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
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
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
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
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
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 Chronicle—romanas 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
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.