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Hell Can Be Beautiful

STR/AFP/Getty Images
Cartagena, Colombia, January 2011

Once shunned by travelers because of a war that left over 250,000 dead and displaced millions, Colombia is now a popular destination. For decades the US State Department advised caution in visiting, but now JetBlue has flights to three Colombian cities. The country’s jungles, red deserts, snow-capped mountains, and rivers are a must-see for ecotourists. The Audubon Society recently described Colombia as the best place in the world for bird-watching. While the world crumbles—Europe is “on the ropes,” Africa is “mired in poverty,” the Middle East “ablaze”—writes Santiago Gamboa in his recent satirical novel Return to the Dark Valley, “Colombia is on the crest of a wave.”

The country’s era of peace and prosperity—“the light at the end of the tunnel”—began in earnest after the Marxist guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) agreed to demobilize. In September 2016, after almost six decades of fighting and almost six years of painstaking negotiations, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC leader Timochenko signed a peace treaty in front of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and other dignitaries, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Spanish King Juan Carlos.

The treaty won Santos the Nobel Peace Prize but it remains controversial in Colombia, where many reject it and believe that Santos’s government handed the country over to Communist narco-terrorists. They are convinced that Colombia could soon become another Venezuela. This is one of the main reasons that Colombians voted for Iván Duque as the successor to Santos on June 17. He was the candidate who most strongly opposed the negotiations. Humberto de la Calle, the candidate who ran on the platform of continuing the peace treaty—he was one of its main negotiators—was only able to capture 2.06 percent of the votes in the first round.

Even if unpopular, the peace treaty is a huge accomplishment. Today, for the first time since 1964, Colombia is not fighting a war. In an interview, Daniel Coronell, a leading columnist and investigative journalist, defended the treaty with fervor as “the most important political event since the declaration of independence” from Spain in 1810. Fourteen months after it was signed, El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper, published a study showing that conflict-related deaths had gone from three thousand in 2002 to zero. Young women are no longer being abducted, raped, and enslaved. FARC atrocities have ended.

Under the deal, the guerrillas gave up their guns and became a political party. Although they kept their acronym, it now stands for the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force of Colombia, and the rifle in their logo was turned into a red rose. Regardless of their efforts to change their image and attract voters, in their first parliamentary election in March 2018, the FARC received just 53,000 votes out of the 18 million cast, a mere 0.36 percent. Soon after, Timochenko pulled out of the presidential race. Forgiveness, which they have been asking for (as part of the treaty, FARC leaders are apologizing to the group’s victims), remains out of the question. Such atrocities as the Bojayá massacre in 2002, in which more than a hundred civilians were murdered in cold blood, have not been forgotten, especially by those who oppose reconciliation under the treaty’s terms. (Now, with Duque as president, their pardons are unclear. Most of his base opposes amnesty.)

Return to the Dark Valley turns upside down everything that Colombians have known. The country that suffered Latin America’s longest and bloodiest civil conflict is cast here as a Republic of Goodness, a peacenik paradise where people go around asking for forgiveness and hugging one another. The Hollywood actor Sean Penn bought a house in Cartagena, where Bono and Benicio del Toro go hang out. Oliver Stone “announced his intention” to make a film about the guerrillas, and the Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Le Clézio chose to buy his house on the Pacific Coast.

In this version of Colombia, “the new hero was the man who opened his arms and found someone to reconcile with. The ethic of forgiveness had replaced the old local Darwinism.” Priests “possessed by the spirit of reconciliation” give sermons preaching love via Skype. Curvy women and ultra-fit men walk around being “tremendously…tolerant.” A television game show called The Forgiveness Hour gets more viewers than soccer matches—a clever comparison, since the country sometimes shuts down during big games. (On election day, trending on social media were messages encouraging people to go out and cast their votes and not stay in watching the World Cup.) On the show, abusers are paired up with their victims. The winning team is the first in which the abused tells the abuser, “Yes, I forgive you.”

