Narratives of Violence in Colombian Literature
Colombia’s history is a violent one. From the colonies to the struggle for independence, the wars between liberals and conservatives, Marxist fever, the drug trade and the paramilitaries, all have all left their mark on the country’s collective memory. Different generations have described and defined their lifetimes in relation to one or form of violence or another.
As a vehicle for memory, literature has inscribed Colombia's historical events, situating characters and their actions in the multiple contexts of Colombian geography: some in rubber plantations deep in the Amazon, others in the Eastern flatlands, or in the crevasses of the mountains; echoes of conflict arriving from the countryside, too; a violence all too real to ignore.
La Vorágine by Jose Eustasio Rivera is situated at the fringes of Colombia. In 1924, and even today, the fringes would be anywhere that is not Bogota, and maybe Cali or Medellin. In the book, Arturo Cova and Alicia leave Bogota and elope, travelling through the eastern flatlands. Alicia is kidnapped and Arturo ventures into the Amazon to look for her. Throughout the story Rivera describes the desolation of the frontiers, lawlessness, and conditions of slavery in the rubber plantations. Keeping in mind the history of resource extraction in Latin America, a reader could easily replace rubber with any other product, such as petroleum, carbon, bananas or quinine. The exploitation of primary products can go through boom and bust cycles, but its social and political effects are felt over decades.
One episode that remains rooted in the collective imagination is the assassination of politician and leader of the populist movement, Gaitan, at the onset of La Violencia, a civil conflict that lasted for ten years and more. The massive 1948 riots of El Bogotazo that followed Gaitan’s assassination are marked in Colombia's minds as a fracture in history, when everything began to head in a different direction. This is narrated in El incendio de abril by Miguel Torres, a fictional account of a variety of people moving about the city during the general revolt.
But violence in Colombia, despite being a cultural continuity, seems to have been an essentially rural phenomenon. During La Violencia, liberals and conservatives killed each other despite being similar. They endorsed the same economic agenda, came from the same socioeconomic background and differed a little in their religious views. It was impossible to discern one another’s political affiliation by external marks; party allegiance and loyalty was something that was inherited along with a last name. It was truly a madhouse where those most respected had the most blood on their hands, while moderates were seen as dangerous pariahs. In the midst of the crossfire were the campesinos, willing to sell their loyalty to preserve their lives. Some of this senseless violence is narrated by Gustavo Alvarez in Condores no entierran todos los días, (A Man of Principle) and by Evelio Rosero in Los ejercitos (The Armies).
The characteristics of La Violencia were triggers for the communist guerrillas to get organized. The guerrillas then engaged in a war with rightwing paramilitaries organized by landowners. To finance the war they entered the drug business. Then, a few strongmen like the infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar appeared to administer the trade routes. But the drug trade was a big pie, and others wanted to have their fingers in it. Suddenly, there were a number of cartels competing for the trade routes, and their most convincing argument was how big their guns were.
This drug-dealing culture permeated all spheres of Colombia, the rich, the poor, the government, sports, religion; even beauty pageants…. One of the ways that the violence has clearly appeared in society is through “narco-aesthetics” via the bodies of the narco novias, or narco girlfriends. Voluptuous breasts and bum, a little bit of silicon here and there, and you’re all set to find a drug lord to finance your every wish. This aesthetic has become so all pervasive that a now-classic gift to celebrate a teenage girl’s 15th birthday is plastic surgery. This is the story that Gustavo Bolivar narrates in Sin tetas no hay paraiso (Without Breasts There Is No Paradise). This world of silicon became a new reality, an outward expression of the lives of women in Colombia. Another element is how women enter the narratives of violence by way of poverty or sexual violence, as in the book Rosario Tijeras by Jorge Franco.
Another infamous event that is popularly linked with drugs happened in football. The year was 1994. The scenario: the FIFA World Cup held in the US. The event: in the game against the US, the US was attacking via the wing; a cross came in through the left, and Andrés Escobar, in an effort to kick it out, deflected the ball towards his own goal, eliminating Colombia from the World Cup. Several months later, Andrés was shot dead in a parking lot in Medellin. The incident moved the entire country and 120,000 people went to Andres’s funeral. The murderers had ties with the paramilitary. In his book, Autogol, Ricardo Silva narrates an alternate version of the events, but the book is a reminder of how drugs forever tainted them.
García Márquez deserves a separate mention in these narratives of violence. This is because in his deliberately unspecific style, one place represents many, and one moment all. He narrates the violence in Colombia as a sum of experiences through time and space. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colonel Aureliano Buendía is fighting an eternal war, the causes of which have already been forgotten. In the same book, Aureliano Segundo’s experience of the massacre in las bananeras (banana plantations) represents the violent dispossession of Latin America at the hands of foreigners. In The Autumn of the Patriarch, the main character is a general who rules the country as a despot, relying on his military authority to cling to power. In The General in his Labyrinth, he presents a more humane and less mythological Simón Bolívar, with his doubts and disappointments: how appropriate when dealing with Latin America’s father, another general.
García Márquez’s version of the nation was delineated by its military expressions. In other words, the only thing that held Colombia together was the (unsuccessful) efforts of the military to exert domination over the entire territory. And sooner or later, this military, would inevitably use its weapons.
Colombia’s violent history has fueled an extensive written archive composed of both fiction and non-fiction. The value of such fictional works is in how they serve as a vehicle of memory and create identity. So many of Colombia´s narratives have been built around this violent memory, and it helps explain why so many Colombians are still skeptical at the idea of peace in the country. Any understanding of Colombia should include a recollection of all Colombian narratives which are diverse and multi-ethnic, including the black narrative (see Zapata Olivella’s books) and Indians, (see Miguel Angel López’s poems), since violence is also a mechanism of eradication of those books about those who have been defeated.
Cover image is a mural in Buenaventura commissioned by the IRC for the campaign "The Right to Know" in solidarity with families of missing persons ©Juan Sebastián Uribe