Moths of Ill Omen

Malcolm Deas

  • News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Edith Grossman
    Cape, 291 pp, £16.99, July 1997, ISBN 0 224 05002 8
  • Chapolas Negras by Fernando Vallejo
    Alfaguara, 262 pp, £15.00, March 1996, ISBN 958 24 0283 0
  • José Asunción Silva: Obra Completa edited by Hector Orjuela
    Unesco/Casa de la Poesía Silva, 747 pp, £40.00, April 1996, ISBN 84 89666 06 7

The Hispanic world is particularly reverential towards its writers, perhaps because, through the vagaries of world history, it has not much else to be reverential about. There are the turn of the century poets who could fill opera houses; the overcoated figures photographed on the Paris boulevards, making it, in what Latin Americans still sometimes call, with touching loyalty, the City of Light; the accounts, in the (unreadable) Sunday cultural supplements of La Prensa, El Universal, El Tiempo, or in certain beautifully printed but contentless monthly reviews, of breakfast conversations in New England when the revered poet was in residence on some campus or other. Matchless friends, great souls, universal intelligences, and often even accomplished cooks. Think how the shadow of Gabriel García Márquez has loomed over Colombia. Thirty years ago he published One Hundred Years of Solitude, the foundation stone of an unmanageable fame rivalled in the Spanish-speaking world only by Fidel Castro – a possible reason for their friendship – and not by many outside it.

A hundred years before A Hundred Years came out, Jorge Isaacs published his María, a tale of doomed young love that still sells thousands of copies a year. In 1868, José María Vergara y Vergara wrote what a normal reader might find the first tolerable Colombian novel, Olivos y aceitunos, todos son unos, a gloomily comic sketch of provincial life that even contains a colonel to whom nobody writes. Some would still say that José Eustasio Rivera’s La Vorágine of 1924, a rubber-boom and devouring-jungle story, grips like an anaconda. A bookseller in Tucumán, Argentina once assured me that, along with Hemingway’s El viejo y el mar and Juan Ramón Jiménez’s Platero y yo, the Andalusian donkey book, María and La Vorágine were his bread and butter.

Perhaps now after three decades, it is worth looking to see who else has survived or come to light in Colombia. First, however, News of a Kidnapping. This, though it contains plenty of the drugs and violence for which, besides being the birthplace of the author, Colombia is famous, is by no means a satisfactory book. It is not a novel, it is reportage: an account of a number of kidnappings of politically well-connected people carried out by Pablo Escobar of the Medellín drug cartel as part of his campaign to force the Colombian Government to cease extraditing narcotraficantes to the United States. The Constituent Assembly of 1991 eventually put a no-extradition clause, of dubious validity in international law because constitutions cannot abrogate treaties, into the new Constitution. The surviving hostages – one had been murdered and another killed in a rescue attempt – were released. Escobar, after elaborate plea-bargaining, took up residence in a jail of his own design, which he walked out of when it ceased to suit him to stay there. He was killed in Medellín by a combined police and army search force.

News of a Kidnapping is overloaded with the irrelevant detail that journalists in so many countries cannot stop themselves putting into books. In Colombia they run exceptional risks, but the gremio as a whole is too much given to mutual admiration and collective immodesty. García Márquez’s own return to journalism would have been more effective had it been severely pruned. Despite its length the book fails to provide even a Colombian reader with a full context and rationale for the events it treats – Colombians will have their own explanations, but readers outside the country will remain in the dark about many aspects of what is going on. The author’s brief gloss on the Constituent Assembly’s abrogation of the extradition treaty – ‘President Gaviria declared his firm commitment to maintaining it at all costs, but this caused no alarm: by now non-extradition had deep-rooted support throughout the country and required neither bribes nor intimidation to be enacted’ – is inadequate as an explanation of the Republic’s far from finest hour. Though the plight of the victims is at times moving, the characterisation of villains and politicians, victims and their relatives is conventional or stagey: people suddenly turn pale, even ‘pale as death’ or ‘pace rooms like caged lions’. The wind in those wolfless mountains ‘howls through the trees like a pack of wolves’. The translator is not at fault here – the Spanish, too, is tired; but the translator cannot be bothered to find the proper equivalent of procurador, so simply makes him attorney-general on one page and prosecutor-general on another, neither of which is right. More puzzling is the book’s lack of political or moral focus. It tells us that Escobar was a murderous monster with delusions of grandeur; that drugs bring violence and corruption; that kidnapping is a crime second only to murder. Beyond that, for all its elaboration, this rather indulgent and passive book has little to say.

