La virgen de los sicarios

How to write about narco? What use is literature in the face of violence and terror? This is, ultimately, the question that narconarratives have to confront. Like it or not, they face much the same challenge as that posed famously by Theodor Adorno in the wake of the Holocaust: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Is there not something similarly barbaric about continuing to write novels during, let alone about, our current narco epoch? The danger is, as Mexican critic Rafael Lemus puts it, that “novels about narco fulfill a repellent function: they sedate us, they provide consolation. By providing order to disorder, they lessen its impact. By novelizing the narco, they make it seems domesticable” (“Balas de salva” 41). What is more, the writers of narconarrative also stand to profit from the violence they describe. As Lemus trenchantly argues of such authors: “None of these authors engage in denunciation because none of them wants narcoculture to come to an end. It is what feeds their novels, it is what their imaginary depends upon” (42). But is the alternative then silence?

Like Rascón Banda’s Contrabando, Fernando Vallejo’s La virgen de los sicarios has as its protagonist a writer. He is, apparently, a grammarian but in effect what he is writing is the novel that we are reading, told in first person with many an address to the reader, mostly explanations of the idiosyncratic language of Colombia and, in particular, of Medellín during the time of the sicarios (paid assassins) in the aftermath of drug king-pin Pablo Escobar’s death. With Escobar’s organization in disarray (though Vallejo is not particularly interested in how it functions; in fact, he tells us little if anything about the drug trade at all), the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young men who once killed on its behalf are let loose, purposeless and all the more dangerous for it. If their murders once had some sort of rationale, directed by their superiors further up the narco hierarchy, now they are free to kill for the pettiest of reasons: they see a pair of baseball boots they like; a taxi driver refuses to turn down the volume of his radio; a passer-by rubs them up the wrong way. Vallejo’s narrative is studded with these almost meaningless executions, which go absolutely unpunished by a state that has lost control of the city.

Early on, Vallejo (or rather his narrator, who also goes by the first name Fernando) addresses the issue of how to understand what is in these young men’s minds, in a comment on what draws them to the historic churches that crowd Medellín’s historic city center: “Sociologists say,” he tells us, “that the hitmen ask María Auxiliadora to make sure they don’t miss, that she guide their aim when they shoot and that the deal works out well for them” (11 [15-16]). But the narrator immediately draws back from such rationalization: “And how do they know this? Are they Dostoyevsky or God the Father maybe when it comes to getting inside other people’s minds? A person doesn’t know what he’s thinking himself, so how’s he going to know what other people are thinking!” (12 [16]). Fathoming the sicario mentality requires either divine omniscience or a novelist’s imagination.

Is then this novel a Dostoyevskian exploration of the mind of an assassin? Yes and no. No, in so far as it never directly provides us with the sicario’s perspective: with the narrator we are perpetually by the side of the killers (his two boyfriends: first Alexis, then Wílmar), looking on and reacting to their actions, if from very close by. Fernando consistently marks his distance from them: they are young and he is old; they delight in the pleasures of mass consumption and popular culture, he is austere and has cultivated tastes; they come from the impoverished barrios (the comunas) that surround and overlook the city, which he has never visited. And yet yes, in that this presumption of distance and difference soon breaks down: the narrator harbors his murderous urges, too, and often his sicario boyfriends simply kill on his behalf, indulging his whims, hoping to please him; it turns out (despite his sporadic denials) that his is the mind of a killer, even if his is not the finger on the trigger. It is often as though the sicarios merely act out his fantasies; in the absence of any other direction, he ends up providing it for them. Though he carefully tries to maintain the sense that he is master of a rational ego, through these young boys he finds himself indulging his Id.

But finally, Vallejo seems to acknowledge defeat. An investigation into the sicario phenomenon would require the powers of a great writer, but as he notes near the book’s end, when he visits the morgue to look for Wílmar’s assassinated corpse, “the best writers in Colombia” are not the professional novelists but the “judges and clerks, and there’s no better novel than a court summary” (128 [117]). Why? Their “language enchanted me. The precision of the terms, the conviction of the style. . .” ([117]). A novel, a novelist’s novel at least, is condemned to imprecision, to stylistic uncertainty. Perhaps this is because, over the course of the tale he is telling, the narrator ceases to be a writer–indeed, we never see him work on whatever grammar he may be writing; he seems instead to have all the time in the world to wander the city with his sicario boyfriends, so long at least as they precariously remain in the land of the living. Hence, once they are both dead, the book more or less fizzles out, as the narrator fades away, wishing the reader all the best (“Well, buddy, here we go our separate ways, you’re with me up to here. Many thanks for your company” [(122)]). In the end, “the cinema and the novel are not enough to capture the city of Medellín” ([58]). The best that Vallejo’s novel can do is trace the undoing of the writer, and of its own writing, as its narrator loses the struggle to maintain his distance from what surrounds him and instead accepts, perhaps, his own part in the barbarism.

