Whether visiting for weeks, months or years, little can offer more insight into the soul and character of a country than its literature.
Colombia has produced a plethora of writers — the likes of which no one could hope to cover before coming to the country. However, I hope these few books I recommend will whet your appetite, give you an introduction to the Colombian psyche, and provide you with the foundation to explore the country and to develop your own opinions on the nature of its land, people, politics and culture.
An analysis of Colombian literature would certainly be incomplete without a mention of Gabriel García Márquez. The enormously influential writer is a cultural icon and an immense source of pride and patriotism for the Colombian people. However, magical realism can be a difficult world to enter and Márquez’s books can be tough to appreciate.
If looking for a light read, steer clear of Márquez, but anyone hoping to stay in Colombia for a considerable amount of time should attempt ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ for a truly awe-inspiring novel and one that has made a considerable impression on global literature.
With less time, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is a masterpiece, set on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and the Magdalena River. Equally, his short story collection Strange Pilgrims is well worth a read, touching on themes of dislocation and the strangeness of life in a foreign land.
A slightly unusual book that I came across before setting out to Colombia is Laura Restrepo’s ‘Delirium.’ Written in almost streams of consciousness with the narrative jumping from character to character, this novel immediately grabs the reader’s attention, introducing interesting story lines embedded in cultural and historical contexts.
Restrepo relates the confusing and disorientating world of mental illness to the Colombian conflict through its characters and often disturbing anecdotes covering issues surrounding narcotics, family traditions, customs and relationships. This book is both an exciting page turner and a useful introduction to many elements of Colombian history.
Colombians are a fiercely proud people, a phenomenon that can sometimes be difficult to believe knowing the immense violence that has characterized much of the last forty years. A book that demonstrates the resilience of the country is ‘Armies’ by Evelio Rosero.
Despite detailing unpleasant episodes in Colombia’s history, Rosero writes with a dark sense of humour, prescribing a certain realism and tangibility to an otherwise totally unimaginable situation. The work hammers home the reality of living in a war-torn country where ideologies have muddied the waters of reason and logic, and passion and fervour seem to justify violence that tears families apart.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it as an important read to understand, if only in part, the nature of the Colombian conflict and the impact it has had on so many innocent victims.
In a travel bookshop looking for a good Colombian guide, I found Michael Jacob’s ‘The Robber of Memories.’ A beautifully written piece, this novel is a personal account of Jacob’s trip down the Magdalena River, once the heart of Colombian trade.
Alongside historical information and fascinating social commentary, Jacobs reflects on his experience with Alzheimer’s, an illness affecting both his parents, linking this to ideas of memory and commemoration in the Colombian context.
A quick read, the work is a insightful introduction to pathos in Colombia, detailing some of the many tragedies the country has been through, yet written with the positivity and optimism so prevalent across the country.
A book which I have yet to read, but comes highly recommended is ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. It draws on similar themes to the books I have already mentioned including memory, trauma and the necessity but perils of revisiting the past.
Vásquez details the huge damage caused by the drug trade to Colombian society, a theme which persists and continues to be a source of tension even as peace negotiations take place in Havana. The complex and convoluted legacy of the Colombian drug trade is ever-present in Colombian society and an understanding of its nature is important.
Any Google search for “Colombian literature” will provide you with an exhaustive list of books, but I hope these personal recommendations make your Christmas list, as they each inspired and helped me to understand and adjust to the Colombian way of life.
The most impressive thing about Colombia is its variety — whether in terms of land, people, politics or culture — an element I hope these books will give you an appreciation of as well as the inspiration to explore the country.