If all this sounds absurd, I witnessed something like it in Cartagena at the time of the peace treaty’s signing. At the open-air ceremony three thousand guests, including myself, wore white, while a choir of women who had lost relatives during the Bojayá massacre sang a song to the perpetrators. I saw children dance to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and I admired the tiny gold peace-sign earrings worn by Senator Clara Rojas, who had been kidnapped by the FARC and survived six years in captivity. This is the real history that Gamboa is satirizing—a very Colombian expression of a universal theme: how difficult it is to move through forgiveness to peace.

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Although Gabriel García Márquez’s much-loved novel is not often associated with violence, its pages do describe Colombia at war. The main character, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, founder of the town of Macondo, was a war hero. He had fought thirty-two battles in the bloody conflict between Liberals and Conservatives known as the Thousand Days’ War, which ended in 1902.

García Márquez was writing the book in Mexico around the time that the FARC was formed. One Hundred Years of Solitude put Colombia on the map of world literature and made Gabo, as García Márquez is known, an overnight celebrity. Just two weeks after the book was published in Argentina, a reader pointed out the still-penniless author in the audience of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Everyone leapt to their feet to give him a standing ovation.

While the world applauded his work, Colombian writers suffered from his success. His literary fame cast “the shadow of a huge ceiba tree” over the country’s novelists, as one of his old drinking buddies from the coast once told me. Writers from the next generation were left with two options: ignore Gabo—which was almost impossible—or shamelessly copy him. As a result, the rest of Colombian fiction went largely unnoticed. To the world, there was only Gabo.

Until, that is, a rebel posse, including Gamboa, emerged at the turn of the century. Gabo’s greatest influence was stylistic, but writers who had grown up under the specter of extreme violence cast by the FARC, their paramilitary counterparts, and drug traffickers such as Pablo Escobar had very little interest in magical realism. You will never find a virginal beauty ascending into heaven in their novels.

You will find a murdering teenage girl, however. Jorge Franco’s Rosario Tijeras (1999) is about a beautiful and haunting love triangle involving Rosario, a girl from the barrio who kills for Escobar, and two upper-class kids in Medellín. Mario Mendoza’s Satanás (2002), based on real events, depicts a mass shooter, a Vietnam vet who snaps and goes on a shooting spree in a pizzeria. Gamboa published his first book in 1995: Páginas de vuelta, the coming-of-age story of three alienated city kids, which was noticed mostly because of its urban, angsty style. All three books became best sellers, and the authors became instant celebrities.

Gamboa likes to recall a reading Mendoza gave in Bogotá when Satanás was just a work in progress. The auditorium was packed with thousands of young readers, he told me in 2003. After the presentation, “they came up to Mario for an autograph but also to me and to Franco, who was in the front row. A reader of mine was also a reader of Franco and a reader of Franco was a reader of Mendoza.” Colombia was again reading—and reading its own. These novelists also received international acclaim. When Gamboa published The Impostors, his first thriller, in 2001, it was translated into eleven languages.

Gamboa, now fifty-three, is the son of intellectuals, and he has said that his urbane and polished Bogotá upbringing had nothing in common with García Márquez’s Colombia. But like the Nobel laureate he began his literary career abroad, moving to Europe in his early twenties and studying philology in Spain and Cuban literature in Paris. He later served as a cultural consul in New Delhi, sent war dispatches from Bosnia, and wrote a column for Colombian newspapers and magazines from wherever he happened to be.

His novels, mostly thrillers, are set in far-flung locales—Bangkok, Beijing, Tokyo—but the main characters are usually Colombians, often caught in global webs of organized crime. In The Impostors, an ambitious Colombian pretends to be a journalist as he searches for an ancient manuscript in China. Night Prayers is about a beautiful young woman from Bogotá named Juana who is offered a job abroad only to find herself enslaved by yakuza sex-traffickers.

Return to the Dark Valley combines many aspects of Gamboa’s previous work: violence, displacement, erudite reflections on the state of the world and the human condition, and depictions of Colombians living abroad. Unlike his other novels, though, this one is about what happens when the rejected homeland becomes attractive, when the yellow brick road leads back to where you started. It is about going home, which might reflect Gamboa’s own recent decision to live in Colombia after three decades roaming the world.

