Ein schönes Paar- a Handsome Couple by Gert Loschuetz

I hadn’t come across Gerd Loschütz before but was curious about this book after hearing it reviewed on the Büchermarkt podcast and recommended by the proprietor of the Botnanger Buchladen, my favourite German indie bookshop . It was said to be about a photographer trying to piece together his parents’ lives from photographs and his own memories- and trying to understand how they ended up separated yet living in the same town in old age. As someone who’s been spending quite some time recently poring over old family photographs, willing them to speak to me, to tell me their stories, this seemed a promising read. Even more so as the love story/family drama takes place against the background of a post war divided Germany and the family fleeing the East for the West.

The eponymous  handsome couple meet and settle in East Germany after the war. Georg was  an officer in the German army, Herta a fashion conscious dress shop assistant with the looks of a model. After making enquiries about working in the West, Georg runs the risk of being arrested and flees East Germany for the West to avoid this. Herta and their son, the narrator, follow on afterwards. There, further bad luck befalls them and Georg, having committed a relatively minor theft, is accused of stealing a far larger amount and finishes up in prison. When he returns, Herta leaves the family and is then absent for many years, sending occasional postcards to her son but giving very little away about where she’s living and avoiding all contact with Georg. Even when they are in the same town at the end of their lives, they have nothing to do with one another- or so it seems until a discovery made by the narrator at the end of the novel.

This is not a conventional linear narrative. The novel starts with Georg’s funeral, followed closely by that of Herta, which leads the narrator to reflect and look back over their lives, relating scenes and incidents prompted by photographs and memories. I had no problem with this fragmentary, episodic approach, but the narration is entirely from the point of view of the son and so Herta and Georg remain rather two dimensional and at times I found the detailed physical descriptions of the handsome couple a little repetitive. (Perhaps some photos would have made them come alive? Alright, I know they’re not real people and maybe this author doesn’t want to play with the notion of fiction like Gabriel Vasquez, but still I longed for a photo at times). It also made it hard to feel much for them or their situation-I didn’t particularly believe in their grand passion. I wanted to know more about them and their motivation-where was Herta all that time and why did she say so little in her postcards? We never find out.

I found the narrator as a child strangely unemotional as well. He relates his mother ‘s absence, surely very traumatic for a child in the 1950s, and his solitary life with an uncommunicative father in a flat, matter of fact tone. I wanted him to react to the father’s silence (that Schweigen which seems such a feature of 20th century inter generational relationships, as in Paula or die Königin schweigt ), to express anger, frustration or misery. Still, this lack of emotion in the child is contrasted in a couple of powerful scenes with the adult narrator. The first is shortly after the funerals and describes the effects of grief: the disorientation, the feeling of being cut off from others talking by a sound proof wall, wandering concentration. The fear that he’s suffering from the same symptoms as his father. And then the chapter towards the end when he visits both parents in old age- his father’s delight at seeing him, yet the limitation of their conversation, his mother leaning her cheek on his hand when he touches her shoulder. I found these last scenes intensely moving and authentic: they seemed to come from the heart whereas there seemed to me a lack of heart in the central relationship between Herta and Georg.

Weaving through the story and providing a foil for Herta and Georg’s relationship is the narrator’s friendship with Mila. She’s a friend, a former lover and a confidante, someone with whom the narrator can share his discoveries and theories about his parents and we see fragments of this friendship over many years too.  Their warm and open exchanges in dialogue contrast with the silence overlaying the narrator’s childhood and I experienced them as a real relief, glad to be back in the modern, contemporary world and away from those inscrutable and elusive parents.

I’ve focused very much here on the family memories and relationships. The novel does also give us a flavour of living in those post war years, both in the communist east and the west. I really enjoyed the account of the family holiday at the communist holiday camp- the Ferienheim des FdGB- where the excitement and novelty of this great week by the seaside is thrillingly conveyed. And Gert Loschütz’ s narrator, a photographer, is able to conjure up vibrant images of many characters with his great eye for detail. Yet the problem for me was that the handsome couple only really came alive towards the end of the novel: before that I couldn’t quite believe in them.

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A gem of a festival in South West France- Festilitt at Parisot.

What could be more delightful than to spend a warm golden October weekend in the south of France amongst books and book lovers? This is what the small village of Parisot in the département of Tarn-et-Garonne has offered for the last 6 years through its annual literature festival, Festilitt. The festival is unique in that it was set up as a joint venture by the French and English community living in the area and provides an English and French strand of book readings, talks and events to suit both groups (I’m told that an additional benefit of this dual offer for  the organisers is the pleasure of working together and learning that there’s more than one way to do things!)

