Tag Archives: Colombia

Landscape with Beggars

24 Mar



Landscape with Beggars

Juan Manuel Roca


The good people wonder

Why a tattered rabble of beggars

Block their prospect of the lilies.

If they don’t receive their ration of manna,

It’s due to their savage custom

Of blighting the landscape and the view.

More ancient than their profession

The beggars emerge from ancient catacombs

Or from remote cathedrals that raise their domes

Between hospices and hospitals.

As they go by they wound and poison the landscape

And the people give way at their passing

As if they were parting a sea

Which they stain with taunts and devastation.

A procession of smells and a procession of dogs

Go past with the wretched hordes. Town mayors

Watch them with watery eyes

While spooning out soup as thick as lava.

The priests seek them out like food

From a kingdom in another world

And describe to them the quarries of hell,

Although they seem to have lived there forever.

They are of another race, another country,

The beggars are dark strangers

Who live on the invisible frontiers of language.

Between them and us a coin makes mock,

A dark commerce in scarcity

Beneath the trinket shop of a relative of God.

On festive days they stare at phantom ships:

They extend their bowls and rough beds to no one

And in the atriums they only pile up scraps of miracles.

There is something of the scarecrow about their trade

Something of falconry about the eyes,

In the way they look at the doves’ bread.

A drunk and downcast man told me at the exit to the bar:

They could send them off to war, to serve as barricades.

The beggars don’t know where to go

When we are ordered to confine the wounded shadows.

The tourist guides, so as not to worry travellers,

Inform them that the beggars are extras

For a film being shot on the streets.

Perhaps they have emerged from a bad dream, from a factory,

From a dockside, from a mine, from a squat.

From the bad dream they bring the surly gaze of those who flee,

From the factory they retain the complexion of a prisoner,

From the docks the vice of loading bales of nothing,

From the mine hard and aggressive eyes,

From the squat an echo carried from the land of Nobody.

Ridicule and Mockery, two faithful dogs, are their companions.


This translation by Richard Gwyn first appeared in Cyphers Magazine, Ireland, 2014.

Juan Manuel Roca (b. Medellín, Colombia, 1946) is one of the most widely read and respected figures in contemporary Colombian poetry. A successful journalist and social commentator, he has a long association with the world-famous poetry festival in the city of his birth, set up in defiance of the long years of war and civil strife in his country. He has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Spanish prize, Casa de Ameríca de Poesía Americana 2009, for his collection Biblia de Pobres, from which ‘Paisaje con mendigos’ is taken.



Paisaje con mendigos


Las buenas gentes se preguntan

Por qué los mendigos interponen,

Entre sus ojos y los nardos,

Su amasijo de harapos. Si no reciben

Su cuota de maná es por su feroz costumbre

De llagar el paisaje y la mirada.

Más antiguos que su oficio,

Los mendigos vienen de antiguas catacumbas

O de remotas catedrales que levantan sus cúpulas

Entre hospicios y hospitales.

Al cruzar hieren y enferman el paisaje

Y las gentes se abren a su paso

Como si partieran en dos un mar

Que tiñen de dicterios y quebrantos.

Un séquito de olor y un séquito de perros

Van tras las hordas miserables. Los alcaldes

Los miran con ojos acuosos

Mientras cucharean una sopa densa como lava.

Los sacerdotes los buscan como alimento

De un reino de otro mundo

Y les describen las canteras del infierno,

Aunque parezcan habitarlo desde siempre.

Son de otra raza, de otro país,

Los mendigos son oscuros forasteros

Que viven en las fronteras invisibles del lenguaje.

Entre ellos y nosotros una moneda nos escarnece,

Un oscuro comercio de penurias

Bajo la tienda de abalorios de un pariente de Dios.

Los días festivos escrutan buques fantasmas:

No encuentran a quien extender yacijas o escudillas

Y sólo amontan en los atrios migajas de milagro.

Algo de espantapájaros hay en su oficio,

Algo de cetrería en sus ojos,

En su manera de mirar el pan de las palomas.