The Shape of Now

shape-of-nowAlmost exactly half-way through Manuel Correa’s fascinating and important new documentary, The Shape of Now (La forma del presente, 2018), we hear Philosopher of Mathematics, Fernando Zalamea, tell us that politics is like “the surface of the sea [. . .] the waves, which overwhelm us, overpower us, while we should try to seek something deeper that might allow us to escape these waves. It’s a struggle between surface and depth. It’s on the surface that you find, particularly, ‘post-truth’ [. . .]. In fact, truth is to be found in the depths.” Here the film image, which had been a shot of noisy, rushing waters, shifts to the silent depiction of torchlight playing over what seem to be trees or undergrowth, picking out branches or patches of foliage without ever stopping atill in any one place. Is this meant to illustrate what it means to search for a truth found somewhere below? If so, it is not obvious in fact that any greater clarity is achieved by means of this restless highlighting of particulars that emerge from and just as quickly recede back again into the darkness.

Indeed, taken as a whole Correa’s film can be seen almost as a systematic refutation of Zalamea’s thesis. For this is a movie that is for long periods captivated by what appear to be superficial details. The camera, almost always static, lingers on exteriors (a café, an apartment building, a street scene, some kind of government palace) or on the everyday activities around or within (kids playing in a churchyard, a cook kneading dough in a kitchen, a woman sewing, a man having his haircut, a rather lugubrious birthday dance, a bubble rising in a water cooler). Interviewees are presented in long shot and wide angle, with long takes giving the viewer’s eye time to wander and examine the objects that surround them (newspapers, books, teacups, an elaborate candleholder, tables and chairs). What they have to say often threatens to be drowned out by ambient noise that seems at first to be a distraction but then comes to be an object of interest in its own right. At the very end of the film, in fact, there are a couple of shots in which we see people speaking, as they dismantle a stage set, but we don’t hear their voices, which have been replaced entirely by incidental sound that may or may not correspond to the scene before us. There are no depths here, just more surfaces that overlap in parts and at times but never quite coincide.

The topic that the movie addresses is the legacy of Colombia’s decades-long civil war, which began in the 1960s and nominally came to an end in 2016 with the signing of peace accords between the government and the main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. In all (the film tells us at the outset) some 260,000 people died in the conflict at the hands of the rebels, the state, paramilitary forces, or drug traffickers. A further 82,000 were forcibly disappeared. Now that there is some kind of peace in the country–a “partial peace” as someone in the film notes, which is better at least than all-out hostilities–people are trying to come to terms with what happened, and to come to terms with each other, as they embark on what the movie calls “the impossible task of agreeing on a shared past.” In some sense, then, the waves are the entire point: an endless set of singularities, of histories that may have a common root but ceaselessly collide. Any sense of calm is simply an illusion of scale, like the long shot of a lake that also illustrates the professor’s disquisition: from a distance the turbulence disappears, but this movie is fascinated by the ways in which larger forces are expressed and play out on a small scale, in a bar or an office, in a scientific study or a theatre troupe.

The theatre troupe is perhaps the central piece in this fragmented montage of disparate elements. The players are all survivors of the war (they claim to refuse the labels of either victims of perpetrators) who have lost relatives to forced disappearance. They act out their own histories, or histories that could have been theirs: panicked attempts to escape when word has it the military or the guerrilla are coming to town; anxious conversations when a loved one doesn’t return from a trip or an errand. Their performances are decidedly amateur, but in a way that’s the point; they don’t want to be lost in their characters, but to maintain their distance from the trauma that they are re-enacting. They take their show to the jails, to perform in front of prisoners who may have been sentenced for the very crimes that they somewhat ham-fistedly represent. To some extent the play is a ruse: they simply want to meet the “other side,” whether to understand them or to be understood by them is not entirely clear; they also suggest that this may be a good way to have the inmates confess informally to the location of clandestine burial sites. Either way, the entire exercise surely demonstrates what we might call the “powers of the false.” Everyone is trying out new roles, with more or less conviction. Meanwhile, an inmate eyes the camera suspiciously, as if to ask what the film is registering. Unblinking, patient, mostly unmoved, the apparatus takes in these surface events and challenges us to do something with them.