This year I had the opportunity to go and had a fantastic time. I went to four events with

 

English language authors representing a really broad range of writing. Historian and academic Richard Vinen talked about his recent nonfiction book The Long 68, relating the student and worker uprising in France to similar events in Germany, Britain and the US and looking at the long term effects of those revolts. Mike Poulton’s career has been adapting and translating literature for the stage. As well as working on classic texts from Chekhov and Ibsen, his more recent work has been the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. On Sunday I enjoyed  listening to journalist Clare Mulley talk about her book The Women who flew for Hitler, on two ace women pilots who flew for the Third Reich. She was followed by Scottish writer Graeme Macrae Burnet, known for his Booker short listed His Bloody Project and here talking entertainingly about his two recent novels set in northern France.

The French strand included novelists, poets and children’ s author Marie-Laure Depaulis, who participated in ateliers with the local primary school children, culminating in a presentation of their work on the Opening Night at the Salle des Fêtes. On the Sunday morning I enjoyed a great presentation by Luc Corlouër on the history of La Compagnie des Indes, the historical background to his recent novel De Port-Louis à Port- Louis.

But it’s not just about listening  passively to the great and the good displaying their talent. Throughout the festival there’s an active buying and selling of second hand books, both French and English, in the former village post office, as well as a sale of  new books by the participating authors. There’s an infinite supply of tea and cake, provided by the English community in exquisite bone china cups. There’s a display and sale of art work inspired by the works of the participating authors. But perhaps the highlight of the fringe events is the Saturday night dinner with the authors, held this time at the Salle des Fêtes in neighbouring Verneil and comprising a splendid 3 course meal with an author at your table. ( I didn’ t get to speak to Graeme Burnet sitting at ours, but instead to two different people, both readers of course, on their second and third visits to the festival,with whom I talked books.)

So this was an incredibly enjoyable weekend at Festilitt and much thanks should be given to the organisers both French and English who work tirelessly all year round to make it happen. More information can be found at the website and if you put your name on the mailing list you’ll receive exciting titbits about the proposed programme for the following year which you’ll find hard to resist. Festilitt is a gem of a festival and I’m still basking in its golden glow!

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The importance of memory and memorialization in today’s Europe- Les Amnesiques by Geraldine Schwarz.

How timely to be reading this book over the same weekend that has seen over 100,000 March in central Berlin towards the Brandenburg Gate - 13 Octoberpeople marching in Berlin, protesting against xenophobia and the rise of the far right. Les Amnésiques, recently published in Germany as die Gedächtnislosen, examines the differing responses in Europe to Hitler’s fascist régime and the Holocaust through an interrogation of the writer’s own family. Beginning with the post war period Géraldine Schwarz considers the responsibility of her German grandfather, Kurt Schwarz, in condoning the Hitler régime- and brings the debate right up to the present day in suggesting that the rise of right wing populist movements in Europe today is linked to the extent to which individual countries have acknowledged and worked through terrible events in their pasts.

Géraldine Schwarz is a German/ French journalist living in Berlin. She starts her quest to find out more about her grandfather’s role during the Hitler period when she finds a bundle of correspondence with Julius Löbmann neatly filed away in her grandfather’s cellar. Julius Löbmann was the original Jewish owner of the petrochemical company which Kurt Schwarz bought at a knock down price in 1938 when Jewish owned companies were forced to ‘aryanise’. After the war, the Allies introduced legislation allowing Jewish business owners who’d been robbed in this way to claim compensation and in 1948 Julius Löbmann  did just that. In reading this correspondence Géraldine Schwarz notes the self-pitying, complaining tone with which her grandfather describes his straitened financial circumstances post war with little regard for the appalling suffering of Julius Löbmann, who lost most of his family in Ausschwitz. Kurt Schwarz was what is known as a Mitläufer, someone who may have been a member of the NSDAP but was not necessarily a committed Nazi ideologically and did not commit any atrocities. She states he only gained a relatively small financial advantage in his purchase of the company. He was, in other words, someone who just went along with the Nazi régime and appeared not to notice, or at least did not react, when 2,000 Jews were rounded up and deported from Mannheim on October 22nd 1940 just down the road from his house.

The behaviour and attitudes of Kurt Schwarz and his generation are discussed in the context of post war Germany and the Allied Occupation. We learn that there was in general little examination of the responsibility of the German people for the Nazi régime and the Holocaust. The Nuremberg trials had a limited role here, holding only certain high ranking Nazis responsible and the denazification measures were applied variably across the four occupied zones, with the British zone being particularly half hearted. Quite quickly after the end of the war the Allies’ concerns turned to the threat of communism from the East, while the first Chancellor of the new Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, evinced a Schlussstrichmentalität– a desire to draw a line under the past in order to help Germany move forward and look to the future. It is shocking to learn that between 60,000 and 80,000 former Nazis were thought to be living under false names in Germany in the post war period protected by family, friends and former colleagues.

