Monday, May 16, 2016

La voragine

I just finished reading the Colombian novel La voragine (The vortex) by Jose Eustasio Rivera, written in 1924.  This is considered by many to be the most important Colombian novel ever written.  I know, I know, Garcia Marquez has a whole opus of amazing books, many of them probably better than La Voragine.  But Garcia Marquez is a world writer, his work is set in Colombia but really part of the global canon.  He captures many aspects of Colombia perfectly, but you don't have to be Colombian to appreciate him.  Rivera's work, on the other hand, is definitively, idiosyncratically Colombian, so much so that I'm not sure of how much it would resonate for someone unfamiliar with the country.

Anyway, I would highly recommend La voragine.  It deftly embodies that odd mix of unparalleled, almost Classical Antiquity sophistication on the one hand and impulsive, reasonless savagery on the other that define for me a major part of the Colombian collective character.  Rivera's isolated, semi-literate peasants, like many real peasants of present-day Colombia, speak with florid metaphors, profound critical analysis, and Age of Chivalry formality.  Then they enslave Indians, hack people with machetes, plunge into orgies of drink and gambling and sex, temporarily immune to any rational thought. 

If you're looking for an understanding of Indian culture or the interpretation of events from an indigenous person's point of view, this is not the book for you.  The Native Americans are a poorly-understood, alien lot in this story; often abused, sometimes aggressive, always squalid, disgusting, and incomprehensible.  The narrative point of view is decidedly that of the mestizo colonos, the white and black Colombians that seek their fortune or at least their mere subsistence in the jungle. 

And the landscapes, they are perhaps the main character in the story.  Rivera evokes the boundless horizons of Colombia's Eastern Plains, their rolling, sweltering prairies, the cattle roundups, the oases of dense forest that spring up around rivers and watering holes.  And in the chapters on the rainforest, he fully captures the sense of gloomy green monotony, the lonely, endless rows of tree trunks and sunless canopy overhead that inspire dread in the sons of the cool, high mountain panoramas of central Colombia.

The book is long and sometimes a hard slog with all the flowery language, but it's well worth a read, especially if you want to know about Colombia.  I've never been to any of the places the author describes, but I feel like I have after reading his descriptions.  And the people struggling in these exotic settings, all of them transplanted from elsewhere in the country, ring totally true to my experience of the Colombians I've known.

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