Colombian Literature

By Francisco A. Ortega With Ana Micaela Ortega Obregon

An exceptional narrative renewal is taking place in Colombia. And yet, there is neither a dazzling figure who has captured the hearts of million of readers in the continent, as Jorge Isaac, José Eustasio Rivera and Gabriel García Márquez did in the past, nor the militancy and unity of a literary movement. Rather, what is taking place might be best described as the emergence of a variety of vigorous, incisive, and compelling narrative projects that have gained national and international attention and have collected prestigious literary awards. The story of such a literary moment still remains to be told and this essay is certainly not an attempt to do so. It is too early to give such an account (many of these new writers barely have a book or two published). Instead, I will provide a selective reading of this changing and exciting narrative landscape by focusing on a few of the most notable novels of the last ten years in the hope that some of ReVista's readers take up one these books and experience firsthand their manifest power. 

Serafín, a character invented by Bernardo Davanzati, a fictional author in Hector Abad Faciolince?s award winning novel Basura (2000) says: "Sentí­a un odio lleno de amor por ese costeño al que sin querer habí­a aprendido de memoria." ("I was feeling a hate full of love for this man from the Coast whom without wanting to, I had learned by heart.") This humorous impugnation of Gabriel García Márquez' well-known literary style—so-called Magical Realism—indicates the ambivalent relationship younger Colombian authors maintain with their literary legacy. The fact that it happens within a game of references—a fictional character made up by a fictional author—suggests that these narratives constitute themselves both as continuity and rupture with previous aesthetics modes. On the one hand, there is an unequivocal self-consciousness about writing and recognition of its political dimension, both important features of the boom generation.

On the other, the new authors' writings exhibit a will to transgress literary conventions and produce an aesthetic of rupture. They grew certain that Colombia was changing at a vertiginous pace, that the chaotic logic of its megalopolises exceeded all forethought; that many, fragmented and disorienting violencias replaced La Violencia of yesteryear, and that accepted literary conventions were radically unable to give account of such novel experiences. Readers also began to demand a literary practice responsive to changes happening all over the continent and particularly in Colombia: explosive urban growth, the emergence of mass media as the ultimate arbiter of cultural life, and the consolidation of popular culture as the primary realm for a truly collective symbolic language. But above all, and somewhat more intensely than in other countries, Colombians yearned to see the chronic violences that corroded the country shaped into literary form. They demanded a poetic exploration of these novel phenomena, its unremitting brutality and devastating effects and the complacency with which many coexisted with the agents of countless daily aggressions. Like the helpless detective in Mario Mendoza's bleak Scorpio City (1998), the average Colombian's capacity to trust others and her basic sense of security was fast disappearing, "se están viniendo abajo, están siendo minados por la diversidad y complejidad de la ciudad" ("they are crumbling; they are being undermined by the diversity and complexity of the city.")

Serafí­n?s remark on Garcí­a Márquez also indicates the degree to which the newer generation perceives normative literary expectations as stifling. Indeed, for a brief, magical and terrifying moment in the 1980s, it seemed that the boom had cast the final word. That was, at least, a recurrent feeling among young Colombian novelists who came to their literary awakening during the early part of that decade, when the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) was honored with the Nobel Prize in 1982. In fact, many of the writers who began to publish at that time—authors as diverse as Ramón Illán Bacca, Rodrigo Parra-Sandoval, Roberto Burgos-Cantor, and Fernando Vallejo, whose literature deviated from the aesthetic norm, had to wait several years for their works to enjoy the public acclaim they deserved. 

Fernando Vallejo, one of Colombia's best-known authors, stirred debate in 1994 with his acerbic La virgen de los sicarios (1994), a love story—as Vallejo remarked—in a country of hate. In the novel Fernando, a homosexual writer, returns to his native Medellí­n after many years abroad and takes up a young lover named Alexis, a 16 year-old, trigger-happy sicario (hit man). The narrator casually describes the chain of killings committed by Alexis, which only ends when one of Alexis' enemies, Wilmar, kills him in revenge. Though Fernando initially wants to retaliate, he eventually falls in love with Wilmar and proposes they leave the country to avoid certain death. Just before they leave, however, Wilmar is killed by another young sicario, and the cycle of death is set to begin all over again in this present that has no future. Though exasperating, the unflappable narrator effectively conveys the extreme devaluation of life in Medellí­n. In 2000, French director Barbet Schroeder's film version of the novel caused so much commotion in Colombia that some cultural functionaries called for the movie to be banned for tarnishing the country's international image.