Vista desde una acera


Colombian Fernando Molano died (of AIDS-related causes), aged thirty-seven, in 1998. Some years later, one of his friends found the draft of the novel he was writing in his final years: Vista desde una acera (“View from a Sidewalk”), which was then published in 2012. This is an autobiographical account of growing up poor and gay in Bogotá, of sexual awakening and young love, and (intercut with this Bildungsroman narrative) of caring for a boyfriend with AIDS in the face of homophobia and hostility at the hospital and beyond. It’s a plea for freedom and tolerance imbued with deep romanticism.

The book both opens and concludes with the boyfriend’s diagnosis, as ultimately the sections that describe the narrator’s past catch up with the diary-like sections that are set in an urgent present of battling for better treatment and for the right to be recognized as carer and lover. As such, the book is formally coherent and comes to a logical end. Its final line is a succinct send-off: “And that was all” (249). On the other hand, there are also signs that the manuscript was left unfinished at its author’s death. Towards the end, it is increasingly ragged and uneven, not least when it includes a long digression (supposedly an essay co-written by the narrator and his boyfriend) on the problem of defining poetry. There are also disquisitions on the guerrilla and on the fate of the public university that feel like material for essays and disrupt the narrative flow. Yet of course there is nothing that disturbs that flow so much as the disease itself, even if it is also what makes the writing feel so urgent and necessary, as an effort to memorialize a life before it finally slips away.

Indeed, though this is a book that is written under the sign of death–a double death, in fact, both the author’s and the boyfriend’s–it’s striking that it has far more to say about life and, above all, love. Molano presents himself (and his protagonist) as unabashedly romantic, and he’s prepared to run the risk of appearing somewhat kitsch as a result. “It’s always somewhat sad,” he tells us, “to see how among men love was seen as something repugnant” (207). He sees lovelessness or (even) an antipathy towards love wherever he looks: whether in his parents’ marriage or in his account of most gay hook-ups, whose focus is the immediacy of desire rather than long-term affection. Not that Molano (or his narrator) is indifferent or opposed to desire; far from it. But his “dream,” as he tells us, is “to belong to someone who would truly love me” (233). And for his beloved he would do almost anything–and ultimately has to do so, faced with the contempt and moral opprobrium attached to the stigma of AIDS.

In the end, then, Vista desde una acera is the story of a love that dares to speak its name. Challenged by repeated oblique insinuations as to his rights to stay with his boyfriend at the hospital, the narrator casts aside any masks or pretence: “Look [. . .] you know perfectly well who I am. I’m his friend, I’m his lover, I’m his boyfriend, I’m his companion: whatever you want to call it. So I don’t know why you’re asking me. As to what I’m doing here, it seems obvious to me. He’s very sick, he’s close to death, it’s natural that I should want to be with him, no?” (198). The entire book is written in the voice of someone who feels he has nothing to hide, and who has little sympathy with those who do, whether they be hypocritical heteros or closeted gays.

I am not the only one to note that there’s more than an echo here of The Catcher in the Rye, even though Salinger is not on the list of the narrator and his boyfriend’s idolized writers (who range, instead, from Dickens to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Whitman, Borges, and Wilde [241]). Molano’s rage is against what Holden Caulfield called “phonies,” and he has little of contemporary queer theory’s interest in the performativity that attends any claim to identity. For Molano’s narrator, there is no doubt as to who he is, and his stake is in his own sense of what is natural and authentic. As with Caulfield, there is something almost adolescent about some of his literary and political positions. His Romanticism (aesthetic as much as interpersonal) is quite straightforward, and it is no wonder that, in the essayistic sections towards the end of the book, he rails against the “postmodernity” that, he claims, brings with it “a type of devaluation [of] human things, such as poetry or love” (241).

The irony is that Molano’s own text is far from poetic; in fact, as Héctor Abad Faciolince’s (excellent) postface notes, the prose here is almost militantly anti-literary (256). Unpolished, unfinished, and uneven, devolving into a patchwork of genres, one might even call this book (despite itself) somewhat postmodern. And still, despite Molano’s fears, the sense of love prevails.