At one point in News of a Kidnapping a ‘chapola negra’ appears above a doorway, casually translated as a ‘black butterfly’. It is in fact a large, unattractive black moth – a mariposa de noche, not a mariposa – that during the day likes to settle on rafters or ceilings: a moth of ill omen. Chapolas negras is also the title of Fernando Vallejo’s essay on the Colombian poet, José Asunción Silva, who – another of those anniversaries – committed suicide a hundred years ago last year. This Chapolas negras is an extraordinary work by the most distinctive Colombian writer to emerge since García Márquez.

José Asunción Silva (1865-96) is the country’s most famous lyric poet. By Vallejo’s reckoning, ten of his poems – Hector Orjuela’s monumental edition, reprinted for the centenary, is the most complete – can be guaranteed to produce the Housman reflex repeatedly, even in the most jaded sensibility. Silva is also Colombia’s most notorious literary legend: a dandy and an aesthete, condemned, apart from one trip to Europe and a short spell as secretary of legation in Caracas, to the remote and stunted confines of Bogotá. Deprived of the will to live by the death of his adored sister Elvira, whose soul had flown away like the butterfly from the chrysalis in his Crisálidas, he was driven to make his stylish final exit – he asked his doctor to mark the position of the heart on his vest, and gave a delightful soirée the night before he went to bed and shot himself – by the failure of his commercial ventures, the last a small factory for making encaustic tiles. There is an echo of his suicide in Nostromo, in the end of Martin Decoud: Conrad’s Colombian informant in London, Santiago Pérez Triana, was a writer and occasional poet and would have known Silva.

The centenary of Silva’s death was celebrated in the modest house where he did the deed, now the Casa de la Poesía Silva. There are samples of the encaustic tiles framed on the wall, and some dispute over which room was his bedroom. The occasion was admirably republican: two former Presidents gave papers – not speeches, but proper contributions to the symposium. The former President Alfonso López, now in his eighties, disconcerted the audience by arguing that Silva, usually considered a quintessential bogotano, never felt at ease in Bogotá, that his famous ‘Nocturne’ –

                Una noche,
Una noche toda llena de murmullos, de
         perfumes y de músicas de alas.
                  Una noche,
En que ardían en la sombra nupcial y húmeda
                     las luciérnagas fantásticas

– was demonstrably not set in the countryside round the capital, where there weren’t any glow-worms (luciérnagas), and that his sexual orientation was, to say the least, uncertain. The current President sat, with a sole edecán, for a couple of sessions in the front row of the audience, and went on to join the crowd of biographers, critics, students, poets, aficionados, eccentrics and mere bystanders who attended the party at the end. Where else in the world, one wondered, would such an anniversary be marked by a gathering so unpretentious and sincere, so eminent and so disparate? Where else is there a poetry prize worth $50,000? It all makes a creditable change from drugs and guerrillas. Fernando Vallejo was not present: he lives in Mexico City, and the Casa de la Poesía Silva comes in for a passing swipe in Chapolas negras. He is not a writer for sitting on platforms, and is hard to categorise. He has written novels – the latest, La Virgen de los sicarios, is set in the violent homosexual underworld of Medellín (the sicario is a hired adolescent killer) – an erudite ‘grammar of the literary language’, Logoi (1983), and a biography of the itinerant Colombian poet, journalist and marijuana-evangelist who finally went under the name of Porfirio Barba Jacob (1883-1942), Silva’s only rival as a lyric poet. Rarely can so much patience and scholarship have been devoted to such a disorderly life lived in such obscure places; never can a forgotten archipelago of bohemias have been more surprisingly and completely rediscovered: Barba Jacob was never poet in residence anywhere for long, and gave his recitals in early provincial cinemas rather than opera houses; he much admired Yeats and the ‘poesía inglesa’. Vallejo has also written a novel about Barba Jacob, and edited his letters, just as he has edited Silva’s.

Chapolas negras is a biographical and critical essay on Silva, whose ten immortal poems Vallejo profoundly admires, but whose life and cult are treated with exuberant irreverence. Far from being an ethereal spirit unequal to the demands of making a living, Silva and his father, himself a respected littérateur, are shown by the evidence of a surviving account-book to have had an attitude to borrowed money so relaxed that it amounted to habitual fraud. Vallejo thoroughly enjoys doing the audit, the more so because he can be rude at the same time about the author’s collateral descendants, who first falsified the facts of the bankruptcy and have now been foolish enough, after making him wait and grovel, to let him see the figures. Elsewhere, Vallejo insults librarians and rival scholars in an impatient parody of academic good manners.

Silva’s stay in Europe, which the legend fills with unlikely literary and artistic encounters, produced a sub-Huysmans novel of pretentious decadence, De sobremesa, unpublished in the author’s lifetime though now the subject of a minor industry among underemployed hispanists. Vallejo finds it insufferable, and concludes that Silva’s trip did him little good. Nor does Silva come out well here as a diplomat: in his Caracas hotel room, we are shown a row of ten pairs of expensive English shoes, and in his correspondence, a not altogether diplomatic plan for making money by arbitrage on the Venezuelan-Colombian exchange rate.