If there is a turning point in the history of this new aesthetic mode it might be the publication of Rafael Chaparro Madiedo's Opio en las nubes(1992). Indebted to the North American beat novels, as well as to Colombian Andrés Caicedo's ¡Qué viva la música! (1977), and to the rock and punk scene of the nineties, the notion of an aesthetic rupture was precisely the reason the jury awarded him the 1992 national literature prize. This innovative narrative undoubtedly can be regarded as one of the most radical poetizations of the urban experience in contemporary Latin America. In the novel, several self-absorbed characters—and two cats—meander the filth-reeking Avenue Blanchot, dotted with bars of outrageous names, in search of the solace only drugs and alcohol can afford. It is precisely space, and not time,that constitutes the unifying thread of a text that no longer has a recognizable plot. We are left with a bunch of hoodlums in whom the social referent is lost and an imaginary city in which time stands still and space is everywhere fragmented. Opio en las nubes powerfully stages the bankruptcy of a society that has grown callous, numb or cynical in face of the suffering of others. The aesthetic door opened by this novel is evident in the way newer narratives—Rubén Vélez' Veinticinco centímetros (1997), Octavio Escobar Giraldo's De música ligera (1998), and Efraí­m Medina's Técnicas de masturbación entre Batman y Robin (2002) construe an imaginary social cartography, employ film and musical techniques, use grotesque humor, and explore the moral limits of sexuality.

Most of the new writers still treasure the craft of story telling. Plots often involve the underworld, where drugs commingle with scandalous institutional corruption, guerrilla attacks, death squads, and common crime. Favored genres are the hardboiled, thrillers, crime novels, pulp fiction, and even journalistic fiction, though by no means do these exhaust the wide variety of writing practices. In all cases, the binaries inherent to these popular genres (good vs. evil; hero vs. criminal; etc.) are subverted in order to develop an artistic language capable of alluding to a more complex situation. Santiago Gamboa uses the detective novel in Perder es cuestión de método (1997) to explore the role of the truth-seeker in a society governed by the powerful. The premise of the genre, to uncover the author of the crime and to restore good over evil, is turned upside down as journalist Ví­ctor Silampa tries to solve the mystery of an impaled body in the outskirts of Bogotá and stumbles upon an all-powerful mafia. At the end, the journalist might have glimpsed the truth behind the crime, but he has lost his girlfriend, complete confidence in all public institutions, the possibility of righting wrong, and worst of all, his faith in journalism to make the truth be known. Defeated, one may assume, the reporter takes up the pen and writes the novel we are reading. Fiction, therefore, seems to be the only realm wherein truth still exists. Other authors who use the detective genre to explore the limits and responsibilities of truth telling are Hugo Chaparro-Valderrama, Mario Mendoza, and Luis Noriega.

Perhaps, the most notorious trait of these contemporary novels is their steady focus on the precariousness of life. The ever-growing reach and randomness of the country's social violence sets the stage for the proliferation of the defeated and the victim. Many of these authors focus on characters and situations whose hold on life is tenuous as a result of social violence: kidnapped victims, desechables (those considered to be "disposable" human beings), journalists, police, judges, sicarios, prostitutes, homosexuals and drag queens—a world on the verge of combustion, as says the narrator of Laura Restrepo?s acclaimed La novia oscura (1999), a fictional account of a prostitute in Barrancabermeja, the country's oil center. As with the subsequent La multitud errante (2001), a novel about the thousands of internally displaced by war, the absence of an ultimate arbitrator, determines that the narrator takes charge of exploring the world of the outcasts through their own language. The epic narrative breadth of her account, the use of characters and settings related to the marvelous and strange, and the employment of a baroque linguistic construction, makes her one of the best heirs of Garcia Márquez' novelistic saga. 

