Blooded, but bold

The Colombia Reader: History, Culture, Politics
Edited by Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, Marco Palacios and Ana María Gómez López
2017, Duke University Press
634 pages, plates, paperback

IF COLOMBIA were a painting, it would be rendered in red. Blood red. For the fratricidal violence that has coloured this troubled country’s history has been on a scale like none other: from the repeated conflicts that were a prelude to the cathartic War of the Thousand Days – a political disagreement whose contemporaneous fee was 120,000 lives but whose long-term cost was far bloodier still – to the breath-taking carnage of La Violencia (250,000 dead) sparked by the three shots that killed Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, himself a staunch opponent of violence in politics, to the civil war unleashed upon a weary people in the 1960s that inveigled its way into someone else’s Cold War and only formally (if contingently) fizzled out at last in 2016 (at least 220,000 dead and 5 million displaced).

It is no small wonder that Colombia’s greatest export, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, is a work of truly universal importance that speaks of the inescapable repetition of history. Perhaps Colombia’s history should be our history lesson.

But as the editors of this remarkable collection demonstrate, there are many other colours in the rich tapestry of this fascinating country should we care to look for them. They point out loyally, if perhaps with a hint of frustration, that the Colombian story is not only one of war or of failed attempts at peace, and that representing it effectively means “pushing past the drug-fuelled conflicts that have dominated international media reports”. Narratives have a way of sticking like lizards to a ceiling.

The Colombia Reader does push past just as the country embarks on a new chapter in its history – and should be essential reading for any serious student of Latin America because of the expansive breadth of themes that the editors have brought together in this volume. A reader – and all the counterpart volumes in Duke University’s visionary series demonstrate this delicate art – is only as good as the selection of essays, reportage and images that it reproduces. And it doesn’t get much better than this.

There are plenty of testaments to war and peace here – from Simón Bolívar’s ‘War to the Death’ a paean to bellicose brotherhood, to the image of stiff child soldiers in the War of the Thousand Days, a conflict whose political origins they would not have understood, to Gaitán’s ‘Prayer for Peace’, to the bold programmes of the FARC and ELN written, quite literally, in the heat of battle.

But there are also countless other shades from 500 years of history reflected in the recollections of illustrious figures such as Alexander von Humboldt, Camilo Torres, Fernando Vallejo and Joe Arroyo, but also of lesser mortals like you and I who are the mortar in the edifice – an anonymous clerk recording the sale of a 13-year-old African slave girl in Cartagena, Orlando Fals Borda’s description of campesino life in the Boyacá Highlands, Augusto Morales Pino’s description of a modernising Bogotá of street cars, pharmacies and switchboard operators.

It is all but impossible to capture the voice of a nation in one single book, especially one in which violence has denied so many a just place in the chorus, but the editors of The Colombia Reader have made a noble attempt with palpable passion for their subject.