Tagged: Colombia

16. Reading: Lo que no aprendí

Many novels are announced as treating memory and family, or memory and gender, or memory and politics, or memory and whatever else. Memory seems to be a particularly well vending attribute. Unfortunately, so many of the books announced that way don’t actually talk about memory, but in memories, and confusing these two, one could easily guess everything was memory. One of the blurbs to Margarita García Robayo’s Lo que no aprendí (Malpaso, 2014) therefore allerted me. It said, Margarita would unite memories as if they were flowers. Aesthetically, the comparison of her writing with flowers does most definitely hold. But what Lo que no aprendí has to say about memory is more complicated than that.

Contrary to the common-sensical idea, the difficulty of remembering (read: re-member-ing) in the novel might actually be the invention. To handle those flowers creatively, as if uniting them in a beautiful bouquet for the funeral of a controversial figure, effacing any trace of a more complicated, more nuanced, personality, is the real work for Catalina, the protagonist of the novel. The author presents us with this bouquet of Catalina’s mostly happy childhood memories in Cartagena. In a second part, however, she explains the uses, not of the flowers, but of the bouquet, to us readers, and we come to realize that beautiful flowers can be conventions covering up for the things that cannot, and in the case of funerals conventionally should not, be said. The flowers, it turns out, are memories of a different life, of a different Catalina who has little to do with the woman that today lives in Buenos Aires.

How did I come across the book?

I saw a good friend of mine mention it in a Facebook post from a bookstore in Bogotá, asking for the best book its customers had read in 2016. It is most definitely in the top three of my 2017, thus far.

When and where did I read it?

I found the time and place particularly matching in this experience: A warm summer week in Constance can at least temperature-whise keep up with Cartagena, where the first part of the novel is set. I finished the second part on a lazy sunday morning in bed, which also combined well with a loft in Buenos Aires. But it made me wonder: is Buenos Aires Latin America’s sunday morning in bed?

… si no te gustan mis recuerdos, empieza a juntar los tuyos; y si tampoco te gustán ésos, cámbialos, y así: es lo que hacemos todos. (p. 182)

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14. Reading: Chapinero

Without knowing, I already had a book (edited) by Andrés Ospina, of which I am very fond because it has a CD with it. On that very CD is a song called Río Bogotá by a band named Sociedad Anónima. This song has always fascinated me for a line that goes: “Nunca se te ocurra ir con tu novia al Río Bogotá”, which translates to “It should never occur to you to go to the Río Bogotá with your girlfriend”. In the rest of the song, the singer explains that people throw trash into the river and that it’s a health risk to go swiming there. I who I only know the smelly and murky version of the river, was fascinated by the very idea of people actually bathing there. What is more, I never really considered the climate quite warm enough to go swiming outside. But as a Colombian saying goes, gustos son gustos. You can listen to this precious late 1980s rock jewel on youtube.

However, Chapinero (Laguna Libros, 2015) is a novel in which the river Bogotá is never mentioned. But those familiar with the city’s geography might have guessed, rightly, that it’s about the Chapinero district. The history of the quarter, which when Bogota was founded was a distinct settlement, is told in the voices of five different characters through various generations. The first is a Spanish shoemaker arriving around 1655, followed by a struggling father of the late 19th century. Then follows a young adult witness of the quarter’s transformation of the 1930s. The era of rock and hippiedom, in turn, is recounted by the only female character. They are all related to the main protagonist of the novel, who lives in todays Chapinero, through an antique shoehorn.

How did I come across the book?

I was hanging around in bookstores somewhat frequently during my last field trip. And I literally saw it in any one of the ones I visited. Plus, it was on the “Colombian authors to check out” list I had made when I got a gift certificate for a bookstore, together with Carolina Sanín, and Margarita García Robayo.

When and where did I read it?