Géraldine Schwarz shows her talent as a journalist throughout the book in her careful selection of material to illustrate the very gradual development of awareness of  responsibility. As has been well documented elsewhere, the student movements of the late 60s in Germany and the questions they asked led to more widespread recognition, expressed so notably when Willi Brandt sank to his knees in front of the Jewish memorial in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 in a gesture of grief and humility. The book interweaves an account of these years with the story and recollections of the writer’s father, Volker, born in 1943 and growing up under a blanket of silence about the war. He learned about the war from his own reading, his father being unwilling or unable to discuss it, and his school making only a token attempt to teach this period.

As a franco-allemande, educated in both Germany and France, Géraldine Schwarz has a personal interest in examining the role of the French too, collaborating with the Nazi régime in its deportation of the Jews. Her own mother, Josiane, used to take a bus to the Sorbonne which travelled right by Drancy, a housing development used as a transit camp for Jews rounded up in Paris and elsewhere, from where they were taken by train to Ausschwitz. Yet after the war people claimed not to know that the camp was being used for this purpose. Géraldine Schwarz’ maternal grandfather, Lucian, was a gendarme and sent to the village of Mont- Saint- Vincent in the Free Zone, from where he was tasked to patrol the border between Occupied France to the north and the Free Zone to the south. Many Jews escaped to the relative safety of the Free Zone by crossing this line and Lucian claimed to have turned a blind eye to several going across. Yet the nearby town of Montceau-les- Mines saw Jews being rounded up by French gendarmes which was the story all over France. We are given several accounts of the assiduousness of the French in collaborating with the Nazis in rounding up the Jews and, shockingly, their zeal extending to offering Jewish children to fulfil the quotas even before the Germans had asked for this: at the Vél d’Hiv round up Pierre Laval asked Eichmann if they would take the children too as the French authorities didn’t know what to do with the children whose parents had been deported.

At the end of the war there was a period of lawless reckoning with collaborators, involving 9,000 summary executions and women accused of la collaboration horizontale shaved and paraded through the streets. Yet despite this épuration– cleansing- many actual collaborators remained in France, holding positions of authority. And the convenient post war myth of la France résistante held sway for some time, until Robert Paxton shattered this idea in his 1973 book La France de Vichy which claims that in fact the active Resistance was never more than 2% of the population. As with her treatment of Germany, Géraldine Schwarz outlines the different stages of awareness of French collaboration culminating in President Jacques Chirac acknowledging France’s role in Vichy at a ceremony in the Vél d’Hiv in 1995. Yet for reasons discussed in the book, Géraldine Schwarz feels that France’s attitude to its culpability is more ambivalent than that of Germany.

And what of East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, which grew out of the former Soviet Zone and became an independent communist state in 1949, albeit heavily influenced and controlled by the Soviet Union and its propaganda? Géraldine Schwarz describes the sacking of former Nazi party members after the war and the setting up of summary trials in the 1950s-but after that the propaganda was that the communists had been fighting the fascist Nazis and therefore could not be guilty of Nazi crimes. Legislation allowing Jewish people to reclaim their property at the end of the war was never enforced in the GDR, so that when the Berlin wall fell, and  the communist state collapsed, the prospect of potential claims by former Jewish property owners was a deterrent to possible future investors in the former East. Over and above this, though, the fact that the East Germans had not worked through their Nazi past, and lived for 40 years in a state cut off from other cultures and influences, led to an increased rate of xenophobia and racism in the  5 Bundesländer which comprised the former East Germany,  and has now led to increased support for organisations like Pegida and the new political party Alternative für Deutschland particularly in the former East.

Now Géraldine Schwarz, in the last third of the book does cast her net wide, extending her discussion to the Axis countries of Italy and Austria- both of which come off badly in terms of facing up to their collaboration with the Nazis and their own facism- and the former Soviet Bloc countries such as Hungary and Roumania. There is much interesting material here but this felt almost like a different book as it moved away then from considering her own family’s involvement. In the first part of the book the experiences and reactions of her grandparents, Kurt and Lydia, are brought vividly to life, and her father, Volker, weaves through the narrative, bringing us back to the lived experience. This for me was one of the book’s strengths, its portrayal of personal stories. The early life of her grandmother, Lydia, who was born in 1901, and lost her mother and 6 siblings during her childhood, exemplifies for me the different lives and expectations for young women in Europe a century ago. The past is indeed another country and Géraldine Schwarz conveys this maxim well in her treatment of the different life experiences and hence different attitudes towards historical events and responsibility across the generations.

