“Colombia changes but remains the same, this is the new face of the same old disaster,” Colombian novelist Fernando Vallejo wrote in “Our Lady of the Assassins” in 1994.
Today, Colombia is in flux. Her citizens voted against a peace deal between the government and the FARC (Colombia’s oldest and largest guerrilla) days before the president won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating that exact deal. A ceasefire remains intact as the country figures out how to proceed in light of the nation’s narrow rejection of the attempt to end the decades-long conflict.
In the days before the vote, many Colombian writers, musicians, and artists lobbied for the “yes” camp. Shakira made a statement, as did John Leguizamo. Athletes joined in, with soccer stars and cyclists extolling the virtues of a path toward peace. But Fernando Vallejo, now in his late 80s, remained resolute, calling President Juan Manuel Santos a “low-life” for sitting down at the table with “the most harmful and criminal group Colombia has ever known: the bandits of FARC.”
Vallejo, known in Colombia for both his polemic rants and gritty literature, is no stranger to controversy. The novelist, also a filmmaker and public intellectual, has always pushed buttons in Colombia — his work deals with crime, poverty, violence, homosexuality and greed (topics that inflame Colombian sensibilities). His work has been censored, excoriated, praised and revered. And although he wrote a dramatic letter in 2007 denouncing his Colombian nationality (after being granted Mexican citizenship), most of his work takes place in Colombia and struggles to make sense of what being Colombian can mean.
Many in Colombia and abroad were in shock when the “no” votes won, as “yes” votes had been leading in the polls. The “no” voters protested that while they wanted peace, this negotiation wasn’t enough. A different type of peace is needed, goes the argument. Internationally, scholars and intellectuals alike tried to make sense of the logic (for is peace not better than extended war?). Many pointed to the Colombian aversion to impunity and the cultural obsession with snakes.
Vallejo points out in “Our Lady of the Assassins,” a “snake” is a score to be settled.... In Colombia, there are too many snakes.
As Vallejo points out in “Our Lady of the Assassins,” a “snake,” in Colombia, is a grievance, a “score to be settled.” One worth killing someone over. One worth eternal conflict.
“In the absence of law that’s being forever revised, Colombia is a snake-pit, you understand. Here they carry out tit-for-tat revenge killings over generations: they pass down from fathers to sons, from sons to grandsons: the brothers keep on dying,” writes Vallejo.
In Colombia, there are too many snakes.
Vallejos’ novel about an old man’s passionate affairs with two teenage hitmen and Colombia’s love of violence was published in 1994, after the death of Pablo Escobar and the chaos that ensued. Here were the low-level soldiers in Escobar’s army, cut off from a commander and roaming the streets of Medellín, listless, without direction and quick to kill. Vallejo points out that after the “death of the alleged big boss drug-trafficker,” it’s hard for a basic narco hitman to drop his gun and go legit.
At the heart of the writer’s argument is identity. Who are we, if the thing that defines us is taken away?
When speaking to Colombians (both in the U.S and in Colombia), I’ve heard this question asked many times about the FARC. What are the soldiers on the ground to do? Some look toward Ireland for answers. Others to Rwanda. But Colombia’s own history has clues. Escobar’s hitmen became criminals, joined paramilitary groups, joined the army, joined the guerrillas or died young. Some went straight. I met such a young man in Miami two years ago. “No one,” he said, “will ever respect me like they did when I had a gun.”
Vallejo agrees. His narrator longs for the days of Escobar, quipping that “a hitman who works for himself and at his own risk isn’t a hitman: that’s free enterprise, private initiative. Another institution of ours, then, that’s gone. In the shipwreck of Colombia, this further loss of our identity means we’ll soon have nothing left.”
Conflict, Vallejo seems to argue, has become part of Colombian identity.
“Our Lady of the Assassins,” published in English in 2001 (by Serpent’s Tail, translated by Paul Hammond) to coincide with the film directed by Barbet Schroeder, is a love story. The narrator, an old man who returns to Medellín near the end of his life, meets beautiful Alexis, a 16-year-old hitman from one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. In the beginning of their taboo affair, the narrator prays for a final “one and only true love,” before asking María Auxiliadora (Mary Help of Christians) that both parties refrain from betrayal. Even at conception, Vallejo’s notion of love is both fervent and quick to turn.
But everything passes, everything comes to an end. Even beautiful hitmen. After a pure and ardent time together, the narrator’s love dies at the hands of two other hitmen. The narrator grieves and soon moves on, looking for another “one and only,” and soon finds Wílmar, another boy who may as well be Alexis. Until, of course, it turns out that Wílmar had a part to play in Alexis’ death. Which becomes irrelevant anyway, as Wílmar is not long for this story, like all the other collateral in both the narrator’s life and country.
In Vallejo’s Colombia, everyone is doomed. Every chance of love, of peace, is thwarted by the sheer random nature of chaotic violence. Nothing is true and nothing is sure. The prose itself is violent — moving back and forth between present and future, changing mode of address constantly, seeding mistrust, contradicting itself and omitting details. Much like the propaganda (on both sides) surrounding the FARC deal.
On the streets and in the newspapers, accusations and misinformation characterized both campaigns, but one thing was clear: Colombians voted with rage. Rage against the FARC, rage against the president, rage against a former president, rage against the War on Drugs, rage against Venezuela (propaganda warned that a vote for “yes” meant “turning into Venezuela”), rage against the very nation they tried to protect.
To Vallejo, this makes sense. “He kills me or I kill him because, with the hatred we have for one each other, there isn’t room for the both of us on this tiny planet.”
The vote in Colombia came down to 50.2% against 49.8%, a difference of fewer than 54,000 votes. The narrow victory for the “no” vote will drive negotiators back into action as Colombians figure out how to share both “tiny planet” and nation alike. For now, a friend in Barranquilla tells me that attendance is up at most churches, as people pray for guidance moving forward.
In the novel, Vallejo points out that Colombia is consecrated to Jesus and focuses on the image of the bleeding Christ. He writes, “this is the blood Colombia will shed, now and forever, world without end, amen.”
One can only pray this isn’t so.
Ramírez won the inaugural PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize in 2015 for her nonfiction novella, “Dead Boys” (a Kindle single coming from Little A Nov. 1). A nonfiction writer, storyteller, digital maker, critic and performance poet based in Pittsburgh, she is working on her first full-length book, “The Violence.”