It took me a while. As can be guessed from my bookmark – a plane ticket from Msocow to Riga – I have started it during my vacations to Moscow. I needed almost a month to finish it, because the number of characters was a little overwhelming in the beginning, and the middle part had it’s lenghts. Only as I started to realize all the characters could be related through family ties and the antique, did I become curious how their stories would unfold. I might read it again, reading not in the order of the book, but each character’s story by itself to better grasp the connections.

Para eso están los vivos. Para preguntales, y no esperar a que se vayan ausentando, hasta eternizarnos la duda. (p. 212)

10. Reading: Ponqué y otros cuentos

As I said a few times, already, I am not a big fan of short stories. This, mostly, because I really like slow character development and a story that takes time to reveal itself on at least 100 pages. Which is a totally arbitrary approach, I know. Nevertheless, there are always exceptions to my rules, and Ponqué y otros cuentos (Laguna Libros, 2016) by Carolina Sanín is one of them. The collection contains 7 short stories, all of which star strong female characters. It is this aspect I liked most about the stories, which depart from everyday situations like riding a train, listening to the radio, or reading a hand-written note, and usually revolve around quirky aspects of the main character, if not her surroundings. Especially the last two stories stroke chords with me, the darker Carolina en su funeral for its factual approach to loss, and Ponqué, the title story, because it reminded me of the Satanic Verses. This, mostly, because it combines a story of a young woman from Bogota going out to live in New York with the biblical narrative of Joseph (son of Jacob) from the book Genesis.

I was utterly impressed by the accuracy of descriptions and wording. For a long time I haven’t read anything as precise and therefore enjoyable in Spanish, and I am often bored by too long and too forced sentences when reading Colombian authors. I was very happy to see that a different style is possible, and one that appeals to me both in topics and style. And as if marvellous writing wasn’t enough, the book is also really pretty. The edition and illustration are beautiful, and the thick paper makes for a pleasant tactile experience, as well. For so many reasons, this is a book I did not want to stop reading.

How did I come across the book?

I took a creative writing seminar with Carolina Sanín, which turned out to be a live-changing experience. Not because I think writing fiction could be a thing for me – I still don’t, really – but because it happened at a complicated moment in field work and brought back the curiousness about the topic and the willingness to write. I started reading her books only after the seminar, in a way attempting to continue the conversations on writing. Turns out Carolina is not only an amazing teacher, (so if you have a chance to take a course with her: GO DO IT!) but also sticks to all of the rules she teaches. Speaking of authenticity in teaching, she is most definitely a new role model for me to follow.

When and where did I read it?

I started on the plane back from Bogota to Zurich, to make the passage a little lighter. I finished it within the first days while trying to get rid of the jetlag. But fortunately, there are several other works from her left to read in my bookshelf.

Tejido Social

2nd practice from my creative writing seminar, also in Spanish. If the end sounds familiar to you, it might be because of this vignette.

Todos los jueves a las tres de la tarde me voy con mi suegra a la casa de una vecina. Allá en la amplia sala de un edificio de estrato cinco bogotano, nos encontramos con otra vecina más para tejer. Acabo de comenzar mi primer saco, en una lana suavecita y gris que habíamos conseguido a un precio absurdamente barato durante de un paseo a Nobsa. Yo nunca me imaginé que en algún momento iba a terminar aquí.

1977

Todo comenzó con mi primera mochila. Yo había visto tejer a mis familiares en la ranchería desde que tengo recuerdos, pero como es la tradición, mi mamá apenas me enseñó a tejer cuando comenzó el encierro. Durante estos doce meses que no salí de mi cuarto, aprendí a leer los patrones de las mochilas, y a reproducirlos yo misma. El encierro fue muy solitario, y me dio mucha rabia algunas veces. El tiempo parece no pasar en el encierro, y por eso es tan difícil acordarse de algo. Pero si me acuerdo de esa primera mochila, la que me tomó más de un mes terminar. Era roja, con tiras cafés y amarillas.

También me acuerdo de Manuel. Era el hijo de un tío de mi mamá, y durante el encierro me visitó y me habló algunas noches. Como no pude ni hablar ni ver a nadie, su compañía al otro lado de la pared me consolaba. Durante estas noches, él me contó de lo que había visto durante el día. De las visitas a Riohacha, y de la pobreza en la que vivíamos nosotros en cambio; de la prima que se murió dando luz porque no llegó el médico hasta la ranchería; de que muchas veces no había agua porque las grandes multinacionales se la aseguraban para los monocultivos, y la nueva esclavitud que se vivía como jornalero en las bananeras. Y de la guerrilla, que iba a cambiar todo eso. Aprendí mucho sobre el mundo durante estas charlas nocturnas con Manuel.

El día en que salí del encierro debería haber sido un día de fiesta, en el que me presentaban como señorita a la comunidad. Pero como no había ni qué comer, la fiesta no se dio. Me dio rabia y tristeza a la vez, y decidí que ya era hora de luchar por un futuro mejor. En la misma noche, metí una ropa a la mochila y me fui con Manuel para evitar que me casaran con algún extraño que pudiera pagarme. Y así llegué al monte. En vez de agujas, aprendí a usar el fusil, pero la costura también me sirvió para curar a algunos compañeros heridos en combate.

1997

Un día de julio, Manuel se fue para Mapiripán a reclutar gente entre los campesinos. No lo quería dejar ir solo, pero tenía que quedarme en el campamento porque en cada momento iba a dar luz. Manuelito nació unos días después, sin conocer a su papá, porque finalmente, Manuel no volvió. El Señor da y el Señor quita. Sólo mucho después nos enteramos de lo que había pasado en el pueblo-

Cuando vi por primera vez la cara de mi hijo, empecé a dudar de si todo esto de verdad valdría la pena. ¿Qué clase de vida le iba a ofrecer a mi hijo allí en el monte? Pero tras la muerte de Manuel, habría sido una madre soltera de no ser por los compañeros. Además, ¿quién le podría entregar un mundo así a su hijo, con tanta desigualdad, con tanta injusticia?

2017

Me encontré con Manuelito en la zona de concentración de Policarpa, para dejar las armas. ¡Esta grande! Y se parece mucho a su papá.

Estamos todavía construyendo las casas, y no hay baños que funcionen. Pero después de tanto tiempo en el monte, uno ya sabe como sobrevivir. En los ratos libres, Manuelito y yo hablamos mucho de su papá y de cómo eran mis primeros años en la guerrilla. Mientras tanto me dedico a tejer otra vez mochilas. Cuando todo esto se termine, queremos irnos a Bogotá a buscar a su abuela. Dizque vive en Suba.

Por las mañanas también siempre viene alguna gente de la prensa para saber como va todo por aquí. Incluso un día me entrevistaron. Tengo el recorte del artículo doblado en mi diario. Dice:

Pese al retraso, Maritza González, de 54 años y guerrillera desde los 14, está esperanzada. Estoy dejando el fusil por la aguja, dijo esta indígena Wayúu.

7. Reading: Los Once

I have recently started to have a look at Colombian history inspired graphic novels. After caminos condenados, Los Once (2014, Laguna Libros) was a logical consequence, especially considering its focus on Bogota. The novel takes the reader to the siege of Bogota’s Palace of Justice in 1985, from the perspective of a handful mice living in the palace. What is interesting about this view from an insider-outsider, is how it allows to get a feeling for the situation of not knowing what is happening, a strong feeling of being threatened and vulnerable, and of not understanding even when things are supposedly said clearly.

The mice ar probably an alusion to the famous Maus comic by Art Spiegelmann. But instead of cats, Los Once uses different kinds of birds and dogs to represent military forces, police and members of the M-19 guerrilla group. To me, it was not quite clear who was who, as shapes and figures often transform into each other, but maybe this was also intentional, to further underline the feeling of not knowing whom to trust, and makes clear that no-one was “the good guy”, there.

How did I come across the book?

I wanted to read it for a while, and had heard about it when it was just out, but didn’t search for it actively. After I read caminos condenados, however, I decided to have a closer look at other graphic novels.

When and where did I read it?

March 8th, International Women’s Day. The heavy rains outside made it easier to go through with the plan of striking, and to avoid working on anything else, I decided reading would be a good substitute.

D+90

Today is the day. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias officially start disarming. 90 days ago, the peace agreement was signed, starting the preparations for the long and possibly arduous legal journey to peace between the Colombian government and the continent’s oldest active guerrilla group. I’ve been to a conference on peace education for the whole day and almost missed the news, but then, someone mentioned it there. So I was checking press coverage of the day, and found an article on RCN (which I don’t exactly consider a balanced source, but read the article anyway). I came across a quote that says:

Pese al retraso, Maritza González, de 54 años y guerrillera desde los 14, está esperanzada. “Estoy dejando el fusil por la escoba”, dijo esta indígena Wayúu.

[Despite the delay, Maritza González, 54 years old and a guerrillera since she was 14, is hopeful: “I am leaving the rifle for the broom”, said the Wayúu (an indigenous group).]

I am reading and re-reading the quote and don’t even know where to start, because the phrase strikes me as utterly dense. The delay she is talking about is the delay in constructing the sites where the guerrilleros are supposed to gather and disarm. But what strikes me more is what we get to know about her in just one sentence: She is part of an indigenous group and guessing from her young entry age possibly a forced recruit. She spend 40 years with the guerrilla, which is almost 4/5 of her entire life. I can not even remotely imagine what this means for her hopes and aspirations for the future. What leaves me speechless, however, is what she says: I am leaving the rifle for the broom. While I can see how leaving arms might be a hopeful prospect, in the sense that her live will possibly become less stressful or life-threatening, I have serious difficulties in seeing how a broom is a hopeful prospect. Then again, maybe this works as a kind of Biedermeier-esque return to private life, and the broom here actually stands for the construction of a household, or an income in the way of getting a job in cleaning. Other than that, it does not strike me as an exceptionally liberating metaphor. And it makes me wonder about her experiences within the guerrilla, about the role her gender played during those 40 years. As I think about it now, maybe she wasn’t forced at all, because 40 years ago the political positions of the FARC were still a reason to join. And I sense a prejudice on my side: a broom doesn’t have to be a tool of patriarchal oppression. But then again it might. I’m still confused.

“You for the taxes, we for food!”

December 30th, my husband and I are driving down Calle 100, until we have to stop at a traffic light. We’re following the rest of the family in the other car, we’re going to Villavicencio for the holidays. As we stop, a man approaches our car to clean the back windows, and my husbands asks me for some coins to give to him. It is a cloudy day, and the cleaning will not last for long, because we’re heading for a dirt road to see some more of Colombia’s spectacular landscape and avoid the heavy traffic on the fast road connecting both cities. The man finishes, and my husband hands him some 300 COP – about 10 cents. The man is very energetic, smiling all over his face as we hand him the money. He thanks us for the contribution and starts a small conversation about working during the holidays. “You for the taxes, we for the food” he says and we wish each other happy holidays and a happy new year as the traffic lights change from red to green. As we drive down the street, I think about what he just said: We, meaning people like my husband and I, who in his view gain sufficiently to pay taxes, and him and people like him, who can barely make a living from the few cents the “tax-paying” people pay him for his services. I liked him and his friendliness, and felt connected as we wished each other happy holidays, but as I continue to think about our brief encounter, the separation startles me. We in the car, he cleaning the windows outside; we supposedly paying the taxes, he not earning sufficiently to even think about it; he working, we on our way to our holiday getaway; and so on. Possibly the only thing we have in common is that after a few minutes, we will both have forgotten about this encounter at the traffic light. Because others will follow, for both of us.