Still, the whole thesis of her book is that we ignore the past at our peril. So in the marches this weekend in Berlin we see perhaps a work in progress: the protests from an enlightened and democratic section of Germany who have worked through their Nazi past against the xenophobia of others who have not yet come so far. As we look at this from a UK on the brink of Brexit it strikes me that all Europeans would do well to heed the title of her last chapter: Les Nazis ne meurent jamais– the Nazis never die.

 

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In conversation with Julianne Pachico-from Colombia to Sheffield


I was bowled over to discover that Julianne Pachico, writer of The Lucky Ones, is teaching at our very own Sheffield Hallam University, and even more thrilled when she agreed to have an interview with me at Peak Reads. Julianne’s career has taken her from Colombia to the US, from Norwich to Sheffield and I was sure this multi cultural experience has had a powerful effect on her work.

  1. Welcome to Sheffield, Julianne, and thanks for agreeing to do this interview. What brings you here?

I’ve been teaching at Sheffield Hallam since February of last year, so for about a year and a half, and I moved here last week. When I got the job I was finishing my PhD so it wasn’t ideal for me to move, but as from last week I’m a Sheffield native.

  1. You’ve lived in England, in Colombia and the States- is there any one country you identify with more closely?

One interesting reference point recently was watching the World Cup when Colombia played against England. I was watching it with my English boyfriend who ended up cheering for England, but I was cheering for Colombia from the very beginning. So I found that very interesting, that even though I have a UK passport, my mother is English, genetically I’m half English, the team I was supporting was Colombia. I guess because I grew up in Colombia, that was my childhood home where all my formative experiences and memories took place I’m going to have a connection with that country. My parents live in the States and I speak with a US accent because I went to a school with a United States curriculum, but I only lived in the States for 4 years and when people ask me ‘what’s going on in America? Why are people so obsessed with guns?’ I’m like ‘you’re asking the wrong person, I have no idea’. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to move in and out of different cultures and countries. What’s interesting about living here in England, is that even though I’m genetically British, and our family history goes back to the 1600s, because of my background and my accent I’ll always be seen as a foreigner here- always. I think that’s not really a bad thing and what I love about England is an openness and receptiveness to people living here. That may be changing but I hope it continues.

  1. I’d like to ask you about The Lucky Ones which I’ve read and think is an absolutely fabulous book. I saw it from the beginning as a collection of short linked stories but I was reading some critics who refer to it as a novel. I’m wondering which you see it as and why you chose this particular form?

In the States it was marketed as a novel which I think is very interesting given that a lot of famous short story writers are from the US, so it’s ironic that in the US they wanted to call it a novel-it was the publisher’s decision that the public preferred reading novels to reading short stories. My intention from the beginning was the linked collection, the fragmented novel, which is a form  I enjoy reading-books like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, books that aren’t really collections and aren’t really novels, so I just wanted to write the kind of book I enjoy reading. It also felt appropriate to me when writing about Colombia. I didn’t want to write a book in which everything was explained, everything was resolved, which might be frustrating for some people but just felt like an honest and authentic way of writing about Colombia for me, which is a very confusing place to live in, a place where it’s difficult to get any definitive answers and it’s also a country that is sort of fragmented and sort of broken so that’s also why the form felt appropriate to me. I think also writing short stories in terms of being a first book, the beginning of my career, just seemed easier, less intimidating than writing a novel. I’ve written a novel since, so now I’ve tried both.

  1. In the book there’s a lot about the violence and the experience of living in the jungle, the hardships of that experience for the people who’ve been kidnapped but also for the guerrillas who’ve been there for many years. What research did you do in order to write in such detail about that experience?

I read a lot of memoirs and non-fiction, a lot of journalism. I looked at a lot of photographs online. I did read fiction by Colombian writers but I think what was most helpful to me was the non-fiction. Writing stories like Lemon Pie or M& M which are set in the jungle, it was really helpful to read books by people who’d been held hostage, who’d been kidnapped or who’d been part of the armed insurgency. Also I had to leave in order to see Colombia from a different perspective. When I was living there as a child I wasn’t really interested in the situation as when you’re a teenager you’re more interested in your own self absorbed life. This is something I’ve heard other writers say- so Kazuo Ishiguro for example, his first two books are about Japan despite him having spent very little time there-he left as a child. That seems to be an interesting pattern- people need to leave in order to write about somewhere.

  1. Along with the very realistic descriptions of life in the jungle for the guerrillas there’s also surreal elements in the book, for example The Tourists which is from the rabbits’ point of view. There’s also a lot of fantasy fiction being read and films being talked about and I’m wondering if you can just talk a little bit about why you chose to include the surreal, the fantasy elements?

