I remember a conversation around three years ago with Richard McColl on his Colombia Calling radio show. We were dismayed at the lack of books on Colombia’s history, and about how Colombians forget, or erase the past.
It wasn’t an original idea. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Hector Abad, Juan Gabriel Vasquez are some of Colombia’s finest writers and each places memory, myth, and the distortion of history at the heart of his novels.
At the start of the epic telenovela about the life of Pablo Escobar, El Patron del Mal, the viewer is reminded that, “he who forgets history is condemned to repeat it”.
And for writers like William Ospina, this inability to keep the facts and errors of history alive is one of the defining features of the Colombian condition. In The Search for Bolivar he tells us Colombians live in a kind of purgatory; where nothing happens but the repetition of the past. “Time wasn’t passing, but going round in circles”, as Ursula says in 100 Years of Solitude.
Few Colombian intellectuals have avoided the subject of the collective amnesia we see in Garcia Marquez’s novel. There is a sense that each generation of Colombians stumbles into the same trap. And that worse still, this is a trap set by Colombians themselves.
Take for example the period known as La Violencia (1948 – 1958), this feels to me like a refrain of the Thousand Days’ War 50 years earlier. The narcissism of small differences between the Liberal and the Conservative elites at the end of 1800s is there in the 1950s. What differentiated them other than the time they went to mass, as Garcia Marquez put it?
And then there are the deaths of General Rafael Uribe Uribe (killed a few years after the Thousand Days’ War) and Jorge Eliecer Gaitan (whose murder transformed La Violencia from a solely rural phenomenon into an urban one). Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s latest novel, La forma de las ruinas is an alchemical discharging of the writer’s obsession with the history behind the two assassinations. In each case he reveals the official accounts as either – take your pick – lazily and incompetently compiled, or willfully misleading. Should you believe the murders were carried out by some Walter Mitty-style lone wolves, or should you look for the obscure forces behind these cretinous ne’er-do-wells?
In 1948 history was not only repeating itself, but it was continuing to erase itself, to cover itself up.
In Chronicle of a Death Foretold everyone knows Santiago Nasar is about to be murdered but no-one steps in to prevent the killing or to alert the victim. It’s tragically Colombian. The deaths of Uribe Uribe and Gaitan were themselves avoidable. Vasquez reveals that knowledge of the murderous plotting had become as common as to reverberate around the cafes along Bogota’s Avenida Jimenez.
This Macondian collective shrug of the shoulders, the “yo que tengo que ver con esto?” insouciance (familiar to many of us) also ensured another great leader was plucked from us in his prime. On 18 August 1989, Liberal presidential candidate (and surefire election winner) Luis Carlos Galan, was mown down as he took to the stage in Soacha, to the south of Bogota. Sicarios, allegedly financed by Pablo Escobar, and certain political enemies of Galan, took advantage of (pre-arranged) changes in the candidate’s security detail to put an end to El Nuevo-Liberalismo’s anti-cartel crusade.
Read any account of the final days of Mr Galan’s life and it’s clear his death was as foretold, and as avoidable, as Santiago Nasar’s.
When interviewed by Richard McColl we both became animated by the Bogotazo, the rioting and murderous barbarity of the days that followed the killing of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. It’s a fascinating moment in Colombian history, and easy to trace a direct line between Gaitan’s death, the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship, the electoral apartheid of the National Front, the birth of the FARC, and the 50 year civil conflict whose end the Havana peace talks aim to reach.
For such a momentous event why such a relative paucity of historical accounts? At the time I hadn’t read much more than the famous extract from Garcia Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale (Gabo was living moments away from the corner of Jimenez and the Septima where Gaitan was shot) and the Miguel Torres 2012 novel, El encendio de abril. Now we have the eye-witness reports Vasquez acquired for La forma de las ruinas, and in recent years there has been an outpouring of interest in the Bogotazo. Those who know what really went on remain silent, of course, and there’s precious little opening of intelligence reports or government files. But at last there is a general appetite to return to these pivotal moments and question what really happened. I sense the society is thawing, as though there is now a desire and a freedom to explore the bloody past. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking.
In Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain and Jason Webster’s Guerra the Spanish Civil War is revealed as a subject the Spanish avoid at all costs. Both writers suggest it is not just the tragedy of the past, but also its proximity, the direct involvement of living or recently deceased family members in the atrocities, that lies behind the silencio. I wonder whether something similar has been at work in Colombia.
Once the FARC eventually sign a peace agreement with the Santos Government there will follow the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission designed to dig up the stories that inhabit the mass graves and colour the scars of the near 7 million victims of the war.
William Ospina is by no means alone in arguing that Colombia, when it became independent, did not fully develop as a nation. It did not define itself, did not forge itself in the fires of revolution like America or France. What did it stand for, what where its values, if it was becoming independent from the Spanish then who were the Colombians, what was their relationship with their indigenous past? All these questions remain for many critics unanswered or worse, insufficiently explored, overlooked.
Garcia Marquez said that freedom is often the first casualty of war. Colombia has been at war almost without pause, it is not surprising that the freedom to tell the truth about the past has been denied. Telling the truth in Colombia is a dangerous act. Retelling the truth through allegory is an act of self-preservation. So writers’ obsessions with the mixing of mythology and history, is perhaps inevitable.
The ignorance of the nation’s story or perhaps Colombia’s inability to create that story, is what lies behind the writers’ urge. Miguel Torres said that writers “look for what doesn’t exist”. And when they find it they write it and create it.
I get the odd email from readers keen for recommendations to deepen their knowledge of Colombia. Much the same impulse and frustration I had when I spoke to Richard. I know now that to understand Colombian history the best place to start is with Hector Abad, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with Juan Gabriel Vasquez. With writers. Avoid the official histories like the plague.