Jorge Franco's Rosario Tijeras (1999) offers a disturbing portrayal of the fugacity of life in Medellín. The novel explores the complicity of the social elite with the drug cartels through the story of Rosario, an impoverished young woman who is the lover of a drug lord and who also has a relationship with Emilio, an upper middle-class young man. The story is told by Antonio, Emilio's best friend, who is secretly in love with Rosario and who has found her agonizing, her body riddled with bullets. While Antonio waits outside the hospital, he struggles to find the language to tell the story of her turbulent life—and his place in it. Like Gamboa's Victor Silampa, Antonio narrates from complete defeat. The ensuing textual fragmentation corresponds to the ruins left after the catastrophe—as if the margin's sense of temporality and destiny became the tempo of the whole.

Even though many of these novels feature strong women, contemporary writing—at least what is being published—exudes a masculinist character. It is not only that many of the preferred genres privilege a masculine ethos, but also that there are not many women among those who are being published for the first time. That is not to say that there are no women writers. Indeed, there are many excellent female poets and recent evidence—such as the 2002 publication of the anthology Rompiendo el silencio—suggests that many novelists, as Monserrat Ordóñez (a recently deceased literary critic) would have said, continue the tradition of hidden or unread writing. However, other well established women authors include Carmen Cecilia Suárez, with her popular short story collection Un vestido rojo para bailar boleros (1988), Freda Mosquera's Cuentos de seda y sangre (1997), Consuelo Triviño's Prohibido salir a la calle (1998), Maria Cristina Restrepo López?s De una vez y para siempre (2000), and the poets-turned-novelists Orietta Lozano (Luminar, 1994) and Piedad Bonnett (Después de todo, 2001). The latter has strived to create a language of intimacy to explore the most private dilemmas of human existence. Making use of a sustained economy of expression and an elegant yet sober literary architecture, Bonnett's Después de todo explores an artist's sudden realization that the socially acceptable means of fulfillment have not been able to satisfy her spiritually and emotionally. 

Like Piedad Bonnet, many young writers´–Enrique Serrano, Philip Potdevin, Juan Carlos Botero, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Ricardo Silva, among others—prefer to explore a more universal and even philosophical condition than to directly chronicle the country's social violence. Serrano's De parte de Dios (2000), for instance, is a collection of short tales about notorious mystics from around the world. The stories are poignant and have a touch of irony that brings together history and philosophy to suggest an intense dramatic quality to life. The result is similar to Jorge Luis Borges' Historia universal de la infamia. Similarly, Vásquez' stories are often set in European cities and explore the burden of the family past, the inherent solitude of the human condition, and the idea of identity.

This brief overview of recent Colombian narrative is necessarily schematic. I had to leave out many excellent authors and novels—not to mention other narrative genres, such as testimonial and journalistic accounts—and focus instead on few representative works to outline how Colombian readers are discovering new artistic languages. These languages do not seek to produce a scathing social critique in the hope that authorities right social wrongs. They are not the product of politically committed authors, at least not in the sense in which compromiso was understood in the sixties. Rather, one might argue that these texts maintain an oblique relation with politics and that their literary practices have to do with the profound crisis that oppositional culture experienced during the eighties. They do not view literature as a pedagogical tool nor as a platform for a political project. Instead, they poetize social experience in order to create a distancing effect and stage it more successfully. This staging allows for a greater exploration of social dreams and symbolic limits, and emphasizes the special capacity of writing to preserve memory. Thus, the fictitious writer Simón Tebcheranny, the implicit narrator in Mario Mendoza's Scorpio City, decides to confront those with power (at great risk for his own life) in order to write the story of a hideous crime. He knows well that by saving the story we save for the future the possibility of having a history. And, in the end, that is really what matters.

Francisco Ortega, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is currently a Fulbright Visiting Professor at the History Department of the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, Colombia. He was a Visiting Scholar and Teaching Assistant at Harvard's Department of Romance Languages and Literatures from 1995 to 1999 and one of the founders of the Colombian Colloquium at Harvard in 1997. Ana Micaela Ortega Obregón is a pre-scholar who participated—though in an embryonic form—in several academic events at Harvard and who assisted in keeping her father awake enough nights to finish this article.