One of the first things people think about when they think about Colombian fiction will be magical realism, because of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I think the way most people think about magical realism is about magical things happening but described in a very realistic way so like in One Hundred Years of Solitude a priest drinks a cup of hot chocolate and he levitates so like surreal things happening in everyday life. I think that’s a very present thread in Colombian literature, that being said it’s not that I sat down with the intention of writing in a very surreal way because that’s what Colombian literature is. I think again it was more a result of that being the kind of fiction I enjoy. I do read a lot of science fiction and I do read a lot of fantasy. The rabbit story for example was my attempt to write a horror story. Also I’m a big fan of Kafka and he has this story about this unidentified animal living in a burrow so I think the fantastical elements that come out in the book are the results of my tastes and reading patterns. And in Garcia Marquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude  he has  these very magical things happen, people levitating, the  insomnia plague, but then there are events like all these workers are massacred but that’ s forgotten about, it’s just completely hidden, I think that by juxtaposing these two things he’s saying that hiding the reality of this violence, that all these dead people being ignored, that’s the most unbelievable thing that happened that’s almost more unbelievable than levitating women.

  1. I was wondering whether in your writing you had any sort of agenda about telling the world about Colombia, about the violence going on there? Was that a mission that you had, was it a conscious thing?

I think what was conscious was to try to represent different facets of Colombia. For example I know that one huge part of Colombia, when people think of Colombia, is drugs, so I wanted to have a story that was about someone taking drugs, someone living abroad and taking cocaine, as that’s how a lot of people encounter Colombia, through this product it exports. I did think I want to have a story about the guerrilla insurgents and what it’s like to live in the jungle and the camp and a story about what it’s like living in a very rural village that’s been affected by a lot of paramilitary violence, where a lot of people have left like in Armadillo Man the next to last story. In terms of having a project about making a statement or trying to teach people about Colombia or Colombia’s violence that’s something I still struggle with as a writer and it’s a conversation I had recently with another Colombian writer where I was asking him whether fiction is sort of pointless in terms of doing anything useful. His point was that that was a misguided way to think of fiction, to think of fiction as having this role to instruct. It can, but that maybe shouldn’t be the primary goal of the writer, the primary goal of the writer, he said, should just be about the words on the page and creating an emotional experience for the reader and if you’re someone interested in politics then that’s going to come out in the writing but it shouldn’t be this artificial thing that you put on the text as otherwise it’ll just become preachy. That was very interesting for me to hear, especially writing about Colombia in the UK. I think in the US it’s a bit different because geographically the US is closer to Colombia, there’s more Colombian immigrants living there, more Spanish speaking immigrants in general, economically the US has invested a lot more money in Colombia so I think it’s a bit different there. I think here, based on my own personal experience for what it’s worth, I haven’t really met that many people who know anything about Colombia, so in a way it makes me happy if people can read this book and learn something about Colombia that maybe they didn’t know before. But even though I was sort of intentional about what I was trying to represent, I really didn’t want to make it this project where I was trying to dictate a certain point of view.

7.I’m very aware that in Latin American literature there are these big names like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, writers people know about, but there are other writers, for example women writers, that people know much less about and I’m wondering if you think that’s the case with Colombian writing? I think a lot of that has to do with translation, who gets translated. Those two authors you cited are from a specific time period, the Boom movement, which was very much about authors with big personalities, authors who were very involved in politics, Garcia Marquez was so connected with Cuba for better or worse, and Vargas Llosa ran for president and I don’t think it’s quite the same now. I agree I think it’s important to hear different voices and I think that’s where translators become so valuable in finding books that haven’t got the audience they deserve and bringing them to a wider audience. I’ve always been very interested in translated fiction and a lot of that has to do with just getting books. Getting books in Spanish here in England is very  difficult, sometimes I get them on the Kindle but then I don’t really like reading on the Kindle so sometimes it’s just easier to get something in translation. So  more support for translators would be important in getting those other voices heard and I think publishers like And Other Stories or Tilted Axis Press are instrumental in this.

  1. Do you see yourself going back to live in Colombia one day?

I don’t know. Who can say what the future will bring?  I guess for now my focus is on my writing career, finding ways to support that. I have a teaching position at Sheffield Hallam which suits me well, it’s part time and gives me time to write. I get a lot out of working with my students too.

  1. My last question is what are you working on now? Can we expect another book, or another collection of short stories?

I recently submitted my novel to my agent.  It’s set in Medellin, in Colombia. Just like with the Lucky Ones I didn’t set out to write about Colombia, it just sort of happened and I think it was the result of the Peace Negotiations and travel to Colombia becoming a much more popular option. If The Lucky Ones was more about Colombia’ s past, this book is more about Colombia’s present and future- where it’s going to go from here.

