I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I had never conducted an interview via e-mail before my conversation with the Colombian author Laura Restrepo; therefore, I wasn’t prepared to get answers that had the quality of polished writing. Because Restrepo’s answers are lengthy and rich in anecdote, I missed not being able to interject whenever she wrote about a subject that I wanted to know more about. That’s perhaps the main reason why the resulting interview reads, I think, like a memoir—an evocative recreating of Restrepo’s fascinating life.
What I hope also comes across in Restrepo’s responses is that she has been creating, slowly and deliberately, a remarkably consistent body of work that reflects her singular preoccupations with politics and history. Although relatively unknown in the United States, she will be better known and appreciated as more of her books begin to appear, and the magnitude of what she has achieved becomes clear to all. It is Restrepo’s ferocity of vision, her love of language, of storytelling and of innovation, that have made her one of the most accomplished writers to emerge from Latin America since the glorious and distant days of the “boom.”
Jaime Manrique When did you begin writing?
Laura Restrepo According to family members who still recall, I produced my first piece when I was nine years old: a tragedy about poor peasants, scribbled in a notebook. Even those family members with vague memories of it are clear about the piece not having revealed any sign of precocious genius; but there is no doubt it had two consequences, in evidence to this day. First, it inoculated my father irremediably with the conviction that I—his eldest daughter—was to become a novelist. Second, I wedded myself to certain subjects, in that now, no matter what I start out writing about, I inevitably end up with a tragedy about poor peasants or some related theme. It took 25 years before I sat myself down to write seriously. The way I look at it now, it was my father’s death that prompted me. I believe that since then, I write in good measure out of love for him, in his memory, and to feel him not far away.
JM What authors influenced you?
LR At the outset I adopted as my personal authors the ones most beloved by my father: Saroyan, Steinbeck and Kazantzakis, from whom he read to me so many times, I knew them almost by heart. Actually, I shouldn’t say that I adopted them, but rather that they bewitched me, because in that kind of terrain it is, of course, never altogether a matter of choice. If you think about it, those three are writers who are concerned with the dignity of human beings under even the most trying conditions, their ability to evoke empathy despite harshness, as well as the solidarity and ironbound links of clan.
JM What schools did you go to? What did you study?
LR Since you are asking me about my earliest years, I will go on telling you about my father, since he made the decisions at the time, not I (later, I was to be in the throes of a fierce rebelliousness which would lead to a heartrending break with him). In the area of educational criteria, as in everything, my father, who wouldn’t set foot in a church, a doctor’s office, or a social club, was a libertarian with idées fixes entirely his own, among them the conviction that schooling was good for nothing. His father—my grandfather—a 100 percent autodidact (he never saw a teacher or the inside of a school), managed to master six languages, including Latin and Greek, and was, in his day, a little-published but quite interesting writer. My own father left school at 13 to go to work. He was a businessman and a dedicated and compulsive traveler who dragged my mother, my sister and me everywhere with him in a Volkswagen, never letting us stop anywhere long enough for us to complete a year of schooling. I attended a public school in Corte Madera, California for one day because we were somewhere else the following day. In Denmark, when I was about ten years old, for six months my formal education consisted of attendance at a ceramics night school. Can you imagine how many ashtrays a ten-year old girl can make over a six-month period? An outrageous number. Not only was that of no concern to my father, he considered the other children to be wasting their time disgracefully. In Madrid, the school rejected me because I failed the admission tests in arithmetic, grammar and, significantly, in sewing and embroidery, which were considered basic requirements under fascism. Consequently, I remained under the tutelage of a flamenco guitar teacher who made house calls—and quickly recognized my utter lack of talent for guitar. But no obstacle could deter my father from his passion for education, lavished upon us in the form of visits to museums, ruins, the theater, climbing volcanoes to watch geysers spout; he would sit us down to listen to an old Maranta machine with tubes that had to heat up, on which he played recordings of his favorite composers, Bartók, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. At 14, I had read a couple of books by Sartre but did not know the multiplication table. And still don’t.
JM When did you begin teaching, and what did you teach at the National University in Bogotá? Also, could you tell me about your activism in the Socialist party in Colombia and Spain?
