A remarkable short story reveals
how violence has permeated
Colombian literary culture
The Flight of the Condor: Stories of Violence and War from Colombia
Translated and compiled by Jennifer Gabrielle Edwards
2007, University of Wisconsin Press
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
TWO KILLERS toss a coin to see who will pull the trigger, as a terrified man tethered to a chair begs for mercy. Fireworks suddenly light up the abandoned warehouse where the execution is to take place. The assassin is distracted, and looks out of the window. “We’ll do it tomorrow. Today is Christmas,” he says.
Mario Mendoza Zambrano’s remarkable short story captures with blunt immediacy the very routine dimension of violence in a society desensitised by generations of internecine warfare.
For violence in Colombia has been woven into the fabric of the culture, and the contributions in The Flight of the Condor reflect how brutality and the daily accommodations of ordinary people to it surfaces in the country’s literature.
Jennifer Gabrielle Edwards’ collection of stories is a disturbing, yet ensnaring, journey into the dark corners of the hearts and minds of a people whose emotional and physical reflexes have been conditioned by years of conflict. This is a powerful introduction to the theme of civil war, and in particular a condition of generalised warfare in which ordinary people are forced to choose sides against their better judgment.
The weary tale of the dissensus that is Colombia began long ago in the 19th century when the republic endured eight generalised civil wars, 14 localised civil wars, two foreign wars with Ecuador and three military coups. As Hugo Chaparro Valderrama points out in his introduction to this book, “Once Upon a Time: A Short Story on Violence”, it is no accident that the century ended with the War of a Thousand Days – the last war of the 19th century and the first of the 20th.
A savage civil war between liberals and conservatives in which 80,000 to 400,000 people died then ravaged the country from 1946 until 1964, only curtailed when the political paymasters of the violence reached a cynical accommodation to share power and its spoils. This period was followed by the formation of determined guerrilla movements – FARC, ELN and M-19 – avenging the arrogance of the state with devastating strikes against it that brought much of the country to its knees.
This period of bloodletting was, in turn, followed by the irregular war waged by drug cartels against society and by brutal paramilitary organisations against anything that smelt of the liberal tradition.
Cliché of violence
Explanations for the scale of violence in Colombia are, inevitably, many and varied. Chaparro Valderrama writes:
“Many factors have contributed to making violence the cliché with which Colombia tends to be identified, disregarding other dimensions of its reality, among them the displacement of whole towns threatened by war, the terrorist strategy of the mafia, the increasing power of the guerrilla groups that utilise drug trafficking and kidnapping to finance themselves, the on-going war between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, and the role of a State incapable of putting an end to the brutality.” [pp. xix-xx]
The stories in this book reflect the impact upon human beings of this all-pervasive culture of violence and, above all, how it has permeated the emotions of individuals as opposed to the collective trauma of a society punishing itself for its inability to forge a basic consensus. Writers such as Harold Kremer in “Gelatin” and Heriberto Fiorillo in “The Aroma of Death” put aside notions of a generalised anxiety to focus on the interior landscape of characters sensitive to danger and their own vulnerability.
The human impact – captured here with all its unforgiving hues – ranges from the primordial fear of pain and death to the wry humour that responds to so much suffering. The authors give us glimpses of both strength and frailty through a blood red screen that reveals the complexities of our condition and the depths of despair it can reach.
While there is surprisingly little descriptive violence in these stories, what comes across is the deep trauma that it has generated.
Juan Carlos Botero’s shocking “Execution” and Mario Mendoza Zambrano’s “A Chrismas Story” take a blunt snapshot of the violence to reveal its failure to stir a desensitised being stripped of all but vague recollections of what it is to be human.
A whole society is implicated in this tragic story, and surprisingly few of the characters come away with a clear conscience.
Hernando Téllez’s barber exposes the fatefulness of choice in “Lather and Nothing Else”, as he debates with himself whether he should slash the throat of the killer whose beard he is shaving. Germán Espinosa’s sisterly Berta in “Family Birthday Wishes” calls her brother Leonardo – also a hired killer – on the phone to wish him happy birthday as she prepares to murder him, revealing the sheer cynicism of violent crime through trivial dialogue
One of the most fearsome characters is Kremer’s mendacious salesman, whose psychopathic tendencies become more prominent as his ability to convince people to buy something they do not want becomes ever more in question. The sociopath moves ever closer to substituting the desire for a stable, middle-class life for a vengeful bloodlust in which is his own well-being is forgotten behind the urge to damage those around him.
The Flight of the Condor brings together Colombia’s finest literary talent, including Evelio Rosero, whose prominence has grown with publication of Los Ejércitos (The Armies). His “Brides by Night” portrays a deviant violence at the centre of a sexual perversion.
Although Chaparro Valderrama’s assessment is, ultimately, hopeful (but with a strong dose of wishful thinking), the picture of Colombia that emerges is almost a grotesque parody of a land fragmented either by atavistic ambition – what he calls “the crossfire between guerrillas, the mafia, the paramilitaries, and the army, powers concerned exclusively with their own well-being” – or that has never successfully congealed as a viable nation at all. He writes:
“All of these stories are fragments of an image of Colombia depicted with different narrative styles and one theme in common: the disequilibrium of a country that is losing its sense of nationhood and revealing itself as a jigsaw puzzle of regions bound together only by accident through Colombian emblems such as its anthem, flag, sports, coffee.” [p. xx]
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books