Well that sounds like it will be a fascinating novel, I’m very much looking forward to reading it. Thank you very much, Julianne, for this conversation.

.

 

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10 Books to read about Colombia

When I was planning my trip to Colombia this year  a common observation was ‘is it safe now? What about all the drugs and violence?’ It is true that Colombia has known several decades of violence in which thousands of people have died and families have been torn apart. But in the last few years many factors and players have combined to reduce the violence, making many parts of the country safer and allowing tourists to travel. We found a country of breathtaking beauty-its rich biodiversity is well known- and yet scarred by the past- we met people who’d experienced the violence and lost loved ones.  To find out more about the complex history of the country we turned to books, by Colombian and other writers, which really enriched our experience. For people planning to travel to Colombia I’ve put together a list of the books we read which helped us understand this complex country a little better :

  1. The Robber of Memories- A River Journey through Colombia by Michael Jacob ( 2012) Full review here. This is a beautifully written travel book about a journey undertaken by the travel writer Michael Jacob down the mighty River Magdalena-mighty because since the Spanish conquest, the Magdalena was the main travel artery through the Colombia’s interior.He starts at Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast and travels to the source in the Andes, describing people and places he meets en route, including the increasing evidence of guerrilla and paramilitary activity the further away he gets from the coast. A poignant second narrative runs along the first which is his reflections on his parents’ decline from Alzheimer’s.
  2. Short Walks from Bogotá by Tom Feiling (2012) reviewed fully here. This book, written in 2010, was the result of the writer returning to Colombia, having worked there in the early 2000s, in response to a Newsweek article claiming the Colombian economy was on the up. Feiling returns in 2010 to check this out and visits old friends and new contacts in Bogotá and the surrounding area. In the course of these conversations he explores the history and recent conflicts and is excellent at setting out the interests and agendas of the main players. Perhaps less literary than Jacobs, he nevertheless writes in a chatty and engaging style and is great at depicting the huge range of characters he meets.
  3. The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico (2017) reviewed fully here. This is my favourite work of fiction about Colombia, a collection of interconnected short stories set in Cali, one of Colombia’s largest cities, which saw a huge amount of violence during the conflict. The protagonists come from a range of backgrounds- wealthy middle class girls, an American teacher, a maid- and the stories span 20 years or so, showing us how the conflict touched everybody’s lives and the effects it had over time. Told with succinct precision, where every word matters, the stories are enormously powerful.
  4. Delirio by Laura Restrepo ( 2004) translated as Delirium by Natasha Wimmer (2007). Reviewed fully here. This novel starts when Aquilar returns from a short trip to find that his wife Agustina has become deranged and is unable to tell him what has happened in his absence. Through his efforts, events in Agustina’s past unravel and with it the dubious activities of her wealthy Colombian family. The story is told from several different viewpoints which adds to the feeling of giddiness and disorientation as we go deeper into the characters’ back stories. This is an engaging and compelling novel which conveys the texture of life in Colombia during the years of violence.
  5. The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez ( 2011), translated by Anne McLean ( 2012 ) This novel by my favourite Colombian writer, reviewed fully here, won the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award. It’s a sort of literary thriller about lawyer Antonio Yamarra’s attempts to track down the killer of his friend Ricardo Laverde. In sifting through evidence and documents he finds out more about Colombia in the 60s and 70s and the beginnings of drug trafficking.
  6. The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (2004) translated by Anne McLean (2008) reviewed here. This novel,  like most of Vásquez’ novels, mixes both past and present. It’s a story of the German community in Colombia during and after the Second World War but is also a story about friendship and betrayal. The contemporary story explores some of Vásquez’ favourite themes, such as the father- son relationship, with poignant sensitivity and beautifully rendered in Anne McLean’s translation.
  7. Las Reputaciones by Juan Gabriel Vásquez ( 2013), translated by Anne McLean (2016). reviewed here.This novel is about a well known political cartoonist who is being rehabilitated after a period of lying low, in hiding from the right wing regime he mocked in his work. A damaging incident from the past comes to light, but he can’ t remember the truth of what happened. This is a fascinating exploration of memory and responsibility, mirroring in the protagonist’s forgetting the tendency of Colombia as a nation to forget its past.
  8. Las formas de las Ruinas- The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (2015), translated by Anne McLean (2018), reviewed here. This is a large and complex novel which explores the idea of conspiracy theories through explorations of the assassinations of two key players in 20th century Colombian politics, Rafael Uribe Uribe and Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. The narrative is not straightforward but combines the investigation of the narrator, also called Juan Gabriel Vásquez, together with ídocuments, manuscripts and photographs. This is probably the most challenging of Vásquez’ books so far, likened to Philip Roth’s work in a recent article by Lily Meyer, and not for the faint hearted.
  9. La Perra- The Dog- by Pilar Quintana, reviewed here. As far as I know this is a novel waiting to be translated so for Spanish readers only at present I’m afraid. For me the delight of this slim novel is that it’s set on the Pacific coast, an area of Colombia I know nothing about, the protagonist is a poor middle aged woman and the story is about her relationship with a dog she falls in love with and brings up. We learn much about the hard lives of people in these remote and cut off coastal communities, facing the relentless and corrosive waters of the Pacific in one direction and backed by the steaming and impenetrable jungle in the other. A very powerful and moving story.
  10. Gabriel García Márquez. Now I’m not mentioning any one book by him, but obviously One Hundred Years of Solitude is his best known work. It introduced magical realism to the world and certainly enchanted me in my youth. Going back to read it a generation later the charm had worn off and I found the magical realism rather tiresome. However it’s not just his style that made him such an icon but his prodigious output. Writing over his lifetime he covered a wide range of historical subjects and periods and I did read and like Love in the Time of Cholera when it was published. It’s set on the Caribbean coast and is very evocative of the town of Cartagena. I reread it when in Colombia this year but truth be told didn’t finish it: it’s a bit slow and features women all but shut up in houses to which I have an aversion. García Márquez is a huge figure in Colombian literature and internationally and you may love his work.