A brief video essay about Molano, and a longer interview with the writer are both available on YouTube.

Delirio II

Laura Restrepo, Delirio

In the end, everything is resolved: Laura Restrepo’s Delirio obeys the generic requirements of both the detective story and the romance, as the enigma of Agustina’s “four dark and dreadful days” while her husband was away is finally revealed, and the couple get back together, having survived the tribulations of madness and memory. All is ultimately well, as the crazy one ends up only “playing the fool” as she pretends not to see the red tie that Aguilar has put on as a sign of their renewed love (303). As I commented earlier, however, this is surely all a bit of a let-down. Not least because the solution to the mystery turns out to be remarkably banal: nothing of any particular note took place at the hotel where Agustina was found; the man she was with was simply there to look after her, and had no designs on her, nor even any real interaction with her; the trigger for her breakdown took place elsewhere, and was in any event merely an overheard conversation that imparted no real surprise or new information; everything of any significance had in fact already taken place long before, and if anything the only real question is why Aguilar had been so clueless about his wife’s past. In short, the mystery of the missing four days comes to seem like a classic cinematic McGuffin: a narrative device that is meaningless or empty in itself. And perhaps it is the vacuousness of the final revelation that enables the happy conclusion, in that there is nothing much for the wounded husband to pardon and indeed crazy Agustina emerges from the story both saner and saintlier than ever. Even the conclusions to the other narrative strands are likewise heart-warmingly low-key. Midas McAlister, for instance, the ne’er-do-well arriviste money-launderer, also ends up where he started, back home with an apparently all-forgiving mother. And Bichi, Agustina’s much put-upon younger brother, is about to arrive at the airport, boyfriend in tow, to a warm welcome from Aguilar and family. Individuals and families alike have been (so far as is possible) put back together. Something like unity and wholeness has replaced the earlier fragmentation and dissolution.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and the Londoño family remains stubbornly divided: her mother and older brother still cling to their sense of status and respectability; it is after all their rejection of Bichi that sparked the crisis. And for all Agustina’s troubled hallucinations that predicted the imminent return of the father, he is dead and gone, as are her grandparents with their own anxieties and concerns. Aguilar remains separated from his kids, despite a brief fantasy of reconciling with his first wife, and Restrepo knows not to push the comedic conventions too far by suggesting that, after two previous terminations, Agustina would ever be likely to produce a child. The family that they (re)construct, then, is partial and hybrid: husband and wife (though in fact they are formally unmarried), aunt, brother, lover. But the suggestions seems to be that the absences no longer haunt this happy rearrangement as they once did. When Aguilar finally returns home, having passed up on the opportunity of a fling with a sexy hotel clerk, he is greeted with familiar smells, familiar habits: “a smell of home, what else can I say, an everyday smell, of people who sleep at night and wake up in the morning, of real life, of life that has here once more returned to the realm of the possible, I don’t know for how long but at least while this smell lasts” (302). That night, then, “the last thought that cross my mind [. . .] was I’m happy, tonight I’m happy even though I don’t know how long this happiness will last” (302). However precarious or partial, it is still, surely, too good to be true. As Aguilar says, renouncing his rationalism, “Forgive me Voltaire but this is a miracle” (300).

What’s more, even if the personal and familial dislocations are (miraculously) addressed by the end, the social delirium remains untouched. And this indeed is what makes any sense of resolution all the more unconvincing. For the novel as a whole has hitherto consistently stressed the fact that there is no refuge from broader social dislocations. The one moment of intimacy between Agustina and her father (“the only time that he calls me Tina” [79]) may be their nightly ritual of locking doors and windows to keep out thieves or other potential threats. Just for a while, “everything changes because he and I enter in a world we share with nobody else, as he give me his heavy keychain that rings out like a cowbell” (79). But this ceremony is like the many others in the book, that are ultimately ineffective attempts to conjure away a violence whose insidious presence is always already within the home as well as without. In the end, the one spectre that cannot be conjured away is the ghostly absence/presence of the country itself, a place of which Midas McAlister (the most plugged-in of all the major characters) says that “if it weren’t for the bombs and the bursts of machine-gun fire that echo in the distance, whose tremors reach me here, I’d swear that the place called Colombia had stopped existing long ago” (289). There is little left of the country, caught in the networks of drug traffic and money-laundering that have little respect for any national borders, except for the violence whose reverberations and resonance (sometimes quite literally) explode the fuzzy barrier between public danger and private safehaven.

Why, then, is the social delirium so different, so much more intractable than the private or familial madnesses that (however temporarily or unconvincingly) the novel can claim are cured by the end of the narrative? I think it is more than a matter of either scale or history. After all the insanity that touches Agustina or the Londiños is no more or less historical than the national breakdown, going back at least three generations (perhaps further). No, I think it is this: that paradoxically the more intimate, the more private the derangement, the more it can seem to be ideological. In the end, after all, the source of Agustina’s disturbance are the serial falsehoods that she has to endure. She announces the fact early on, though neither Aguilar nor Aunt Sofi pick up on this rather simple resolution to the apparent mystery: “Why does she want to purify the house? Because she says that it’s full of lies, this morning she was relaxed as she was eating the egg that I served her for breakfast and she told me that it was the lies that were making her crazy. What lies? I don’t know, but that’s what she said, that the lies were making her crazy” (42). Towards the end, it’s Midas McAlister who goes through the “Londiño Catalogue of Basic Falsehoods” (234), the “convenient historical revisions and lies as big as mountains that are gradually turned into realities by mutual consensus” (233). By contrast, the way the country works (or doesn’t) is a matter of public knowledge, at least for everyone but the traditional oligarchy who try deny the new realities yet more often don’t even bother to ask about “the delirious way in which they were getting rich, in the most hygienic style possible, not sullying their hands with murky business [. . .]. Or is it,” Midas asks Agustina, “that you perhaps believed, my queen, that things were otherwise?” (63). Everybody knows, after all: “Don’t make that surprised face,” adds Midas, “don’t make me laugh, don’t come telling me that you hadn’t already figured out this little mystery” (64).

In Colombia as a whole, revelation lacks its power to shock, let alone to induce any change or resolution. It’s thoroughly posthegemonic. So the simulacrum of hegemony passes to the private domain: the notion that some consensus is obscuring more basic truths can only seem to function within the family, within the home. Yet this, too, is a mirage, as Bichi discovers to his cost when he attempts the dramatic gesture of displaying photos that prove his father’s long-running affair with Aunt Sofi. But even after detonating this “atomic bomb,” nothing really changes; it’s as though, Agustina reflects, her mother had always known. The only difference is that, at home, she can (just about) pretend to know otherwise, and the novel as a whole can (just about) pretend that access to the truth can somehow keep the demons of insanity at by. But it isn’t so for society as a whole, and ultimately the happy ending is barely credible for Agustina and Aguilar, either. Perhaps the greatest delirium here, the most violent dislocation between representation and reality, is the therapeutic notion that all this incessant talking can induce a cure, can bring sanity back to the individual or the family. The neat ending, the restoration of order, is in fact the craziest thing in the book.

Delirio I

Laura Restrepo, Delirio

What exactly is the delirium to which Laura Restrepo’s Delirio refers? In the first instance, it is the mental collapse suffered by the central character, Agustina Londoño, in the brief period while her husband, a dog-food salesman named Aguilar, is away on a business trip. For on his return she is gone from the house, and turns out to be holed up in a luxury hotel where she had booked in with a strange man who has left her almost catatonic, distraught and unrecognizable. The novel is driven, then, by this initial mystery: what was she doing there and what has caused such a drastic disturbance of her senses? Yet as her husband plunges into this investigation, it is soon revealed that Agustina’s breakdown has deep roots, and Aguilar has to acknowledge how little he really knows of his wife, her past, and her family. For it turns out that her madness is neither a new development nor simply a personal matter. She has always been a little “crazy,” and not only in the chic sense of an upper-class rebel who flits between fashionable obsessions: soft drugs, batik, feng shui. She has gained some minor fame for her supposed psychic powers, claiming to be something of a “seer.” More seriously, she comes from a severely dysfunctional upper-class Colombian family, with a distant and unforgiving father, a mother who will do anything to keep up appearances, a heartless older brother, and a younger one who was beaten and then ostracized for his effeminate tendencies. A generation further back, her immigrant grandfather apparently committed suicide while her great-aunt (his sister) was a full-fledged neurotic who had to be tied up to prevent her from masturbating in public. It’s as though madness runs in her veins. But all this dirty linen is resolutely hidden from view: these secrets are teased out slowly over the course of the book, which comprises a series of revelations each more shocking than the last until the final dénouement, the answer to the initial mystery, turns out to be almost a let-down by comparison.

