Cultural Exchange: Colombian authors consider their country’s violence

Who better than a pair of Colombian writers whose books have spurred talk of an emerging “literature of conflict” to answer the country’s perpetual riddle: Why is Colombia so violent? And will the four-decades-long bloodletting that has exacted tens of thousands of victims ever end?

The question was first posed to Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a 38-year-old Bogotá native, who has just published his third novel, “The Sound of Things Falling,” a taut yarn about a professor’s chance and nearly fatal encounter with a drug trafficker. Last month it won the prestigious Alfaguara Prize, a top honor in Latino publishing.

Considering the question in a separate interview was Hector Abad Faciolince, 52, whose 2006 memoir, “The Oblivion That We Will Be,” is being published in English next year. The story of his father’s murder in Medellín by paramilitary personnel in 1987 has sold 150,000 copies in Spanish and has been translated into seven languages.


Both works have been added to some critics’ short list of “post-Boom” Colombian masterpieces. That lineup could include novels “Our Lady of the Assassins” (1994) by Fernando Vallejo and “Rosario Tijeras” (1999) by Jorge Franco, both of which have been turned into movies. Also mentioned in that company is the nonfiction “News of a Kidnapping” (1996) by Colombia’s Nobel prize winner, Boom protagonist and favorite son Gabriel García Márquez.

Vasquez, whose two earlier novels are available in the U.S. in translation, is the more pessimistic, saying the root causes of the violence — class inequality and distrust — persist.

“As García Márquez said in [‘News’], drug trafficking has made prosper the idea that the biggest obstacle to happiness in Colombia is obeying the law,” Vasquez said. “The only way to reduce the narcos’ power is to legalize drugs and make it a problem of public health, not of law and order.” The courtly Vasquez measures his words carefully: Both parents and his sister are attorneys. He himself graduated with a law degree, although he has never practiced, realizing literature was his calling.

Appearing in his book is one of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s hippopotamuses, killed when it wandered off the narco’s private zoo at his Hacienda Nápoles ranch. In the 1980s, when it was open to the public and before Escobar became a fugitive, the zoo drew thousands of weekend visitors. “The hippo was my metaphor for the public’s relationship to the traffickers, how instead of putting up resistance, we accepted convivencia, or sharing the country with them, even spending happy days at his estate although the owner was a killer who planted bombs,” said Vasquez.

Abad sees hopeful signs, including the 90% reduction in homicides in his hometown Medellín over the last decade. But nearly half the nation suffers from poverty and poor education, the fuel that fires lawlessness. So do weak legal institutions and what he says is many Colombians’ inherent intolerance.

“Any popular movement is considered dangerous. If you stand up for the poor and lead marches as my father did, you’re trying to turn them into communists. If you fight for the minimum of human rights like clean drinking water, vaccinations and a roof over your head, you’re a threat to public order,” said the voluble Abad, interviewed in his apartment in Medellín. He is known as a bonachon — Spanish for easygoing and good-natured — and taught Spanish in Italy, edited a Medellín literary magazine and cranked out business correspondence for his mother, a property manager, before finding success as an author.

Vasquez’s novel has historical sweep, spanning the 1960s when Bogotá was a peaceful Andean capital to the 1990s when it was convulsed by assassinations, kidnappings and bombings. Vasquez writes from personal experience: His uncle was killed by leftist guerrillas. Abad’s book is a microcosm, the story of his tight-knit Medellín family and its tragic loss, but one shared by tens of thousands of other Colombians.

Asked whether a national literature of conflict is gradually emerging from the caldron, both writers said it takes time for writers to overcome the personal pain most have experienced and the human desire to forget that pain.

Vasquez said that for years his efforts to write about his country’s recent history fell flat. But something clicked in 2003 when, living in Spain, he witnessed the terrorist attacks on the Madrid subway, which left dozens dead. Experiencing “a fearful society that felt vulnerable” made him try again. “Vargas Llosas said we writers are like birds of carrion; we feed during times of conflict on the worst aspects of our societies,” said Vasquez.

But the gestation period takes awhile, Abad said. “Borges counseled that the time to write poetry is not when you are in love but when you are remembering having loved.”

Abad said nearly 20 years passed before he could write about the death of his father, a doctor whose medical training included a fellowship at UCLA under public health pioneer Dr. Milton Roemer. His initial efforts to tell the story of his father’s murder by two young assassins invariably ended in tears. “Now, the wounds are scars and I can tell what happened,” Abad said. “I would have betrayed by vocation if I had not told it.”

Comparing Colombian books to unquestioned classics written after the Mexican Revolution such as “Los de Abajo” by Mariano Azuela and “Pedro Paramo” by Juan Rulfo, professor Hugo Ramirez in Bogotá says it’s premature to talk of a new literature arising from his country’s recent past. “We’re still counting the bodies, evaluating the sociological damage,” said Ramirez, who teaches literature at University of the Andes. “A sign that the time has arrived may be when we see writers take a humorous look at what happened, when we’re able to laugh at war. But we don’t have that distance yet.”