LR Since I had not finished any regular program leading to a bachelor’s degree, I had to take exams at the ministry of education in all the appropriate subjects. That was a tremendous brain buster: one week, preparing for trigonometry, the next for organic chemistry, the following for geography of Colombia, and so on. It goes without saying that my father was my trainer for that marathon. After a few months I received the diploma—or I should say we, because he had studied as much as I did. I now realize that this signified the first time in our small history that a member of the family on my father’s side had earned a diploma. I enrolled at the University of the Andes, in Bogotá. At the age of 16, in my sophomore year at college, I was accepted as a literature teacher in a public school for boys, where I rushed to repeat at eleven in the morning what I had just learned at nine. The students, all from the lower class, were older than me, knew more than I did, had lived more. And I learned a disturbing lesson from them that changed the direction of my life: that beyond the nuclear family and the land of wonders that is high culture, there lay a whole universe to be explored that was broad and remote, fierce and exciting. As though I had been offered a trip to Mars, I threw myself into exploring the barrios of my city and the countryside of my land; into mentalities and customs different from mine; into the universe of sexuality, unknown to me up to then; into the horror and pain of a society stamped by inequality and injustice; into the dreams of those fighting to change it. That was how I came to discover a harsh facet of my father’s very gentle nature; he reacted in an authoritarian, domineering and irrational manner toward any attempt on my part to seek out worlds other than the one he had built up, protected, and closed off within the warm circle of his affection. I was confronted with a clear-cut choice: the family that had been my refuge and paradise up to that time, or the uncertainty, astonishment and adventure signified by the open door to the world outside. I had no hesitation in opting for the latter and heartbroken, I took leave of my father, never to see him again; he died a few years later, before I was able to contemplate the possibility of returning, even for a visit. I gave up the literature classes I was teaching at the National University in order to plunge myself to the hilt in that other dimension of reality we called “the revolution.” I joined a Trotskyist party, following the credo that the world was there to be appropriated by us, history was there to be transformed. I threw myself wholly into politics—first in Colombia, then for a couple of years in the Socialist Workers Party in Spain, and later in Argentina where for four years I belonged to the underground resistance against the military dictatorship. I felt myself on the wings of absolute freedom, not freedom as conceived by my father, but my own; a freedom chosen by me.
JM You are a product of ’60s activism. Were those influences the Cuban Revolution, the Colombian revolutionary priest Camilo Torres, your university classmates?
LR A little of each, but particularly, the pain and rage that I felt—and still feel—at the sight all around me of poverty, inequality, injustice and abuse of power suffered by some people on the part of others, the killings and massacres, the hatred and contempt felt by some for others. Despite falling within the very meager percentage of the Colombian population that lives relatively comfortably, how could I not be outraged at the anguish of others? In the face of the horrendous massacre of September 11th in New York and Washington, I have heard North Americans asking themselves why the rest of the world doesn’t like them. As a youngster, I certainly liked them and admired their culture of modernity, democracy, boldness and universality. But how could I have esteem for North American governments when, day after day, I could see how they were supporting, politically, economically and militarily, regimes that were guaranteeing the perpetuation among us of an unacceptable, disastrous status quo, and an endless war that was devouring our lives? How could I not repudiate them if I knew in my heart that any effort on our part to seek a more decent way of life for our people would immediately be met by U.S. foreign policy, a first and most furious obstacle?
JM When did you first turn to journalism? And, what influence do García Márquez and magical realism have on your work?
LR I started working in journalism on my return to Colombia after three years in the Socialist Workers Party in Madrid during the post-Franco liberalization and an era of activism against the military dictatorship in Argentina. I was underground but unarmed, because firearms and terror are a frightful distortion of what I dreamed of, a humanitarian revolution. My years as a journalist were spent writing for the magazine Semana, in charge of the section on national and, occasionally, international politics, as when I went to Grenada at the height of the invasion to cover events, or when I spent a month on the Nicaragua-Honduras border covering the war between the Sandinistas and the Contras. At Semana, I met Gabriel García Márquez, who was connected with the magazine at the time; he attended all the Monday editorial meetings, where he discussed recent events with us, took the trouble to read what we had written, and often urged us to rewrite from top to bottom. He had already won the Nobel by then and was quite an important guy, and we considered ourselves amazingly lucky to have him on hand as an adviser. But even then we were leveling harsh criticism at him for his magical realism. My master’s thesis in literature in 1969 had been a fervid diatribe against what we considered the ahistoricism and fatalism of so-called magical realism. Although I never went back and reread that thesis, I’m certain that what I maintained in it was arbitrary and ill-considered as literary criticism, but at the same time, I find it logical that, to the young Colombians of the time, highly politicized as we were, and in such pain over the harshness of life in our country, we were much more taken by the idea of learning from the terse and realistic author of “No One Writes to the Colonel” than from the equally genial but more fantastic and flowery author of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
JM How did you come to be a member of the commission that arbitrated between the government of Belisario Betancur and the guerrillas? Was the failure of the experiment a portent of the current peace process in Colombia? Do you think it will be possible one day to reach an agreement between the guerrillas and the government? Describe the conditions under which you wrote Historia de un entusiasmo [Story of a fascination].