I hope you’ve found this walk through my Colombian literary loves helpful. If I had to recommend just two books, they’d be The Robber of Memories and The Lucky Ones. But any of these will deepen your experience of Colombia- its present and its past. Buen viaje!

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Short walks from Bogota-Journeys in the New Colombia- Tom Feiling

Contrary to what the title might suggest this is not a walking guide, but a book about contemporary Colombia. Its author,Tom Feiling, is something of an expert on the country, having worked for the TUC in a previous life as Campaigns Director on the Justice for Colombia Campaign. He also wrote a book on the cocaine trade called The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World. The prompting for this particular book, we are told  in the introduction, came in 2010 when he read an article in Newsweek about the booming  Colombian economy and decided to go back to check out what was happening in the country since he’d last been there in 2001.

Tom Feiling’s general approach is to take journeys out from Bogotá,  either alone or with a friend, to a town or area which has suffered in a particular way in the last 50 years of violence in Colombia. En route and while there he interviews local people about the present situation as they see it. (There is a sketch map at the front of the book locating the places he visits-which could do with being more detailed ). He conveys a real sense of the daunting geography of the country which has played an important role in the conflict and contributed to the difficulty of establishing the rule of law. David Hutchinson, who was held captive by the FARC guerrillas in the llanos, the vast plains to the east of the Andes, talked about the complete absence of soldiers and police in those parts: Colombia is a very big country with a very small state. It’s a one-way mirror. Behind the one-way mirror is over half the territory of Colombia, where the state can’t see anything. 

 

Tom Feiler gives us some post colonisation history through his description of the evening with his friends, the Sánchez family, where he writes convincingly about the probable society, culture and lifestyle of the people the Spaniards would have met after the conquest in the early 1500s. In a chatty and engaging style he tells us about the contribution to Bolívar’s liberation campaign made by British soldiers in 1812, hanging around unemployed after the Napoleonic Wars.

For me, though, the real strength of this book is his exploration of Colombia’s more recent history through interviews with people directly affected by the violence and his own analysis of the significant players-the drug traffickers, the guerrilla groups, the paramilitaries, the Colombian and US government. So he travels to Mompós, a small town now on a tributary of the Magdalena river, immortalised by Garcia Márquez in The General in his Labyrinth, to meet two ex FARC guerrillas. While one of them joined FARC voluntarily in the revolutionary cause, the other was forced to join up by some FARC guerrillas passing through his village. Through their stories, Feiling outlines the history of FARC and the government including the Plan Colombia campaign whereby Bill Clinton funded the fumigation of the coca fields by air and the expansion and training of the Colombian army and police.

He visits San Carlos in Antioquía which saw the greatest paramilitary activity in the country. Set up in the early 2000s allegedly to counter the guerrillas and the coca trade by President Uribe, the paramilitaries flourished in Antioquía with its political culture of clientelismo and were responsible for thousands of deaths and disappearances. Through conversations with Pastor Mira García we learn of the enormous human cost of this activity and the pain of the survivors: the area was, and is still, heavily mined and in the village of San Carlos alone, 109 local people had been killed or injured by landmines. Feiler notices a pinboard in the CARE office- Centro de Acercamiento, Reconciliación y Reparación- covered with 247 paper flowers with names written on them. Each represents a person disappeared. When their body is found, the flower is replaced by a dragonfly, representing freedom for the body of  that person but also for their family.