A famous episode in his short public career involved the shipwreck of the steamer Amérique, which ran onto a mudbank off Baranquilla. Silva claimed to have lost irreplaceable manuscripts. Unlikely: the passengers took six days to get off, and had time to experiment with a lifeboat towed by a pig. Silva, who was never indifferent to small material possessions, could quite easily have rescued a few small notebooks bound in Russian leather.

Vallejo is even more merciless with Silva’s acquaintances, and the embroidered, self-serving and frequently inconsistent accounts they gave of him once it was clear that his fame would last – Miguel de Unamuno wrote a much-reprinted prologue to the first metropolitan Spanish edition of his poems, published in Barcelona in 1908. Vallejo’s exultant display of close reading, disrespect and glorious bad taste is punctuated by asides and digressions, by observations on the distracting noises made by amorous pigeons on his Mexico City balcony, by random local speculations: ‘I’ll have to go and ask Octavio Paz, who knows absolutely everything, what exactly the cotillon was; perhaps he could dance me a few steps.’ The result is a very funny book, something far from usual in the Spanish-speaking world. Impatient of the formalities and pomposities of scholarship, it is itself fundamentally scholarly, and from time to time takes off into correcting other people’s grammar, or defending its own – a Colombian trait, and hardly very surprising in the author of Logoi.

That work is dedicated ‘To the memory of Rufino José Cuervo, whose life was the passion for language’. Cuervo was a native of Bogotá who became the leading hispanic philologist of his time. In the 1880s he set himself up in Paris and embarked on the task of producing an unprecedentedly elaborate Spanish dictionary. Together with the grammarian and classicist Miguel Antonio Caro, who was President of the Republic in the 1890s, he has come to epitomise for most Colombians a crabbed, pedantic and oppressive culture. Vallejo is too fine a writer to share such a vulgar view, but too much of a nihilist and libertarian to be nostalgic. In Chapolas negras he wakes to the Mexico City smog:

And like yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and always, by contrast I thought of Colombia and its clear sky, the Colombia of my childhood, so lost, so far away. The ineffable country of Caro and Cuervo ... of Miguel Antonio Caro and Rufino José Cuervo, who in their youth wrote in collaboration a voluminous and priapic ‘Latin Grammar’, a whole hand span thick. Cuervo wrote the first part, the ‘analogy’, and Caro the second, the ‘syntaxis’. Afterwards Cuervo went to Paris, with his brother Angel, to embark on the insane venture of the ‘Diccionario de Construcción y Régimen de la Lengua Castellana’, of which he managed to write the ‘A’, the ‘B’ and the ‘C’. Death took him in Paris before he began the ‘D’, a long way from Colombia and a long way from ‘Z’. Caro, however, stayed in Colombia, and became President of the country, a country of loonies which he ran with his little finger, with his pinkie, persecuting gallicisms with one hand and swinging the incense with the other. He never left the city district. I admire him for that. Him, and my countryman Eladio Restrepo, who never left the Department of Antioquia, and who used to say: ‘I don’t go up in aeroplanes because what I like is to keep my balls always eighty centimetres from the ground.’ Of course Caro couldn’t go up in aeroplanes because there weren’t any. But mule, boat, train ... No.

  He never got in a train to leave Bogotá to go to Faca to get on a mule to Honda to take a boat down the Magdalena to the Coast and then from the Coast to Paris, 15 days, like Silva and the Cuervos, or even to New York like the poet Pombo. No. He never went further than 20 leagues from the centre of the world, Bogotá. He knew no woman besides his wife. He made one journey, yes, but in the dimension of Time, in that machine recently invented by Wells: two thousand years back, to the Rome of Virgil, and he stayed there. He had the odd idea that Virgil was the precursor of the Redeemer, of Christ. And what about Alexis and Corydon, those two youths in love with each other, who flit through the pages of the Eclogues scandalising everyone, like two buggers coupling on the staircase of a New York turkish bath? Virgil was no precursor of anyone! Perhaps of Liberace ...

Chapolas negras is an unofficial version of a Colombia lost, and for Vallejo, as uninhabitable, one imagines, as the present. But at least then some people knew their participles, and one or two were true poets. The book is a meditation, too, on Colombia present, of which the author despairs. One of the half-forgotten people it flays, the ineffectual man of letters and author of school grammars José Manuel Marroquín, who, when President, lost Panama, used to argue that although the Colombians did not have much by way of comparative advantage – and they had even less once they had lost Panama – they still had a way with the Spanish language and might export literature. Vallejo shows that the old pedagogue was not entirely wrong.