By contrast, if personal and familial insanities are hidden under a thick façade of shame and hypocrisy, the more general social madness that afflicts the country as a whole is hardly a secret at all. This is Colombia sometime in the 1990s, during the heyday of Pablo Escobar and the FARC, and the effects of narcotraffic and guerrilla insurgency are visible on all sides. The highways are unsafe and the Londoños’ lowland estate has essentially been abandoned to the violence. Not that either the capital (where most of the action is set) or even the home provide much in the way of refuge: halfway through the book a huge bomb, for which Escobar happily claims responsibility, rocks the city; and one of Agustina’s most vivid childhood memories is of a security guard bleeding to death on the threshold of her family home. Meanwhile, drug profits fuel a hyperactive economy in which a decadent elite of both old and new money are criminally complicit either directly or indirectly, though laundering, loans, and generalized corruption as the state withers and Bogotá becomes site of a Hobbesian “war of all against all” (21). So Agustina’s personal breakdown, and even her family’s dysfunction, are as much as anything a symptom of long-entrenched class neuroses and devastating free-market psychoses alike. And in turn, perhaps (though Restrepo never really makes this point), the Colombian crisis is merely a symptom or effect of a madness that is as global as the international drug trade itself. This is not merely one person’s temporary estrangement; it is a social psychosis, the insanity of our times. Or better, perhaps: what Restrepo’s novel illustrates is a complex and mobile network of inter-related and mutually determining crises that collectively are not so much dysfunctions as the way the system works (as Deleuze and Guattari note), “by breaking down” (Anti-Oedipus 330). It is precisely this disarticulated but connected multiplicity that constitutes delirium.

So, how to understand this delirium? Aguilar’s quest may start out as rational, forensic, and clinical, the attempt to save–or “win back”–one particular individual, his wife, but it is soon caught up in the vortex. One sign of this is the variety of strategies that he finds himself forced to employ to describe it. In trying to map what he calls the “strange territory that is delirium,” he claims early on that he has “managed to establish two things: one, that it is by nature voracious and can swallow me up as it did her, and two, that the vertiginous rate at which it multiplies means that this is a fight against the clock and what’s more I’ve stepped in too late because I didn’t know soon enough how far the disaster had advanced” (19). Even, then, at this preliminary stage we see not only how the delirium itself has advanced–and it is always, we feel, “too late”–but also the proliferation of metaphors that it invokes. Delirium is both territory and disaster. Indeed it is also, in a martial comparison, a “mystical mania that’s invading the house” (15); both space and what comes to occupy that space. Elsewhere, Agustina’s madness is a “river” that “leaves its traces” in the diverse vessels full of water with which she sprinkles their home in repetitive acts of ritual ablution (15). And it is also a disease, as Agustina’s Aunt Sofi observes, “contagious, like the flu, and when one person in a family has it, everyone catches it in turn, there’s a chain reaction that no one can escape except those who’ve been vaccinated” (41). No wonder that Aguilar worries that he himself has caught the bug: “Could it be my fault that she’s going crazy? Or is her madness infecting me?” (78). Sofi has no doubts: “Now you’re the one who’s raving, Aguilar, that’s exactly what I mean when I say that you let the madness contaminate you” (42). More fundamentally, delirium an “excessive vibration,” something that “simmers inside with slow, hostile reverberation” (33), a set of “bubbles bursting inside her” even as it is also likened to “poisonous fish [that] wander the channels of her brain” (15). Sometimes her dislocation is taken to be the emanation of what Agustina herself calls her “naked soul” (21). Yet it is equally often seen as coming from outside and so is repeatedly compared to demonic “possession,” a word, Aguilar tells us, “which doesn’t even form part of my vocabulary since it belongs to the realm of the irrational, which doesn’t interest me in the slightest” (184).

