Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez tries to explain how “fiction pays homage to reality” when he suddenly finds a more efficient way to illustrate his point: a letter written in Mao’s China in the 1960s.
He takes it out of a transparent folder in his library, and shows it.
In it, the then Colombian revolutionary Sergio Cabrera wrote to the Chinese-Latin American Friendship Association that “the revolution was passing them by side”; that is to say, that a revolutionary like him should not be locked up in a hotel in Beijing for foreigners, but in the marches of the Communist Red Guards.
The incredible story of Cabrera, who after being a revolutionary in China and a guerrilla in Colombia became one of the most important film directors in the country, is the latest vehicle through which Vásquez, 48, decided to address the most important question. wide of his already extensive literary work: why violence in Colombia “has the strange talent to reinvent itself“.
“They are the little stories of that great story that we do not know and do not understand,” says the novelist, whose books usually offer an almost journalistic approach to reality.
“I don’t know why violence in Colombia is recycled, but I think the issue is so complex that the only way to talk about it is in 1,000 pages of history,” he laughs.
“Back the view back”, the book about Cabrera and his revolutionary family, does not have 1,000 pages, but 472, and its publication in February by the Alfaguara label has been one of the most outstanding literary events of the year.
BBC Mundo spoke with him on a rainy Monday morning in Bogotá about how stories like Cabrera’s help to understand the more complex traumas of the incessant Colombian war.
How common was the experience of the Cabrera family in Colombia?
Sergio has told me about the reactions of people who may have experienced similar situations. And for me it has been a great satisfaction that they have told them that it was so, that they lived it that way and that no one had told them. There was a generation that read the book in an autobiographical key.
But Sergio’s story was very particular. Because he passed through Mao’s China, because he came from a wealthy family and because his ideological roots, inherited from his father and uncles, are in the Spanish Civil War.
How does that influence Cabrera’s decision to become a revolutionary?
The past shapes our lives in ways we don’t control.
Sergio, through his family, had a legacy of heroism, of wanting to make a mark.
When politics enters our intimate lives, the forces that move us come from far behind.
The book allows us to see that the guerrillas were not only peasant, but urban and wealthy.
Any simplistic reading of the armed movements in Colombia is wrong and obscures more than it clarifies.
The tree of violence has so many stories that we find them incomprehensible, elusive, and that is why it is so difficult to reach agreements that allow us to reconcile.
Are there Colombians who don’t understand their own war?
There are gaps of ignorance of the root causes of the war. And many of them are caused by war. The wounds for the victims generate an absolutely multiform relationship with the past.
This book is a piece of a great puzzle that novelists, and journalists, try to build through stories.
The novel is a space that allows us to understand the deep humanity of a character beyond the clichés, our political ideas, our hatreds and our pains.
And in that understanding, have you encountered attributes in violent characters?
One of the discoveries was to see that behind the sacrifice of the armed struggle that these people made there were, at first, only good intentions. And a reading of history shows that violence pollutes and poisons everything.
And in the Cabreras, what were those good intentions?
It is a family that is close to the ideas of the left, supported by the great social movements. Because, at that time, they were far from the only ones who believed these things.
The Cuban revolution implied a brutal transformation in the psychology of Latin Americans. And he presented to many the possibility of a fairer, more equitable society, where people were not exploited and suffered less.
And many people believed that, and embarked on immense sacrifices in good faith.
A sacrifice that for a young man like Cabrera was very difficult not to make.
One of the centers of gravity of the book is the exploration of the family legacy.
In the case of Sergio with his father there are two things: his father was an influential personality in the world of culture, theater, and acting that marked his career as a filmmaker. Then there is a ghost that generates a relationship of debt, of affection, of admiration.
But there is also a relationship of pain, of suffering, because of the decisions that the father made, making him and his sister believe that they were making them too, and that they led their lives along paths that caused a lot of pain.
Beyond the fact that he was revolutionary and then became disenchanted, how do you think this ambiguity of legacies plays in Cabrera’s head?
The novel has a present and a past moment. The present takes place in Barcelona and it is when Sergio, whose father has just died, is invited to a retrospective of one of his films.
He goes, more than for the event, to reunite with his son, who was there.
And at that very complex moment, he understands what legacy he wants to leave his son, which is a completely different legacy from the one his father left him.
It is a legacy without great adventures. Because there is no better legacy than a normal life. Your son leads a peaceful life, where no one is trying to change the world.
Sergio tries to inherit the privilege of boredom to his children.
And just yesterday at the Hay festival in Querétaro, Sergio confirmed it: he said, “I had a life full of extraordinary adventures that are now a subject of interest to many people, but I prefer to inherit normality to my children.”
Because that life is deeply traumatic and leaves many wounds.
Is boredom a privilege?
Of course, very few Colombians have had the privilege of a normal life. Especially in politics. What one should ask politicians is that nothing happens.
And the great trap that they have recently put us into is that polarized life in which we are in constant confrontation with the other.
We have lost the ability to understand the other. And we think that everything in public life is a discussion of life and death.
But wasn’t it always like this in Colombia?
I believe that the only antecedent that there is of what we are living now is the violence of the 40s and 50s. The social conversation that existed at that time, hostile, polarized, which tends to consider the other enemy only by the place of which He comes, or because of his family, or because of the area where he lives, that broken country, willing to kill for the sole reason of a political identification, is the only clear antecedent of what is happening now.
Francisco Sanín (a political scientist) says that the danger now is a third peak of violence in Colombia. The unwillingness of our politicians to achieve consensus can have very serious consequences.
Was the idea of the exceptionally exceptional Colombian broken, the one who said that Colombia was the exception in the region because it did not have coups d’état, populism, hyperinflation?
That very exceptional has a lot to do with the idea that there was a war that threatened our coexistence. And that led to agreements such as the National Front (a pact of alternation between two parties from 1958 to 1974), which wanted us to stop killing ourselves, but with consequences on the political conversation, because it excluded many people.
Perhaps the most exceptional famous I see it in terms of destinations. And it is that violence in Colombia has had the strange talent of reinventing itself.
When the Cold War was just ending and the Berlin Wall fell, and it is believed that history is over and in theory the violence will subside, narco-terrorism arises. And there is another retreading of violence.
And what I’m trying to ask myself is what is that substrate that makes the tree of violence grow so many branches.
Why is violence recycled in Colombia?
The question is whether it is a national temperament, or is it a consequence of our inability to break the cycles of retaliation and revenge.
But I don’t have a great general answer, because I just think the issue is so complex that the only way to talk about it is in 1,000 pages of history (laughs).
I do believe that it is essential to ask who benefits from violence. Because there is drug trafficking, which benefits economically. But there are also the politicians, who exploit it for their own gain through chaos and anxiety. Seducing a frightened society is very easy.
Do you think that literature can contribute something in this search for peace?
One of the great evidences left by the plebiscite (for peace, in 2016, which the NO won) is the limited weight that what we call opinion leaders have in the real consequences of what happens. Those of us who tell stories, those of us who participate in public conversion, deceive ourselves about the real weight of what we do.
But I have always believed that one of the humble things that literature can offer is the possibility of understanding something, or someone, in a much more complete way than we achieve in life.
The novel allows us to get into someone else’s life. And I think there is something of value there. It is very unfashionable to talk about empathy, it sounds naïve, but hey, let’s talk about invading someone else’s life: seeing and feeling and thinking about the world from a consciousness that is not me is to broaden ourselves as human beings.
And over there, intolerance, fanaticism, is slowly being lost. That is why fans are not usually readers of novels.
Now you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Download the new version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss out on our best content.