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Secret Histories
On the creation of a Colombian national identity through crime fiction.

Santiago Gamboa

According to Balzac, a "real novelist" must "plumb the depths of society, because the novel is no less than the secret history of nations." Balzac's observation about the power of fiction to reveal social truth applies with particular force to a country like Colombia, whose reality has been so distorted by its official history. History is typically written by the victors, so it tends to be blind before horrors committed by its authors while exaggerating the misdeeds of others. In many Latin American countries, history functions as just another podium for self-aggrandizing elites.

On the other side stands civil society—a society that suffers history, often in silence, a society to which so much is promised and so little delivered, a society that goes to the voting booth every four years with growing disenchantment, a society that suffers the dreams of its supposed prophets.

Who speaks for it?

Not the press. From its origins, the Colombian press has served as a vehicle for the dominant political parties and the upper classes, both well-represented among the families who own the major newspapers. For example, the Canos and the Santos respectively have owned El Espectador (after almost a century, the Canos sold it a few years ago to the biggest economic holding of the country, the Grupo Bavaria) and El Tiempo, the two most influential dailies throughout the twentieth century, both of a liberal bent. Conservative dailies such as El Siglo, owned by the Gómez family, and more recently La Prensa, owned by the Pastranas, occupy the other end of the political spectrum. Three of these four families have produced presidents: Eduardo Santos, Laureano Gómez, Misael Pastrana, and his son Andrés, the current president.

The families who own the newspapers come from la clase dirigente, the ruling class, the minuscule group that has dominated Colombia's economic and political life. In this respect, Colombia is representative: newspapers throughout Latin America are privately owned by wealthy families. Though not controlled by the state, the newspapers are also not independent, if we understand "independent" newspapers to be supported by stockholders and staffed by professional journalists. Not surprisingly, these newspapers' version of reality tends to benefit their owners' interests, which coincide with those of la clase dirigente.

To be sure, the press, which has been changing along with the rest of Colombian society, does show a certain degree of openness. At times, it even tolerates opinions in opposition to the dominant interests. But when it comes to appointing or removing ministers and presidents, convicting or absolving officials and other citizens, the power of the press continues to be a privilege reserved to members of the managing family or the main stockholders.1

The oligarchic structure of the Colombian press is unfair, economically and politically. But the deeper, subtler problem—a problem worthy of a Balzac—is that la clase dirigente does not know the country and often seems embarrassed by it. Members of the dominant class are ashamed of the ethnic and cultural diversity that came with mestizaje and of the multiple faces of its regions. And this ignorance and shame obstruct national integration—a sense of national identity or pride in the traditions and accomplishments of the people.

A defining fact of Colombian life is the social and geographical isolation of the indio and the cultural devalorization of the indigenous heritage. Always denied the prestige of the Spanish-origin white Colombians, the indio has stayed in the mountains, hidden and disenfranchised. Equally isolated are the black descendents of African slaves, originally brought to Colombia by force to work on the farms of Spanish colonists. Hidden in Chocó, a region protected by a natural wall of mountains and inhuman weather, they have—like most of the mestizo population—been effectively kept as impoverished farmworkers for centuries.

Colombia's independence, in fact, was the independence of locally born white Spaniards from the Spanish Crown, and once they achieved independence, they abrogated all the royal privileges to themselves. Most of today's elites descend from those whites, and they preserve the colonial contempt for Indians, blacks, and mestizos.

What is particularly shocking is that the Colombians who have always held power, made laws, reaped the country's profits, and owned its press are precisely those who despise it most, understand it least, and consider themselves most distant from it. William Ospina, a great Colombian poet, rightly describes them as "a caste of wealthy mestizos who had never tried to be Colombian, to identify themselves with our geography or with our population, and who have always been mortified, as they are today, by this country that bears little resemblance to their beloved Europe. An appalling elite who traveled to Europe and North America, not proudly to convey a message of a dignified populace, but to simulate being European and to obtain acceptance by any means."2

Not to know your country, for us in Latin America, is a terrible failing—easily misunderstood by North Americans. Here, we understand the nation not simply as a fort with a flag in front, a place to be defended with your life. We understand it, too, as a world of dear, familiar faces, common memories, shared landscapes, and atmospheres. Here, not knowing your country means not knowing yourself.

IN COLOMBIA, the narrow vision of la clase dirigente is manifest in the major dailies, which confine their depiction of the country to the Capitol building, the stock exchange, the private clubs, and the social gatherings of the wealthy in their Viennese drawing rooms. The rest of the country—the rich indio, black, and mestizo cultures, the fantastic landscapes—is a backdrop, only relevant when in uprising. Now, after decades of neglect and humiliation, the rural and multifaceted "other" country burns in the crossfire between the guerrilla and paramilitary forces. But the tunnel vision, concentrated on the political and economic centers, dismembers the country.