LR In 1982, as a consequence of my work at Semana, Belisario Betancur, the president at the time, named me to the negotiating commission set up to seek a peace accord with the M-19 guerrillas. It was the first time in Latin America that such a dazzling opportunity was presented for putting an end to our interminable series of bloody wars through a social and political agreement with armed rebels. The project elicited enormous enthusiasm—or, more than enthusiasm, something akin to happiness—but, on the other hand, it provoked fierce opposition. To half the country, the idea of putting an end to the useless spilling of blood and sitting down to talk sounded like the only hope for the future. But to the other half, which only believed in a military solution, it was an unacceptable option. My experience as a commissioner of peace turned out to be enthralling; so much so that I abandoned journalism to devote myself entirely to the great hope of negotiation. But at the same time, those were exhausting and dangerous months, and they led to the murder of many of the disarmed guerrillas. I myself received death threats, and as a result was forced into exile for six years.
Today, the channels of negotiation have been opened again in Colombia, though they have degenerated into rhetoric and bureaucrat-speak by an inept and childish government, and a guerrilla movement that regularly commits outrages against the civilian population. I would like to comment on what awaits Colombians as far as the possibility of peace in light of the relentless U.S. drug war, and the bombardment of Afghanistan. On the one hand, the M-19 is now a legal party that has given up its weapons, and the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], the predominant guerrilla group in Colombia today, has been declared the most dangerous terrorist group in the hemisphere by the U.S. It would not be far-fetched to suspect that direct military attacks by the U.S. Army on our soil, already devastated by civil war, are in the offing. The only thing that can stop the complete disintegration of Colombia as a nation is the strengthening of a powerful, brave, autonomous, Gandhian, profoundly pacifist movement, which has been evolving, step by step, despite the onslaughts of guerrilla violence, the drug traffic, the military and paramilitary. And such a movement would lose all ground and political momentum if Colombia were to radicalize against, or as a result of a U.S. military intervention.
JM Tell us about the origins of La isla de la pasión [The island of passion], your first novel.
LR The first year of my exile in Mexico was a time of isolation and yearning, of constant dreaming about when I would be able to return to Colombia, of hanging onto every old Colombian newspaper that fell into my hands, of surrounding myself with other exiles with whom I shared a common fate. One fine day, I woke up tired of it all. I realized that I had the wonderful country of Mexico before me, and that I was losing it by going about with my head and heart in Colombia. And so I began to look for a local story that would enable me to write a new book—I mean a true story, of course, because at that time, the possibility of resorting to fiction never entered my mind. But it turned out that, unlike Colombia, which is basically unpublished terrain, Mexico has been exploited a thousand and one times not only by its own writers and historians, who are extraordinary, but also by foreigners who succumbed to the enchantments of that land, such as John Reed, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Lewis and Malcolm Lowry. It was hard for me to find a corner of Mexican history that had not already been explored, but finally I did, and it lay, of course, at the end of the earth: a barren, unpopulated atoll, inaccessible because of the daunting coral reefs that surround it, and inhospitable because of the lagoon of stagnant water at its center. More appropriately, a hell on earth, despite the beautiful name of La isla de la pasión, given at the time of the Conquest by the explorer Magellan. It turned out that at the beginning of the 20th century, on that tiny island, smaller than New York’s Central Park, there took place a dramatic, phantasmagorical, and quixotic story of armed resistance by a garrison of 11 Mexican soldiers against a foreign invader who never attacked—or even put in an appearance. Even so, all of the men died, either ravaged by scurvy or smashed up against coral reefs in the ocean on their successive attempts to return to the mainland. The women and children survived for a period of nine years as castaways, until their final rescue, which was very bittersweet. I began to chase down the tracks of this historical treasure in the archives of the Mexican and U.S. Navies, in old love letters, lost documents, news stories of the time and living testimony from the descendants of the eleven families. That project was not only enthralling, it enabled me to speak in metaphoric terms of my own situation at the moment, of my confinement in the very special island that is political exile, with its strange struggle for existence and close coexistence with other castaways. That was how La isla de la pasión, my first novel, halfway between historical reportage and literary re-creation, came into being.