Un hombre ebrio y compungido me dijo a la salida del bar:

Podrían mandarlos a la guerra, servir de barricadas.

Los mendigos no saben dónde ir

Cuando ordenan que acuartelemos las sombras malheridas

Los guías de turismo, para no inquietar a los viajeros,

Advierten que son actores de reparto

De una película que ruedan en las calles.

Quizá hayan salido de un mal sueño, de una factoría,

De un muelle, de una mina, de una casa usurpada.

Del mal sueño traen la mirada arisca de quien huye,

De la fábrica conservan un color de presidario,

Del muelle el vicio de cargar fardos de nada,

De la mina unos ojos duros y pugnaces,

De la casa usurpada en eco llegado de tierras de Nadie.

Escarnio y mofa, dos perros fieles, los acompañan.





Where are the others, Señor British Citizen?

2 Sep

Britich Citizen

Landing at Bogotá must be quite challenging for an airline pilot. The city is on a plane high in the Andes, and both times I’ve landed here we’ve come down with a bump. Lonely Planet online warns its readers: “Bogotá is at 2640 meters, slightly above 8300 feet. Altitude adaptation takes time – the first day or two, take it easy.” By taking it easy, do they mean one should walk more slowly than usual? I will attempt a slow walk up to the shopping centre from my hotel, where I am being hosted by the cultural programme entitled Las Líneas de su Mano – where we will perform our work and discuss translation. But first I must get a cheap phone. As I leave the hotel a bicycle courier crashes his bike into the kerb and falls headfirst over his handlebars. He looks shaken, but claims to be OK. In the phone shop the young man with the complicated haircut takes my passport and photocopies it. When he returns with my purchase order, I have a new name: Richard British Citizen. Since Spanish surnames are composed of two parts: the father’s and the mother’s surnames respectively, I guess they must have thought my dad was called British and my mother, Citizen. It kind of makes sense. As much as anything makes sense. Walking back from the phone shop a youth darts into the traffic without looking, causing a truck to brake and swerve across the road. The weather is cloudy and the air is thin. It rains for ten minutes, then stops. The sun is far away, behind the clouds, beyond the mountain peaks.

Donde estan los otros


Walking back to the hotel I see a piece of graffiti: ¿Donde están los otros? Where are the others? Indeed, where are they? Have they crashed their bikes, or been run over by a truck? Or are they just late in arriving, because they have to walk so very slowly. Just as well we are not in La Paz, whose altitude is over 4,000 metres. People there would walk really slowly, were it not for the fact that there is always a helpful street vendor to hand, selling coca leaves, which, I am assured, help with respiration.







Epic poetry and canine aficionados

21 Jul

Posting a few pictures as a last offering from my trip to Colombia:

The approach over Santo Domingo by cable car

The approach over Santo Domingo by cable car, with the city of Medellín beyond.

Wall grafitti

Wall grafitti, Santo Domingo

Bank note 'Mil Latinos sin oro'

Bank note ‘Mil Latinos sin oro’, Santo Domingo

Spanish Library, Santo Domingo

Spanish Library, Santo Domingo

The lettering on the banknote displayed in the wall graffiti suggests that a thousand poor die for each 1000 peso banknote in the idle republic – well, that is one interpretation – and it was displayed in Santo Domingo, once a zone of Medellín riven by incessant gang warfare. Now it is home to a stylish library, designed by the architect Giancarlo Mazzanti and built in 2006-7 with Spanish money (just in time, I guess: there won’t be any more of that coming for a while), which I visited with Jorge and Moya. The people in the library were very friendly and showed us the new theatre. There are lots of places for kids to play intelligent games and read books, but there weren’t actually many kids around, apart from a couple who tried tapping us for money in a playground on the way in.

Below, a solitary canine fan awaits the start of our reading last Saturday morning in the hot and lazy town of Tarso, three hours’ drive from Medellín.