The Mexican Revolution revealed the nation to Mexicans. It made them proud of their indigenous origins, their racial mixing, their territory. And although the revolution led eventually to one of the least democratic arrangements in the continent, it fostered national integration—it made the nation a possible source of pride and cultural identity. After the revolution, the arts, literature, political speeches, and popular culture thrived in their new mission: to define the country that the revolution created for all Mexicans. One of the most renowned Mexican corridos, the Corrido del Caballo Grande, is a song about a horse galloping through Mexico naming and owning the nation. The great Mexican painters—Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros—depict in their murals Indian life, mestizo life, the Mexico of the real barrio, of the trenches, and thereby validate and ennoble its existence. But in Colombia? Most of our painters work on Renaissance-style biblical scenes.

In Colombia, owning the country—even having the minimal familiarity required for such ownership—has been a very slow process; for many, it has barely started. Bogotá, the country's capital, is virtually unknown to its inhabitants, who often cannot name its districts. Similarly, significant parts of Bogotá and other major cities are off-limits to all but the local aristocracy, surrounded by razorwire and checkpoints. Moreover, llaneros from the eastern plains, paisas from the coffee growing Andes region, and costeños from the coasts have few chances to get acquainted, other than through stereotypes and regional caricatures. Such exaggerations are often the product of mockery, disdain, or rivalry, if not outright aversion or a desire for revenge. This mutual disavowal generates violence and exclusion, especially in a country like ours where irresponsible and petty politicians have actually encouraged regional rivalries at key historical moments. Colombia's current violence is not rooted in genetics, nor, really, in drugs, but in a political history of highborn politicians in Bogotá's elegant drawing rooms who seek to protect their privileges with partisan rhetoric that instigates peasant uprisings and mass bloodshed.

The fatal fact is that the nation as a whole has never been accurately described, portrayed, and understood, and the Colombian press has refused to play an integrative role—to create a public sphere that unites the society through the daily news, makes all citizens co-participants in national life, brings them to perceive as their own the successes and failures of their society, and in this way generates a social conscience that judges, celebrates, or condemns.

The contemporary Colombian novel was born in this vacuum, which lends special importance to Colombian fiction.

Yes, writing is an individualistic art—a writer relates experiences that are distinctive to him. But in a larger perspective, his observations and experiences are one part of a comprehnsive social mosaic. And once transformed into a narrative, they form part of a common patrimony, available to anyone in the culture.

The importance of fiction stems from the defining power of the art form. A real novel is neither simply entertainment nor a passive experience. From the moment of reading, a novel enters a reader's life. So a book we have read deeply belongs to our biography as much as our bibliography. One life is a little life, but literature, through the silent pact that it establishes between writer and reader, multiplies the intense sensation that is living.

Beyond its value as art, literature can be a way to know and approximate the "other"—to penetrate his consciousness and live his dramas. Thus the "other" changes from a stranger—suspicious, antagonistic, threatening—to someone known and familiar; in this way, literature fosters tolerance. How can anyone whose youthful hero was the Malay Prince Sandokan, born of the fancy prose of the Italian novelist Emilio Salgari, be a racist? How can anyone touched by the eloquent pages of Anne Frank's diary become an anti-Semite? How can anyone who has admired Gabriel García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme, or Mario Vargas Llosa's La fiesta del chivo—all literary sagas about Latin American dictators—favor military rule? Through its literature, a country knows itself. Life raised to the level of art—whether happy, positive, or regrettable—becomes shared experience, part of memory, elements of a common emotional range. And in the long run it is a pillar of democracy and tolerance. Even peace.

Historically, the Atlantic seaboard has been one of the most isolated regions in Colombia. Seen through the arrogant eyes of mid-twentieth-century Bogotá, it was simply remote. The culture and flavor of this Caribbean region, with its mixture of Spanish, African, and Arab traditions, was referred to with the pejorative corroncho—the cradle of laziness, corruption, nepotism, machismo, excessive drinking, and irresponsibility. Meanwhile, Bogotá considered itself South America's Athens, the birthplace of culture and elegance, a London of the Andes.

García Márquez draws on the culture of this much-condemned Caribbean coast in his oeuvre. His many works filled Colombians with curiosity and admiration for the region's cultural complexity, its contemporary myths, its take on reality. In One Hundred Years of Solitude and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, among others, García Márquez took the unknown costeño and made him universal—to the point that many people outside of Colombia now believe that all Colombians are costeños. Other writers have also made us familiar with the coastal regions—Roberto Burgos Cantor with his writings on Cartagena, and Oscar Collazos with the Pacific coast, a region apparently forsaken by God and by the rest of the country. Each of these writers planted in readers lived experiences that, in turn, grew, enriching their lives and their vision of their own country, while giving an original and intimate perception to outsiders.