JM Your second novel, El leopardo al sol Leopard in the Sun is set in Colombia, and was published in 1992 [2000 in the U.S., by Vintage].
LR As a consequence of the drug traffic, a wave of domestic violence hit in the eighties, accompanied by boundless corruption, to say nothing of the aggression that struck us from outside through the agency of the incomprehensible and useless invention, by any reckoning, of what was known as the “drug war.” All this took place in a society regulated by Christian morality and, in many senses, by patterns that seem to have subsisted among us since the end of the 16th century in Spain’s Golden Age. Until the eighties, few people in Colombia had any notion of associating money with happiness. On the contrary, within the family it was forbidden to even speak of money; to mention how much a car or watch had cost was considered rude and vulgar. Even now, if you ask a carpenter or a lecturer at a university how much he will charge for his work, he will answer most politely, “Don’t even mention it! How could I be charging you? Whatever you consider fair is what you should pay me.” How did we go from that to billions of dollars rotting in damp, secret cellars? To invasions with the most sophisticated of weapons, the multiplication of private armies, the proliferation of professional assassins, the overpopulation of CIA and DEA agents, the bloody chains of vengeance, the literally gold-plated mansions of nouveau millionaires, the systematic elimination by death of judges, political leaders, public figures, police and entire populations? In short, the extermination of all who oppose the designs of the new and flashy caste of drug kingpins? This transition was riddled with secret codes that I wanted to begin to decipher in El leopardo al sol, after an investigation that took me 11 years.
I created a work of fiction based on the investigation of real events, fashioned in two time frames. In the past, with the protagonists of violence moving at feverish speeds, I looked to the techniques of comics, soap operas and hyper-action films for inspiration. And in the present, anonymous people talk to each other and comment on events like a chorus—not Greek but Caribbean—that makes up or denies rumors, comes out with lucid or crazy interpretations, gives realistic or mythic accounts. The result was a brutal novel that uses very crude language, which I tried to tone down through female protagonists who are eager to preserve the lives of their children. One curious point is that I never used the word “drugs” inLeopardo or even mentioned the subject directly. First, because I was convinced that all readers read between the lines, and secondly, as a reaction against the fetishization that emanates from the drug war philosophy, which reduces an intricate interaction of human relations to a thing: “drugs.”
JM Your third novel Dulce compañía [Sweet company] was launched internationally. You won the Mexican Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize and the Prix France Culture. How did the idea for the novel come up?
LR Although I never had a directly religious upbringing, I did live a full mythic and poetic life in a terrain magnetized by religiosity. My grandmother on my father’s side made me pray “the thousand Jesuses” with her in her big old house, in the shadows and beneath the red light of the votive candles for the Sacred Heart. It is a strange and hypnotic prayer in which you repeat the name of Jesus a thousand times. It was an awesome experience for a little girl like me to go into the servants’ rooms, which smelled of incense and were filled with framed pictures of miraculous saints and potted aloe plants for warding off the evil eye. Every December, my mother and I made a huge crèche in which we reproduced mountains and rivers, the heavenly constellations, the shepherds of Bethlehem, the mounts of the three Magi Kings, in short, the whole universe. That is to say, I grew up to the lullaby of the delicious and irrational belief that there is an all-powerful and kindly being who protects you against evil at all times because he loves you and forgives you.
Then, as an adolescent, I made up my mind: to hell with saints, with Christian morality and with shepherds and Bethlehem. From then on I lived happily in the most impious of disbelief. Afterward, when I could look back at my forties, after travels to places like Assisi and Jerusalem, a certain nostalgia was awoken in me. What would happen, I got to thinking, if a mature, pragmatic minded woman should, all of a sudden, come face-to-face in a street somewhere with that beloved and ethereal company who watched over her childhood days? It was clear to me that it would be impossible to recover lost faith, but isn’t it permissible for one to at least seek it? That is how the doleful comedy Dulce compañía was born.
JM Your fourth novel, La novia oscura The Dark Bride, is soon to appear in the United States. What process did you follow in writing it?