“Thanks to the peace,” he writes, “the country had stopped being what it had been for half a century: an execution yard…the most beautiful and flower-bedecked mass grave in Latin America.” But Gamboa also shows why Colombia “still doesn’t smell of roses,” and he gives the reader a visceral account of the violence that turned a beautiful land into such a hellish landscape. Colombia is gorgeous, explains Father Ferdinand, a right-wing priest with ties to paramilitary fighters:

Do you believe that the Lord created those beautiful mountains, those skies, those tropical plants, and those birds with their colored plumage, that He made the hummingbirds and the butterflies, the seas and the snow-capped peaks, the rivers and the trees, only to hand it all over to the Communists and let them turn it into a sewer, a brothel, a discotheque for dopeheads and faggots? No, my friend.

Anything that might save the country from turning Red is allowed. “And that’s what I did. To fight for God and to save this country from the Communists.”

Return to the Dark Valley is also layered with disquisitions on everything from Rimbaud’s life to negritude poetry, Nietzsche, and the minds of jihadists. Joseph Beuys and Joseph Conrad have cameos. This can be impressive, even exhilarating, but also exasperating and excessive. As Gamboa explained in an interview he gave to Dwyer Murphy, crime editor at the website Electric Literature:

I suppose in our times the novel has gained sufficient freedom to cross genre borders and break with all models, which is also the way the contemporary novel is adapting to a fragmentary and chaotic reality. That’s the kind of book I like to read: a book that can contain, for example, essay, biographical chronicle, mystery novel and romance novel in the same pages.

Return to the Dark Valley begins in Europe, which is no longer the golden continent where so many Colombians emigrated, like the characters in the novel, but rather a grimy and infested passageway for “plague ships” arriving from Syria and North Africa. In Madrid, three Colombians are plotting their return. The central narrator, a consul and cosmopolitan flaneur, resembles his creator. Sitting around in Rome with nothing much to do, the consul decides to take a train to Madrid when he receives a text from Juana, the call girl from Night Prayers, who is now a mother and humanitarian aid worker. Manuela, a feisty and intelligent girl from the favela who is in Europe on a scholarship (to study philology, as Gamboa had), now wants to go back to Colombia to exact revenge on those who wronged her. She is the most decisive of the three and drives much of the novel.

Manuela had a brutal upbringing. Born in abject poverty in the countryside, she was raped at a very young age by her mother’s “foul-smelling” boyfriend, Freddy, and ended up in a Catholic orphanage. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this story of abuse; it is the story of millions of Colombian girls. What is new is the graphicness with which Gamboa describes what happens within the walls of the nunnery, where the girls and their guards stage raunchy sex and drug parties. This is also where things start to go right for Manuela. She begins to read, her only form of solace. One night, when a rich girl—elite Colombians use orphanages as rehab clinics for their troubled children—is caught with drugs, Manuela takes the blame. The girl’s grateful mother then becomes Manuela’s benefactor, paying for her education, taking her along on family vacations during which Manuela basks in their sumptuous lifestyle, and eventually sending her to a private university in Bogotá.

Manuela’s street-honed wits make her popular among her richer, more sophisticated schoolmates. When they hear her poetry, she is allowed into their circle, but she discovers that they are a bunch of malicious snobs. Manuela is seduced by an upper-class poet, the wife of a professor at her university who then plagiarizes her work. (“I felt as if I’d been raped for the second time. Brutally raped.”) Literature—and leaving—become her salvation. She wins her scholarship to study in Spain and curses Colombia as she leaves: “Go to hell all of you…drug traffickers, rapists, murderers, thieves…. Stay here with your damned fake god, in your country of blood and shit.”

