Bogotá is the kind of place designed to make you feel conspicuous if you are toting a camera around. I have heard and read too many bad things, even if the place is considerably safer than it has been for many years. So I pootle down the main drag with my Argentinian bodyguard, drop into the national museum and see a few relics of pre-Columbian society (the Muisca, who lived in this region before the Spanish conquest, had a great love of gold, thereby giving rise not only the emergence of the myth of El Dorado, but also to their own extermination). In my conversations with Colombian writers and taxi drivers, I encounter a state of general uncertainty, of not knowing what exactly constitutes the New Colombia, or which way the wind will blow. With respect to the taxi drivers, this uncertainty seems to extend to their knowledge of the city, because they never seem to know their way around, and are obliged to ask directions of their customers, or else stop and ask one of the many patrolling police and military. This, in fact, is the most noticeable feature of the city at night: the fantastic quantity of military and police personnel on the streets. Like living in a city under occupation. But for many Colombians this actually comes as a relief, after so many years of lawlessness. Colombia has lost its pole position as the murder, kidnap and extortion capital of the world, but like other south and central American states lives with its legacy of such crimes, carried out on a massive scale. The balance of terror in this part of the world seems to be shifting elsewhere: Mexico we know about already, and yesterday I listened to a long account of the emergence of horrific acts being carried out by juvenile crime gangs in El Salvador.
All this brings me in a roundabout way to the story of a kidnap, or abduction. The latter term in generally used to describe a politically motivated sequestration, while a kidnapping suggests a demand for ransom. But in English ‘kidnap’ still retains the general flavour of being taken against one’s will whether for political reasons or for financial gain. So we’ll stick with kidnap.
I reproduce the story that follows with the kind permission of its Guatemalan author, Eduardo Halfon. It is taken from the collection Elocuencias de un tartamudo published in Spain by Pre-Textos in 2012.
We were lying beneath the branches of a fig tree, watching a group of sailing boats as they crossed the shining, almost breezeless lake, when he told me that the only time that he had wanted to do drugs was after his kidnapping.
– Mushrooms, in particular.
He slapped himself on the neck, inspecting his fingers to see if he had got the mosquito.
– I couldn’t remember the details of the kidnapping. Imagine that! And I reckoned that maybe a psychotropic drug like mushrooms might help me to remember something.
Voices and laughter drifted towards us from the house and from the Jacuzzi, which was fed by volcanic waters.
– I could remember, for example, that they had taken me one morning as I was arriving at my clinic. I could remember that a woman helped me out at night, loosening the ropes and shackles so that I was able to sleep better. But not much more.
He was lying in a deckchair, dressed only in his navy blue Speedo. His skin glistened with oil.
– Then I went to see a psychoanalyst in Alabama, and I told him I wanted him to prescribe me some drug, in order to remember.
A swallow skimmed the pea soup coloured water. It seemed to be hunting something.
– And the psychoanalyst told me no, that he wouldn’t do that, but was I willing to allow him to hypnotize me.
A cheerful shout from someone in the Jacuzzi interrupted him.
– Once I was hypnotized the first thing I remembered was waking up naked on the floor of a darkened room, and not recognising myself. Do you understand? I didn’t recognise myself. An atrocious thing. Everything was so alien to me I had even lost all notion of my self.
A motor launch was pulling a lone water-skier.
– I didn’t know who I was.
He paused, as though wanting to remember something else. On the other side of the lake, between misty green mountains: a burning purple jacaranda.
– And then I recognized my Kickers.
He had said this in a relaxed tone, almost a sweet tone, and I laid off looking at his bare feet, his tanned and grey-haired chest, his opaque gaze, his immaculate, old hands trying to shoo away another mosquito.
– I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know who I was. But all of a sudden I recognised my Kickers in a corner and then I recognised myself as well, on account of or thanks to my Kickers.
We heard the splashing of wet people as they left the jaccuzzi.
– But look, it’s midday already – he said, checking the time on his digital watch –, and the bar opens at midday.
I watched him get up calmly. At four foot nine, he seemed like a giant.
© original text: Eduardo Halfon 2012 © translation: Richard Gwyn 2013