I was really affected by this book, to the point that it was difficult for me to finish. I left it sitting on the windowsill by my bed for weeks and weeks. At times, it was painful for me to read. Why was this the case?
Well, I guess it just reminded me a lot of my childhood and Colombia in general, which for whatever reason I’ve been missing a lot lately. I look at old photos and I marvel at the green, the color, the flowers, the yellowness of the sunshine (is it just winter in England that’s been getting under my skin? The temperature was -3 degrees last night!!). When I tell people about growing up in Colombia, I tend to speak in a half-amused tone of voice and say things like When I read non-fiction now about what life was like there in the 80’s and 90’s, sometimes I wonder what were my parents THINKING, raising a family there! It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because I know the answer. You raise a family there in the same way you would raise a family any other place. You keep your head down and your nose clean. We got up in the mornings and went to school, and when school was over we came home. “It must have been a very sheltered existence,” said the person who leant me this book, and what else could I do but agree, in the most neutral way possible. What would be the point (especially now) of criticizing it?
This book is, at its essence, a detective story, a mystery about a man name Ricardo Laverde. The narrator is Antonio Yammara, a lawyer who opens the novel by reading in the newspaper about the shooting of Pepe, Pablo Escobar’s infamous hippopotamuses, shot and killed by the army (already discussed and marveled over by me in this blog). The article leads him to a series of reminiscences about past encounters with Laverde, whom he used to play pool with in a sketchy Bogota bar in the mid-90’s. One day Laverde shows up with a cassette tape and asks Yammara for help in finding a place for him to listen to it. Shortly afterwards, Laverde is shot dead on the street by a motorcycle-riding assassin. The driving force of the story then becomes Antonio’s attempts to figure out the story behind Laverde: who he was, what was on the tape, why he was killed. Some of these questions are answered, others aren’t.
There are a lot of things to commend about this book. I think my favorite parts of this book were descriptions of Colombian scenery and well-chosen details, of city versus country life, the distinctiveness of bogotanos. Guavas on the ground half-eaten by ants, soldiers with weapons hanging around their necks “like sleeping animals”, guanabana trees, sandals made from old tires, freshly squeezed orange juice, cicadas and crickets. God, I just wanted to keep a list of it all! I felt at times like I was watching a film or flipping through a book of photos. I also really appreciated the moment in which an American Peace Corps volunteer receives a copy of Cien años de soledad as a gift, and later complains that it’s too hard to read; “everybody has the same name.” (179) It was also fascinating for me to read passages like the one I’ll quote below, summaries of things that were going on in my childhood that I didn’t have the words or knowledge to comprehend at the time: (Alma Guillermoprieto articles are also great at evoking this same feeling in me):
Then came the rest, the other attacks, the other bombs. The DAS one with its hundred dead. That one at the shopping mall with fifteen. Then the other shopping mall with fifteen. A special time, no? Not knowing when it might be your turn. Worrying when someone who was supposed to arrive wasn’t there. Always knowing where the closest pay phone is to let someone know you’re OK. If there were no pay phones, knowing that anybody would lend you their phone, all you had to do was knock on a door. Living like that, always with the possibility that people close to us might be killed, always having to reassure our loved ones so they don’t think we are among the dead. Our lives were conducted inside houses, remember. We avoided the public places. Friends’ houses, friends of friends, houses of distant acquaintances any house was better than a public place. (263)
Animals are a big motif in this book. So are planes, and accidents. The title refers to the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Cali mountains, killing everybody onboard, the majority of whom were traveling home to see their families for the holidays. One of them was the daughter of my school’s director–I remember making and signing condolence cards for him in my 4th-grade classroom (one of the boys in my class drew a picture of a plane on fire, which the teacher tactfully commented that it might not be the best thing to include).
Vásquez has quite the task before him and he succeeds quite admirably. Any Colombian novelist has two heavy legacies to contend: the long history of violence, kidnappings, cartels, drugs, bombs and shootings, and the magic realism of Gabriel García Marquez. The wikipedia article on Juan Gabriel Vásquez includes an interesting comment by Vásquez on dealing with the latter legacy, in which he states that what makes Gabo’s novel interesting is “the massacre of the banana workers or the civil wars of the 19th century, not in the yellow butterflies or in the pigs’ tails. Like all grand novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude requires us to reinvent the truth.” I TOTALLY agree with this. (This interview with him also contains some fascinating passages.)
I’d recommend this book to basically anybody, especially those interested in seeing a fictional representation of a country attempting to cope with decades of violence. It’s like a post-apocalyptic novel without the apocalypse; instead, the violent “collapse of society” in question isn’t a singular event, but is rather an ongoing legacy. What’s worse, it’s not even a legacy of violence that’s related to ideology (as in the Holocaust, Vietnam War or even 9/11). What is it related to? Arguably, nothing. Or money. Drug running, cartels, landing strips in the jungle, fields of marijuana and coca leaves (the book proposes that campesinos learned the technique and acquired the technology to process coca leaves into cocaine from U.S. Peace Corps volunteers–interesting, but I wonder if it’s true).
Reading this book felt a lot to me like grieving. Page after page I was just left with the most incredible sadness; a deep sense of melancholy. The book ends with a question: Should I try to convince her, tell her that together we could defend ourselves better from the evil of the world, or that the world was too risky a place to be wandering on our own, without anyone waiting for us at home, who worries about us when we don’t show up and who can go out to look for us? (297) This is maybe the only possible way to end a book: leaving us in suspense, unresolved, dangling. What else can you do, right–how do you answer unanswerable questions?