I have uttered a variation on these words myself. Although my childhood was the opposite of Manuela’s, I, too, made the conscious decision in my early twenties to leave Colombia. When the peace treaty was signed, I thought of returning, but this is still only a thought. Colombia with a demobilized FARC is a much more attractive country now, even though I share Manuela’s sentiments about the deeply ingrained violence, crime, intolerance, and corruption that persist. Gamboa’s novel, as its title—taken from William Blake—suggests, grimly shows the difficulties involved in amnesty and reconciliation. Despite the rhetoric of forgiveness that has gripped Gamboa’s Colombia, Manuela will go to any lengths to get her revenge on Freddy. It is the only thing that will set her free. She must return.

In Madrid, through a series of fortuitous coincidences, Manuela is finally able to make it happen. She meets the consul (whose name is never given) when he intervenes to defend her in a lover’s quarrel that sends him to the hospital. When she visits the hospital to thank him, they realize they are both from Colombia and become instant friends. The consul invites her to Juana’s house, where Manuela shows them the notebooks she keeps. Reading her story, the consul realizes that he has found Freddy, the same bloodthirsty character from Father Ferdinand’s stories that he’d heard while convalescing. Manuela convinces the consul and Juana to accompany her to Colombia. Through another chance encounter (the plot seems driven by coincidental meetings), Juana finds a hit man, a sinister Argentinian called Tertullian, who has developed a grotesque methodology of dismembering victims called “The Theory of Mutilated Bodies.” And so begins the grisly denouement. Gamboa switches registers from postmodernist pastiche to the now popular narco-literature.

Back in Bogotá, the consul finds out through journalistic contacts that Manuela’s target has risen from small-time rural thug to become the biggest drug kingpin in Colombia, working directly with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. The newest drug is a synthetic substance called pink cocaine, but he conducts his business just like the cartels of old—with escort girls. He throws lavish parties at which the prize for a dance competition could be a suitcase filled with as much as $25,000. Manuela and Juana, dressed appropriately, which is to say hardly at all, undergo a demeaning screening process and infiltrate one of his fiestas. Manuela is finally able to face her rapist—except now as a seductress. A fluttering of the eyes, a short conversation, a dance, and he is at her mercy. “Revenge is the great orgasm of hate,” she thinks to herself. “Freddy stole my childhood and…childhood is the only true country.”

Gamboa addresses in this meandering novel one of the most universal questions: What is home? As Juana tells the consul when they consider leaving Madrid for Bogotá with Manuela, “We have to go with her…. And return where? Where do we really return?” For the consul, with his Rimbaudian temperament, returns are only useful for gathering energy—“wind in his soles” needed in order to leave again.

The return to Colombia, “the dark valley,” also raises questions about memory, injustice, and trauma and how they relate not just to individuals, such as Manuela, but to an entire nation. Will the country be able to move on through amnesty and reconciliation, or only through revenge? Santos’s government hoped that reconciliation would have been the starting point. So do the countries and international organizations that have supported Colombia’s peace process. A demobilized FARC will finally allow the state to focus on developing the country. But Gamboa’s portrayal of Manuela suggests just how hard it can be to stop the cycle of violence.

Manuela says she “made an effort to forgive” Freddy when she faced him but “couldn’t,” so she gives Tertullian instructions to go ahead with his plan. Following his Theory of Mutilated Bodies, Tertullian concludes that just retribution for Manuela’s abuse will cost Freddy the removal of 30 percent of his body. Simple murder would not be enough. The genuine revenge is to keep him alive. “My dear Freddy,” says Tertullian as he takes him apart, “what you see around you is both a mausoleum and a delivery room.” Gamboa’s detailed descriptions of Tertullian’s work are as torturous to read.

Gamboa’s mixture of monologue, news analysis, rumination, world history, philology, philosophy, and tabloid scoop is, certainly, a new way of writing fiction about Colombia. Ricardo Silva Romero, a Colombian writer and columnist who belongs to Gamboa’s generation and supports the peace process, recently said, “For a country to achieve a collective sanity, it has to be capable of narrating what has happened to it.” Gamboa’s novel, in spite of its Tarantino-esque effects, is a step in that direction. It is also a fierce reminder of how complicated it can be to choose pardon before revenge and peace over war. As Silva Romero wrote in one of his weekly columns, Colombians have a right “to demand a less sordid country.”