My fan

And finally, a photo of the amphitheatre where the main poetry readings took place later the same day. This shot is from the closing recital, where the packed auditorium was composed of over 2,000 listeners of all ages. They sat there in the heat (the readings began at 4 pm) while the poets lurched their way through the marihuana fumes emanating from the audience to read their pomes (sic). I don’t know why, but the applause became louder and louder as the six-hour performance wore on. I’m certain this response had little or no bearing on the quality of the poetry, but it filled my heart with warmth and genuine respect for the Colombian people. After all they’ve been through over the past thirty years, withstanding a poetry recital of such epic proportions surely demands astonishing powers of endurance. I salute them.

Medellín International Poetry Festival, closing night

Medellín International Poetry Festival, closing night

Medellín, drugs and arse cake

8 Jul

Medellín, once the domain of drugs baron Pablo Escobar, where I am attending the International Poetry Festival, is also the city of Fernando Botero, the painter and sculptor of all things obese. Wandering through the city streets this morning, again accompanied by my Argentine bodyguard – allegedly a black belt in at least three deadly martial arts – I find myself constantly assaulted by images of fatness. To wit, a shop display with three fat models:

ava modelos

Then the work of Botero himself: a fat lady, a fat cat, and an image of myself, by now rather concerned about my own increasing girth, standing beneath a fat man’s penis.

ava boteroava fat cat

ava blanco and statue

And just in case that was not enough fatness for a morning’s stroll, we pass a pasteleria display window, with an arse cake in pride of place:

ava arse cake

It will be obvious by now that Botero was fascinated by certain shapes. He painted many canvases of pears, for example. Whether these came first, and the cult of the curve followed in local design, or whether he was simply inspired by his love of pears, I cannot say. But there are some fabulous avocados on sale from barrows all over the city. I bought a fat one for 60 pence from this gentleman, who is counting his money:


I mentioned in yesterday’s blog the longstanding association of Colombia with mind-altering substances of all varieties. There are street vendors who sell a paste made of coca leaves and marijuana which you are supposed to rub on your skin. Why? I have no idea, but will ask. The number of shops openly selling drugs (albeit of a legal variety) is quite staggering. The biggest chain is called DROGAS ECONOMIA, and their shop fronts display the sign: DROGAS SUPER BARATAS (super cheap drugs).

drogasAnd to summarise, here is a citizen whom I photographed during a long discussion he seemed to be having – at some volume – with his maker:

ava man speaking to god

Who needs poetry with all this going on?

Midday: story of a kidnapping

5 Jul

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.

             – Martini?

© original text: Eduardo Halfon 2012   © translation: Richard Gwyn 2013

The Sound of Things Falling

1 Feb


The Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia has a thesis in which he claims that every successful story contains within it another story. The first story narrates the action of the plot, while the second story is more or less hidden from view, or in parentheses. The art of the story-teller, according to Piglia, lies in knowing how to encode the secret story within the interstices of the first.

In Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’ this duality is expressed as tension between the self and its other, and the theme is one to which the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been drawn in all three of his novels. In fact his second, The Secret History of Costaguana is – in the parenthetic sense of Piglia’s definition – about Conrad himself. There is more than a little of Conrad also about the ‘inner weather’ of Vásquez’s writing, not least in the elusive and at times strenuous unravelling of plot. In his new book the structure of telling is doubly replicated, both the main story and the subsidiary story recounting (among other things) the relationship of a father and his daughter, while the threads holding together the parental relationship begin to unravel.

The novel begins with an account of the shooting of a hippopotamus, a one-and-a-half ton male ‘the colour of black pearl’. The hippo has escaped from the private zoo of drugs baron Pablo Escobar, in the Magdalena Valley, south of Bogotá, after the zoo, along with all of Escobar’s vast and ill-gotten estate, falls into ruin. The narrator, Antonio Yammara, visited Escobar’s zoo as a twelve-year-old, against the express orders of his parents, and the memory is still vivid. And it is memory – its tenuousness and its faulty reconstruction – that lies at the heart of this novel. ‘The saddest thing that can happen to a person’ we are told, ‘is to find out their memories are lies.’ Elsewhere we learn that ‘remembering wears us out.’ Familiar tropes emerge: deception, the inescapability of the past, stories that mirror one another, and fatherhood. It is perhaps unavoidable recalling Borges’ famous dictum that mirrors and copulation are abominations, since they both replicate the numbers of man.


Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Back in the 1990s, Antonio is a young lawyer who befriends a lonely man with a secret. Ricardo Laverde has just been released after twenty years in jail. He says he makes (or made) his living as a pilot, so it is hardly a spoiler to reveal that, given Colombia’s history, he might on occasion have made aerial deliveries for the wrong sorts of people. We also learn that US Peace Corps workers developed the cocaine-refining technology that helped turn Colombia into the nexus of the narco-industry over the following two decades. Ricardo was himself married to a young Peace Corps volunteer, whom he expects shortly to welcome back to Colombia after two decades’ separation. With some evocative, painterly, strokes Vásquez leads the reader through the landscape of Ricardo’s past, before returning, with a searing sense of loneliness and regret, to Antonio’s present.

Anne MacLean has translated all three of JGV’s novels into English. There were a couple of lines I questioned: her reference to Maya’s hands being ‘tainted’ by the sun rings strangely in English, as does the phrase: ‘my closed lungs made themselves felt effortlessly’. But these are small matters: for the most part the work reads beautifully.

Vásquez’s persistence in exploring the darker corners of his country’s history, in probing his characters’ intractable duality, and in questioning the frailties of both collective and individual memory, is compounded by his skill in evoking those instances, known to us all, when things changes for ever: such as when the telephone rings, and “all you have to do is pick up the receiver and a new fact comes through it into the house, something we’ve neither sought nor requested and that sweeps us along like an avalanche.”

This review first appeared in The Independent on 1 December 2012.




The Secret History of Costaguana

6 Sep


A few months ago I gave up reading novels, but over the summer I cheated and devoured two, both of them very slowly, my preferred mode of literary consumption. The first was Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which I read for reasons which I now forget, but which seemed good enough at the time. I won’t review it here, as the book has been around for a while.

The other, which I have just finished, was the second of Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novels to be translated into English, and is called The Secret History of Costaguana (the first was The Informers, shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009).The newer book was published by Bloomsbury two years ago, and so it’s taken a while to get to the top of my pile, even the very slow-moving pile of a reluctant novel-reader (re-reading that last line sounds ominously intestinal).

I am not an easy reader to please, but am happy to report that Vásquez has helped restore my faith – not in humanity: his novel is too dark and despairing for that – but in the genre of the novel, itself a faith that needs frequent, though not frantic, restoration. From the start of The Secret History we know we are in the hands of a consummate maker of stories, led inventively through the emerging narrative of a place and a people whose identity is continuously under threat, of internecine dispute, of civil war, of colonialization – the city itself is, after all, called Colón – and whose surprising directions and narrative angles keep the reader in a state of interested anticipation throughout.

You can enjoy The Secret History of Costaguana even if you care nothing for Conrad or his Nostromo, around which the narrator circles like a nervous cat. However, if you carry a deep affection for Conrad, and for Nostromo in particular, then you will enjoy it even more. Vásquez’s story, or a version of it related by one José Altamirano, was made famous by Conrad (but stolen by the great novelist, according to the narrator, during a long night’s conversation in which Altamirano describes the coup by which Panama was, in a way that reflects the theft of the story, stolen from Colombia).

One of the most powerful moments in the book occurs towards the end, when Altamirano, on the point of leaving his beloved daughter Eloísa, considers the difference between the two of them: himself rootless and lacking in any sense of belonging, and she of quite a different mettle:

I realised that you were also flesh of the flesh of your land. I realized that you belonged to this country the way an animal belongs to its particular landscape (made for certain colours, certain temperatures, certain fruit or prey). You were Colónian as I never was . . . Each of your movements said to me: I am from here.

The Secret History of Costaguana is beautifully translated from the Spanish, as was The Informers, by Anne McLean.