixty million pesos.
“We have to make a lot of things to sell to the rich before they die,” he was saying, blind drunk. “All of them are sick, and they’re going to die. They’re so screwed up they can’t even get angry anymore.”
For two hours he was paying for the jukebox, which played without interruption. Everybody toasted Balthazar’s health, good luck, and fortune, and the death of the rich, but at mealtime they left him alone in the pool hall.
In these final five paragraphs, the four above and the one below, we see the full details of “Balthazar’s marvelous afternoon.”
Writing exercise: give us a character living a fantasy life, compared with the practicality of their spouse. What are the full details of each?
Úrsula had waited for him until eight, with a dish of fried meat covered with slices of onion. Someone told her that her husband was in the pool hall, delirious with happiness, buying beers for everyone, but she didn’t believe it, because Balthazar had never got drunk. When she went to bed, almost at midnight, Balthazar was in a lighted room where there were little tables, each with four chairs, and an outdoor dance floor, where the plovers were walking around. His face was smeared with rouge, and since he couldn’t take one more step, he thought he wanted to he down with two women in the same bed. He had spent so much that he had had to leave his watch in pawn, with the promise to pay the next day. A moment later, spread-eagled in the street, he realized that his shoes were being taken off, but he didn’t want to abandon the happiest dream of his life. The women who passed on their way to five- o’clock Mass didn’t dare to look at him, thinking he was dead.
Additional Writing Exercises based on “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon”
- Rewrite “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon” in 55 words. What is kept? What is omitted? (This exercise is all about getting to the true heart of the story and is useful to apply to your own work, as well. What is essential?)
- Write a short story of 55 words in which a character creates something, and attempts–and fails–to sell it.
- Play with the title. Change a word or two, and write a 101-word story based on this new title, paying homage to the original. How can this title be used to frame and supplement the story you end up writing?
- Write a short work of 300 words in which two spouses disagree on both the value, and the price, of something that they have to sell. What does this disagreement reveal about their core selves?
- Write a short work of 500 words in which you re-tell “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon” from the point of view of Úrsula (or equivalent character.) What happens if you change the setting to one you know well, and put it in a more contemporary situation?
- Write a short work of 750 words that re-tells “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon” from the point of view of José Montiel (or equivalent character.) What happens if you change the setting to one you know well, and put it in a more contemporary situation?
- Write a short work of 1,000 words in which one character attempts to sell something, cannot, and decides to drink, instead.
- Write a short work of 2,500 words in which a child makes a promise that the parent cannot (or will not) fulfill.
- Write a short work of 5,000 words in which a group of people believe that your main character has done something they haven’t.
- Write a short work of 7,500 words in which a person builds something, fails to sell it, and celebrates anyway.