Finally, then, the way in which language itself is disordered and dishevelled in the attempt to describe the madness is an indication that delirium is above all a linguistic disorder, a subversion of claims to referentiality or representation. Delirium is disarticulation: the taking apart of signifying elements to recompose or decompose them in patterns that are apparently random or at least ultimately incoherent. There is much play with words and narrative in this book, from the very basic elements such as names: “Agustina” herself is an anagram, just one shifted consonant away from “angustia” or “anxiety”; no wonder her obsession with crosswords, the methodical rearrangement of signifiers that gives structure without sense. More broadly and more strikingly, and as is announced in the novel’s opening epigraph that quotes Gore Vidal quoting Henry James’s warning “against the use of a mad person as central character of a narrative” (7), the novel repeatedly and consistently shifts between perspectives, points of view, and narrative voice. From Aguilar to Agustina to her grandfather to her ex-lover and shady friend, from first to second to third person violating conventional syntactic or grammatical rules, run-on sentences tumbling or circling like eddies in a river: Restrepo’s book endlessly flirts with derangement. For it is the search to define or describe, to tell a story about madness that pulls us into the flow that negates that very attempt. It is as though delirium can only be enacted or performed, always escaping any attempt at representation, forcing signification itself to become volatile, unstable, delirious.


Alma GuillermoprietoWriting in 2000, a period during which the FARC still enjoyed state-sanctioned control of large swathes of South-Central Colombia marked out as a “zona de despeje,” a cleared zone, Alma Guillermoprieto notes the grubby normality of everyday life in this safe haven. In San Vicente de Caguán, “there are loud cantinas; fleshy women in too much makeup under the glaring sun; block after block of storefronts selling boom boxes, high-heeled shoes, glitter eye shadow, and telephones shaped like hot dogs” (Looking for History 55).

The guerrilla, as far as Guillermoprieto can see, spend their time mostly lounging about: buying mascara and nail polish; chatting with neighbours; watching TV, their FALs and AK-47s casually propped up in the corner of the room. Of course, the point about a safe haven is that it’s a good place for a little R&R; it’s not as though there’s no war on, and indeed with up to 20,000 people under arms, the FARC are able to carry out significant actions, “waging something very like real war against the Colombian state” (60). (And here’s a pretty good round-up of recent accounts of “Latin American’s Longest War”.) But even this war has become very much a habit among its combatants, some of whom have known little else than life as a guerrilla.

For instance, compañera Nora, “a trim, agreeable woman in charge of the FARC’s liaison with the public” (57) has spent well over half of her thirty-three years in the rebel ranks. Meanwhile, the insurgent leader, Manuel Marulanda or “Tirofijo”, has been out in the hills in one form or another since the “Violencia” of 1948 to 1958. In Colombia, civil war is very much a way of life, for some almost a lifestyle option: Nora is reported as saying that she joined the FARC, at the age of fifteen, after she had seen a guerrilla column with its “brisk young women, in uniform and carrying guns, and thought they were the most powerful and glamorous creatures she had ever seen” (59).

At the time of Guillermoprieto’s visit, the FARC and the Colombian government (under President Andrés Pastrana) were engaged in a “peace process,” though these are hardly exactly peace talks: they are rather a “ritual encounter” celebrated “on a regular basis, and call[ed] progress” (64). No real dialogue was underway, and in any case everyone knew that at the margins prowled the military and their comrades in (para)military arms, the so-called “self-defence” units.

DMZ mapBut in any case, such hope as Guillermoprieto entertains is based on the notion that the FARC’s experience in this demilitarized zone might bring about a rehabituation. In that they had not been granted sovereignty of this territory that was often misleadingly nicknamed FARClandia, Guillermoprieto notes that “”for the first time, the guerrillas are coexisting with the citizens of a small town, and even having to get along with its mayor” (66). The rebels are forced, in their downtime, at ease, to be “sharing social and political space with the inhabitants of San Vicente” (68).

For Guillermoprieto, then, the experience is a lesson in conviviality, that takes place at a level well below the comandantes non-negotiations with their official counterparts, and even well below the ideology that in any case is hardly the rebels’ motive force.

This is not to say, however, that this process of conviviality is not connected in some way with the media–though it may not be mediated in any conventional sense. For Guillermoprieto ends her account with what we are to take as a hopeful sign: a sudden realization that comes to her on her last morning, as she is taking breakfast at a fonda, or small restaurant, abutting the local FARC headquarters. A television is on, as in Latin America one always is. And the programme playing was Xena: Warrior Princess, the TV industry’s ironized take on fighting women. But this irony establishes, perhaps, some common ground:

Two waitresses, as young as the guerrillas next door, were glued to the program. And then I realized that the guerrillas were too. The FARC videos were still playing just on the other side of the wall, but the kids were taking turns sneaking out of the headquarters to stand at the doorway of the fonda, watching Xena. (71)

Of course, as a postscript acknowledges, just a couple of months later the US Congress approved “Plan Colombia”. And by early 2002, the state withdrew its support for a demilitarized zone, the army returned, and so disappeared any hope for Xena-blessed conviviality.