At a more local level, Colombians discovered the bohemian and carousing culture of urban Cali in books like Que viva la música (1978) by Andrés Caicedo, a little known young writer who committed suicide. Writers such as Antonio Caballero and R. H. Moreno Durán provided similar instruction about Bogotá. In Sin remedio (1984), Caballero presents a bourgeois's critical and pessimistic portrait of his world while, in Juego de damas, Moreno Durán gives us the marginal and comical bohemian life riddled with sex and student rebellion. Readers of these books will never again be able to come to Cali or Bogotá as foreigners because they will recognize the atmospheres of those books in the streets.

IN COLOMBIA, then, literature is the repository of a powerfully integrating vision, encompassing an awareness of the other. Nowhere, however, in the literature of Latin America has life at the social margins or the corruptions of public life been so forcefully exposed as in the romana negra—a form that encompasses, in American terms, all the varieties of crime fiction.

Born with Edgar Allan Poe's detective Auguste Dupin, the crime novel developed principally in the English-speaking world. A classic Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle crime story consisted of a mystery, usually a murder, solved by a detective's intelligence. The expression "the butler did it" reflects the social world of this fiction: the settings were aristocratic, as only the rich could afford a butler.

North American crime fiction—particularly the "hard-boiled" fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett—brought out other traits. The detective was no longer from an upper-class background but rather was someone marginal, lonely, and with a taste for drink—a Philip Marlowe. The story would take place in a disreputable urban setting rather than an elegant drawing room. For hard-boiled fiction, the city is the preferred space—the city viewed from the margins, not the center, from a perspective that provides intimate knowledge of its darkest secrets.

In Latin America, the hard-boiled American detective novel became the romana negra and accented a characteristic always implicit, but never so overtly articulated: that of political consciousness, and in particular, a consciousness of the wronged individual against the corrupt state. Moreover, rather than forming a separate "genre," the romana negra was treated, from the beginning, as literature, and judged on its literary quality, exactly the same as any other novel.

One of its creators, Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, used the genre to expose the crimes inflicted on the Mexican left in the 1970s by the paramilitary forces of president Díaz Ordaz. Other Latin American writers followed, albeit with appropriate changes in narrative structure to suit local realities and domestic politics. In Chile, the ex-guerrillero as detective emerged with Luis Sepúlveda's The Name of a Bullfighter. The type of crime also shifted—from murders to political corruption, in the writings of Argentine Osvaldo Soriano; to torture by security forces in dictatorships, in the books of his compatriot Miguel Bonasso. Meanwhile, Cuba contributed the cop-who-fights-internal-corruption with the work of Leonardo Padura from Havana.

Following the great success of the romanas negras, famous authors decided to try their hand at the genre, poaching on its prerogatives and attempting to reveal problematic aspects of their society. In Who Killed Palomino Molero? Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa presented the terrorism of the Maoist Shining Path through a peasant's eyes. In The Hydra Head, Carlos Fuentes portrays Mexican society in the 1970s through a fictional scheme of political corruption. I once asked García Márquez if he had ever wanted to write a romana negra. I already wrote one, he said: Chronicle of a Death Foretold. In that book, a small masterpiece, the crime is revealed in the very first sentence. Earlier, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges and his countryman Adolfo Bioy Casares gave life to inspector Bustos Domecq, an investigator who solves crimes from inside a jail cell. But Bustos Domecq is more linked to the tradition of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle than to the rest of Latin American detective fiction.

Following this trend—and perhaps with the sole exception of García Márquez's Chronicleromanas negras incorporating domestic issues started to appear in Colombia in the mid-1990s. Scorpio City, by the young Bogotano writer Mario Mendoza, describes the methods of self-appointed "social cleansing" gangs, groups of urban paramilitary style killers who consider their victims—transvestites, prostitutes, vagabonds and other inhabitants of Bogotá's streets—as beneath human. Rosario Tijeras, by Jorge Franco Ramos, who hails from the Antioquia province, tells the story of a sicario, a young assassin for hire from Medellín, from a first-person perspective. In this novel, we are led to understand that these young sicarios, depicted as bloodthirsty killers by the press, are also victims of a system over which they have no control. The sicario—an eighteen-year old (more or less) who grew up as a hired assassin for drug traffickers and who kills for a ridiculously small amount of money—is Colombia's contribution to noir literature. In Fernando Vallejo's Our Lady of the Assassins, we find something similar as he allows us a glimpse of the everyday lives of young sicarios—their religious devotion and their attachment to their mothers—through the homoerotic lens of the writer. On media and police corruption, we have Oscar Collazos's La modelo asesinada, which deals with the corruption of the elite classes. These novels notwithstanding, there is still relatively little noir writing in Colombia, considering the regrettable wealth of material provided by daily life in the country.