On some journeys, the conflict is less prominent in the narrative: he travels to the northerly point of Cabo de la Vela and conveys the remoteness of this area in the long bus journeys to get there through bleak landscapes. With his old friend Carlos he hikes through Chichamocha Canyon to San Gil, and reflects on the ebullient back packers he meets there at the tourist centre offering a hectic mix of white-water rafting, kayaking, caving and paragliding. They are young, well travelled, exchanging tips on how to get to Panama, but not reading Garcia Márquez, rather flitting over South America like butterflies darting between exotic flowers. And like all good travel writers, Feiling is a great observer and describer of individual characters, like the demobbed paramilitary on the bus to Los Santos, now selling plastic cards of the Virgin to raise money to help his reintegration. Or Eishi Hayata, the Emerald Cowboy, with his dark-blue suit that had grown shiny with age and wrap-around Armani shades.

In the final section Feiling comes back to that original Newsweek claim to reflect on the claim that Colombia is seeing an upturn in its economy.His view is muted if not rather depressing: travelling round the country he’s not convinced that ordinary Colombians are seeing an improvement in their living standards. Equally depressing is his finding that few Colombians have faith in their press, courts, congress or other institutions that democracy depends upon.

Now, the Colombia he visits is the Colombia of 2010/ 2011. Much has happened in the meantime, such as the Peace Agreement with FARC of 2016 and the election of the conservative Iván Duque as President of Colombia in June 2018. You may be wondering if this book is still relevant. My answer is definitely yes. While both of these are vitally important developments they don’t negate the incredibly insightful accounts of meetings, conversations and observations which make up this book. The experiences of the people he meets emanate from 50 years of conflict and are obviously hugely influential on their present perceptions, voting patterns and the ability of Colombia to draw a line under its past. Buy it and put it in your backpack now.

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La Perra- The Dog- by Pilar Quintana

I was really excited to come across this moving short novel by Pilar Quintana when in Colombia last winter. The writer was profiled in Semana in January when she was awarded the Premio Biblioteca de Narrativa Colombiana for La Perra– this is a relatively new prize which particularly awards writing about everyday experiences and challenges. For me the excitement was finding a novel by a Colombian woman writer, set in a part of Colombia I knew nothing about- the Pacific coast- where the protagonist was a middle aged woman and the story not about drug cartels and violence.

The novel starts with Damaris running into her neighbour, Doña Elodia, whose dog has just died:she’s probably been poisoned. Doña Elodia is left with several puppies needing homes and Damaris is keen to take one. She lavishes all her care and attention on this fragile little being, feeding her from a syringe, carrying her around in her bra to keep her warm, and calls her Chirli, the name of the child she never had. We find out, through a narrative that goes back and forth in time, that Damaris has never been able to have her own child.

Damaris lives in a small community on the Pacific coast, the nearest town being Buenaventura, which is a boat ride away. The sea plays an important role in this community-their livelihood depends on fishing and they’re also reliant on the sea to travel  as the village is surrounded on the land side by an impenetrable and unforgiving selva or jungle. The community is poor and seems cut off from the rest of the world. Rich white people have holiday homes on the cliff and Damaris and her husband Rogelio finish up cleaning and caretaking for one such family. Superstition and shamanic beliefs dominate and we see Damaris trying these remedies in her attempts to fall pregnant.

If the geographical location determines the daily lives of the villagers, the climate has an equally powerful effect: it’s tropical and the villagers endure overpowering heat, torrential downpours and a constant drizzle and damp which is corrosive. The writer details the attempts of the Reyes family to preserve the childhood bedroom of their son, Nicolasito, from the ravages of the climate and corpses which are washed up on the beach rot and disintegrate swiftly. Damaris has to close doors and windows in the stifling heat to keep away the zancudos- long legged mosquitos- and this is just one example of the effort and energy she and her neighbours expend on surviving in this inhospitable environment.

Against this background, Damaris raises her little puppy, with the grudging assistance of her husband, Rogelio. When Chirli reaches maturity she begins to assert herself by running off into the selva and one day when she returns, Rogelio notices she’s pregnant. The relationship between dog and owner then becomes more complex and leads to the final denouément.

Pilar Quintana uses a simple and direct prose style to evoke the stoicism of the characters in the face of the many physical challenges they have to endure. Often, the contrast between the simple syntax and the  overwhelming life events described is powerful indeed: I found this particularly in relation to the accounts of Damaris’ childhood and upbringing. The tenderness which Damaris feels for Chirli seems all the more moving in light of this, and the climax of their relationship all the more tragic.

This is a beautiful story, which, in its brief 108 pages, tells the reader much about life in a poor coastal community in Colombia. It’s just waiting to be translated into English.

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