Three short articles–crónicas–on contemporary urban violence in Colombia and Venezuela.

BAE memberFor José Roberto Duque, it is still the state that’s at issue. He describes a police murder: a raid on a house in a poor Caracas neighbourhood, the special forces storming up the stairs to their target, the body thrown out of the window, the witnesses coached to say the victim was a “bully, a delinquent,” the falsified autopsy and death certificate. Everything conducted smoothly enough, an efficient exercise in limpieza, cleansing. People play along. “Nobody wants to get in trouble, right?” (“A Small Mistake” 123).

The problem, however, is the “small mistake” of the title: while the police are still conducting their operation their informed by panicked relatives that they have the wrong address. “No, sir. This is house number 20, but on Ricuarte Alley. La Vuelta del Mocho is about eight blocks up.” The police response: “Ah, shit.” But too late, because the bureaucratic machinery of law enforcement can’t be halted so easily. After all, it operates according to its own logic, at some remove from reality. The drugs and weapons have already been planted. The original victim is infinitely replaceable; the objects of state repression are “whatever” victims, their individual names interchangeable and ultimately irrelevant. Due process and procedure can’t be derailed by these small details of individual identification.

But this depersonalized, common object of state repression is also, in José Navia’s piece from Bogotá’s marginal urban slums, a common subject he terms the “multitude.” And if for Duque the barrio is the site of random death, for Navia the multitude makes it also a place in which that institutionalized death drive faces the forces of life. The “rest of the city” slumbers while “a multitude begins to stir in the narrow, labyrinthine, unpaved alleys of Ciudad Bolívar” (“Ciudad Bolívar: Brush Strokes against Death” 125). Though “stigmatized by death” (125), the multitude are “youths on their feet, united, demanding a future, building a life [. . .] they invite life to be created in the place of death” (126).

Finally, however, Alberto Salcedo Ramos’s vision is much darker. Here it’s not so much the state versus the subaltern, margin lined up against the periphery, as an urban environment saturated by danger and violence. Mobility is no salvation, indeed it only invites further risk: “hailing a taxi on a Bogotá street at night–or even during the day–turns us into Russian roulette players.” Salcedo Ramos goes on to suggest that “the only defensive manoeuver we have left is hoping, sometimes with ingeniousness, sometimes with arrogance, that the fatal shot doesn’t hit us” (“The Drive-By Victim” 130). Of course, his perspective is partly that of the educated professional expressing the fear that his own city has become a no-go area in which any even semi-ostentatious display of privilege is pounced upon. He describes his experience being subject to a taxi-jacking, and describes himself as “a presumptuous animal that didn’t know the laws of the jungle” (131).

Here again mistakes can be made, and here again those mistakes are somehow irrelevant: “If I wasn’t rich but merely a poor copy, all the worse for me, not for them” (132). But the people who hold him up haven’t quite made a mistake: he does after all have a savings account, he can after all procure money from a cash dispenser. And he has three cigarettes left, that the thieves can’t pass up: “We smoke, too” (137).

But even Salcedo Ramos recognizes the sense of honour that runs through delinquency. It’s a common trope, of course, of criminal society as equally, perhaps even more, rule-bound than the sovereign normality against which it rebels. “‘We’re thieves, man, not killers,’ said the fat one, in a tone of offended dignity” (136). The middle classes have simply to learn this code of conduct, and abide by it. It’s a world turned upside down, of course, but it has its logic. Salcedo Ramos ends up feeling grateful to his kidnappers, precisely because they maintained their calm and composure and stuck to their rulebook even as he himself tried to dodge and feint. When they release them he says “If I didn’t shake their hands and invite them to breakfast the next day, it was because I wasn’t brave enough. [. . .] And I thought that we are so screwed in this country that the only option left to us in the end is thanking the thieves” (137).

Isn’t that because the country owes what little cohesion it has to the old-fashioned pragmatism of delinquency, so baldly opposed to the neoliberal state’s mechanistic administration of bare life?

Ciudad BolivarSee Philippe Revelli’s excellent photo series on Bogotá youth