Using a non-noir style, Juan Carlos Botero's Las ventanas y las voces brings us near the horror of the torture practiced by state security forces, a taboo topic rarely covered in the press. In his two recent books, Fragmentos de amor furtivo and Basura, Hector Abad Faciolince deals with 1990s middle-class Medellín as a city besieged by pestilence and disenchantment, where the intensity of violence buried its inhabitants alive. It is an end-of-the-century Medellín distant from the peaceful city described by authors such as Manuel Mejía Vallejo and Darío Ruiz. Alvaro Mutis, the second most important Colombian writer after García Márquez, has not written a book that directly speaks of the reality of contemporary Colombia, barring a few descriptions of mountains, and of the loneliness and toughness of the local population. What he has expressed through his characters, as in the case of the celebrated Maqroll, is a vague existential anguish, a clear pessimism, and an absolute incredulity to ideals like order, the nation, and the state—something that is truly Colombian.

From the memorializing genre, Alfredo Molano's work has shown the other side of the official history. In his pages we find anonymous and real voices of people who lived la violencia and tell a different story from the one we have been accustomed to hear. In Los años del tropel, Siguiendo el corte, and Trochas y fusiles, we hear those who suffered first-hand the ill-fated years of partisan animosities, the origin of Colombia's present tragedy. These people have a voice only in fiction. And books alone have enabled us to know the painful truth.

What is fascinating about this process is that we are dealing with truth expressed through fiction—through events that technically might not have happened. Vargas Llosa's La verdad de las mentiras tells us that sometimes, by supporting stories with "lies," literature can uncover and explain great chunks of reality that would otherwise remain hidden. "Such lies do not document their lives, only the demons that awakened them: the dreams with which they became drunk so that life was easier to live." And, "an epoch is not only inhabited by beings of flesh and blood; it also contains the ghosts that these beings become in order to break the obstacles that limit and frustrate them."3

Well-crafted literature always tells the truth. It awakens one's consciousness and opens new paths. Given the crises in which Colombia finds itself, there is little doubt that the moral proposals inhabiting the pages of novels, short stories, and poems are clearer, more transparent, and more powerful than those found in insipid political speeches. Speeches, which are thrown in your face and piercingly amplified by the same mass media that hypnotizes society with oases of palm trees and graceful fountains when election time comes but does nothing to bring forth the unifying national vision that our country so desperately needs. •

translated by Rafael Reyes-Ruiz

Santiago Gamboa is a journalist and author of two novels: Paginas de Vuelta and Perder es cuestion de metodo. He was born in Colombia and lives in Rome.

Rafael Reyes-Ruiz is a postdoctoral fellow at Oberlin College. He has published short stories in English and Spanish.

1 Although the Colombian press might be at fault for hiding the truth, not all working journalists are to blame. Germán Castro Caycedo, for example has made the social reality of the country accessible to readers through books such as Colombia amarga (1976), El Karina (1985), El hueco (1989), En secreto (1996). In these writings Castro Caycedo provides a critical eye to problems such as the guerrillas, Colombian immigration to the United States, drug trafficking, and the ecological balance of the Amazon rainforest. From a more historical perspective, Arturo Arape wrote, among others, El Bogotazo (1983), one of the masterpieces of Latin American journalism. That book contains a detailed chronicle of the most tragic day in Colombian history, April 9, 1948, when the populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated—a crime that set off a civil war that in some ways has never ended. The same praise can be made of the many chronicles and other journalistic writings of Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, the renowned author of The Fragrance of Guava (1982), a long conversation with Gabriel García Márquez. Despite the difficult task of separating the wheat from the chaff, it must be said that there are also special cases within the print media. The weekly magazine Cambio is one example. Directed by García Márquez (who is the main stockholder but shares ownership with a group of well-seasoned journalists), Cambio is an isolated case, perhaps the only independent media in Colombia, as it is not owned by any of the traditional upper-class families nor by any of the corporate conglomerates that own the rest of the country.

2 William Ospina, ¿Dónde esta la franja amarilla? (Bogotá: Norma, 1997), p. 66.

3 Mario Vargas Llosa, La verdad de las mentiras (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1990), p. 12.

Originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of Boston Review

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