LR For the last six or seven years, since I met my literary agent, Thomas Colchie, I have been living on my royalties, but before that I had to write at night and win my bread by day at various activities that ranged from journalism to writing sitcom scripts. One of those jobs was an investigation of Ecopetrol, the state oil company. In Colombia, oil installations and their managers have been declared military objectives by whatever armed group happens to be operating there, and my task was to talk with the various protagonists in the conflict in order to shed light on reasons for discontent and possible solutions, other than military, which cost the company millions of dollars and returned little benefit. And so I landed in Barrancabermeja, a paradoxical oil city with a long anti-imperialist and union history, which is a small urban ribbon around an enormous refinery on the shore of the Rio Magdalena, in the heart of the Colombian rain forest and the very heart of the war, as well. It is a contradictory city because in the midst of the terror and heat, there flourish terrific public libraries, an active intellectual and night life, gorgeous vegetation, and swarms of unpublished characters and life stories tempting to any writer. By day, I’d be interviewing North American engineers, high-level international executives, paramilitary chiefs and guerrilla chiefs, army commanders, human rights advocates, gasoline smugglers, fortune hunters, and persons displaced by the violence, and night would find me, sitting in one of the city’s bars amidst the shooting and the red lights, chatting with prostitutes and, of course, refinery workers, particularly the older ones, who had been on the job and fighting in the forties in the time of the “Troco,” the famous Tropical Oil Company, before Colombia nationalized the oil industry. From the very first moment, I knew that I had to get at least one novel out of there, and so far, I’ve extracted two, both fictional, but rooted in real situations out of the Pandora’s box that is Barrancabermeja. La novia oscura is the story of Sayonara, an oil world child prostitute. Most recently, La multitud errante [The wandering crowd], is about the mass of people driven out on the roads, left without land or family, and in particular, one of those displaced people, named Three Times Seven, who roams the geography of war in search of a lost love.
JM To conclude, how did you develop your method of writing, your particular mix of reality and fiction?
LR I think it’s your own books, somewhat independently from yourself, that search for the style that will set them on the right path. Historia de un entusiasmo is basically reportage. I could call it a journalistic outcast, because in it I related events and declarations that the media refused to publish in the rough and bloody moments that followed the breaking off of the first peace negotiation. La isla de la pasión is, if you will, “fake reportage” because, among chapters of pure historical, or journalistic, investigation, I was interspersing literary chapters in which I allowed myself to deduce certain things without having any proof. I could swear they had happened in this or that way in the same fashion that you know from the shape of the neighboring pieces in a jigsaw puzzle what the missing pieces look like. With the serious drawback of being a fin-de-siècle Colombian telling a story about Mexicans at the beginning of the century, I had a broad margin of error working against me when the time came for interpretation of reactions or feelings or dialogues. I needed a formula that would allow me to slightly violate the verifiable facts so that my personal interpretation would not be offensive, and this explains the dual character of the chapters, some strictly investigative, others with license to lie a little. Around that time, I delivered the first draft of La isla to an English editor who told me he was willing to publish it provided I made up my mind, once and for all, if what I wanted to produce was a novel or reportage, because he found that crazy mixture of the two things unacceptable! Just imagine! So I decided that what this editor asked of me was exactly what I was not going to do, and I added the following note at the beginning of the book: “The historical facts, places, names, dates, documents, statements, characters, living and dead persons appearing in this story are real. So are the minor details, sometimes.” Looking back, I see that this was my declaration of independence with respect to the borders between genres.
My third novel, El leopardo al sol, was at first a series of reports I did while working as a television news reporter. Afterward, I converted it into a long magazine article, then a TV programmer asked me to transform it once again, into scripts for a miniseries, which I did, but they never aired because the protagonists, very real and very much armed in real life, threatened to blow up the programmer with a bomb. Accordingly, I translated the story again, this time into fiction, preserving the reality of the interpretative threads. As I was explaining, you don’t entirely determine your style—in their will to survive, your books determine for you. With Dulce compañía, what had previously been a headache was converted into an acquired taste, and I wanted to stretch ambiguity to the utmost with a protagonist, a reporter who is investigating the appearance of an angel in a Bogotá barrio, who not only falls in love with the angel but has a child with him. I was toying with the idea of breaking the traditional separation between human and divine, between author and character. The game was played out and turned out to be delightful. Then I wanted to make the protagonist a literary figure in the manner of the detective in the noir genre. In La novia oscura, I introduced as narrator a newspaperwoman who investigates and relates in the first person the results of her investigation, but who is, together with the other characters, invented.
Translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz.
—Jaime Manrique is a glamorous, sexy, and brilliant writer who is plotting to conquer the world with his next novel. He plans to continue living in New York City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee