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)
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)
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.
This time, creative writing pratice was a collaborative effort. I invented two characters, another participant a conflict. The task then was to bring both together. Sorry, again Spanish only.
Gloria va al Estadio todos los años. Cada once de septiembre, se compra una entrada para asistir al evento que haya ese día. Es su forma de hacer memoria desde que la tenían allí detenida con los otros cinco mil. Estaba embarazada entonces, pero eso no les importaba. No sabe que pasó con ese niño que iba a tener. Algunas veces hizo el esfuerzo de buscarlo, pero nunca salió nada. Dejó de buscarlo, aunque sigue creyendo que está vivo. Pero tendrá su vida sin saber nada de su madre, o creyendo que es la que le tocó. No hay que despertar a los demonios de los demás. Sus propios demonios, sin embargo, están despiertos, y por eso todos los años va al Estadio.
Ese año le toca un concierto de los Red Hot Chili Peppers. Hay mucha gente joven y tatuada alrededor de ella, que a Gloria no le incomoda para nada. Viene también para conocer, ya sea otro estilo de música, o de deporte, o de vida. Un joven con el pelo mojado se siente a su lado y ella, chismosa, le pregunta si se mojó el pelo por el calor. Aunque es alto y tiene una espalda bien ancha, parece muy tímido. Mira hacía abajo cuando le habla y le cuenta que es nadador profesional y que acaba de llegar de la práctica en la piscina olímpica que tienen en ese mismo campo.
En ese mismo instante empiezan a volar los aviones. Gloria los reconoce de inmediato, pues se parecen demasiado a los que habían atacado a la Moneda. Todo el mundo los mira confundido y la tensión en el Estadio es palpable. Empiezan a dar vueltas y piruetas, con humo blanco, rojo y azul que les sale de la cola:
Únanse al baile de los que sobran
Gloria sonríe porque reconoce la frase de una canción y de pronto, todos empiezan a cantar: Nadie nos va a echar de más. Nadie nos quiso ayudar de verdad. Los jóvenes tatuados se levantan de sus sillas y saltan las rejas, reuniéndose en el centro del Estadio. Allí empiezan a bailar, y Gloria lo pregunta al joven nadador si la quiere acompañar. El la mira por primera vez a los ojos, y en este momento Gloria siente un rayo en su corazón.
Yet another practice in fiction, this time in English. Enjoy!
I’m not exactly sure what it is about mermaid hair that fascinates me this much. It exudes an air of peace and tranquility in otherness, I think. Colors flow in ways that make it impossible to know which one exactly it is one is looking at, because it always already changes into something else. People with mermaid hair look strange, unnatural, as if from outer space, and yet known and familiar (it is still hair, like most of us have on different parts of our bodies). It is irritating to the same degree as it is serene.
Mermaid hair is exceptional, unruly, yet never dangerous. Somewhat like Berlin in the 90s. Or that’s what I’ve heard, because I myself was to young to remember. In 1993, I was only five years old, and even though my mom and I lived pretty close to the ctiy, I seldom went there alone. When we went together, she would take me to the Tierpark, the theater, and sometimes the movies, too. (Note the Tierpark is just like a Zoo, but it’s the one in the eastern part of town, and designed much more like a park. The one in Western Berlin is called Zoo.) I love the stories she tells me about that time. There’s this picture of me on a swing in the Tierpark. I am wearing a sky blue snow suit thick enough to protect me from the Berlin winter, but also making me look like a tiny version of the Michellin figure. My aunt is pushing me from behind, and I have this utterly satisfied smile on my face. A memory made of cotton candy.
When I was about 9 years old, I remember I wanted to dye my hair green. It has always been my favorite color, because it is not pink or blue, but something in between. Everybody back then said their favorite color was blue, boys and girls alike, and I just found that lame. First, because everybody said it, and at age 9 I didn’t want to be like everybody else. And second, because the color blue just doesn’t appeal to me. When I look at something blue, nothing happens. I just get bored. Green in turn always intrigues me, as if there was something more to understand about it, something that didn’t give itself away with the first glance. And I’m not talking forrest green, which has its own charm for sure, but more in an earthy way. I’m talking garish green, the woodruff soda variant. Which is also not exactly the green in mermaid hair, but it is precisely this “not exactly” that is so attractive to me, and which might be the reason I’m fancying mermaid hair right now.
Back then, I didn’t dye my hair green. My mom wouldn’t prohibit it, she never really did that with anything. She would rather tell me about how damaging this would be for my hair, and explain the long process of first having to go blond and then green, and about how terrible it would look once it grew out. Instead of prohibitions, she persuaded me with reasons. As a social worker in the city’s youth clubs, she gave seminars about drugs and addiction, and so from early on I knew exactly how Ecstasy pills looked like (from photographs), and about the dangers of more mundane drugs like cigarettes and alcohol. As with the green hair, she would never tell me not do do drugs, but instead explain to me how they worked and what dangers lay in consumption. She would always advise me to talk to her first before trying out something, but since I had the feeling I already knew everything about drugs thanks to her, I never did.
I was a 20-something when I smoked my first joint, at a party of a high school friend of mine and all her Greenpeace buddies. That was the Neukölln of the late 2000s already, but it would still take me another three years to finally feel something that could be called a fine frenzy. I had just moved into a flat with my best friend, not to far away from that Greenpeace party, and he had bought some dope in Görlitzer Park, which back then wasn’t that overcrowded with police. He was the one introducing me to laughing gas when we were teenagers, and would have done the same with magic mushrooms, had I wanted to. That lovely summer evening at the open window of our kitchen, I challenged him to smoke until I would finally feel something. About four joints later, our kitchen was painted in the loveliest version of mermaid hair colors I can imagine.
Looking at it now, the “not exactly” of mermaid hair is also the “not exactly” I feel comfortable in. The sense of something that is not one way or another, but always something in between. It’s nostalgia what is condensed in mermaid hair, and the longing for a time in which having a certain gender didn’t mean to subscribe to either pink or blue (and everything that goes along these lines). Mermaid hair moments are the ones in which I didn’t feel the need to explain anything to anyone, in which ambiguity was the state of being, and it was fine.
Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (2012, Penguin Random House) was the first Spanish-language book I read in a fairly long time that wasn’t a pain to finish. Even though reading in Spanish is no big deal for me, I often have difficulties in finding my way into the books. Not so this time, because I almost devoured this novel in less then a week. Funny coincidence: I did so mostly at cafés or restaurants, which might have helped in the creation of atmosphere. Funny because the story is structured in twelve recipes, each belonging to a specific event in the life of Tita, the youngest of three sisters in a matriarchic household of rural Mexico during the revolution.
In Como agua…, Esquivel tells the love story between Tita and Pedro, who are not allowed to marry because Tita, as the youngest daughter, is obliged to stay with her mother as long as she lives. Pedro then marries her older sister to be close to her. The rest is family life at its best, lots of conflicts, lots of secrets, some miraculous deaths, and a considerable number of love stories on the side, including occasional pregnancies. I admit the final choice Tita makes didn’t convince me, especially because Pedro turns into a jealous nagger, and their first love-making isn’t exactly built on consent. Also, the ending is a little too much of magical realism for my taste. But let’s say that until chapter eleven, Como agua para chocolate is a fascinating and entertaining read.
How did I come across the book?
I was given a gift certificate for a book store for Christmas, and wanted to invert in female Colombian authors only. That plan didn’t work out for various reasons, so I ended up adding female authors from other Spanish-speaking countries, and ultimately, male Colombian authors, as well. (So be prepared for the next reviews!)
When and where did I read it?
As I said, mostly in cafés or restaurants in Bogota, but also before going to bed. It took me less then a week to finish.
Cada persona tiene que descubrir cuáles son sus detonadores para poder vivir, pues la combustión que se produce al encenderse uno de ellos es lo que nutre de energía el alma. (p. 102)
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.
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.
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?
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.