Like the ancient mariner Maqroll from an Álvaro Mutis novel, Enrique Serrano recounts how he worked in the underbelly of Colombia’s merchant fleet, La Flota Mercante GranColombiana, journeying to some of Europe’s more notorious port cities, during the early 1980s. There was Gdánsk on the Baltic with its rusty shipyards, Hamburg’s seedy St.Pauli waterfront and the Albert Docks, a bastion of subversion for Liverpool’s post-punks. Enrique’s narrative is descriptive and with each word a bygone era is resuscitated, with real-life events underpinning a timeline to become an accomplished and award-winning writer of historical fiction.
Born 1960 in Barrancabermeja – an oil-refinery town on the estuaries of the Magdalena River – Enrique Serrano was raised in Bogotá along with six siblings. The offspring of parents who came from the provinces – Santander and Antioquia – this future philosopher and professor of political science at the Universidad del Rosario, stayed true to a traditional middle-class Colombian upbringing by pursuing a possible career that would assure some level of economic stability and comfort. But the notion of becoming an industrial engineer “ended in boredom” after three semesters and after a maritime course in Cartagena, Enrique earned his credentials to work with the merchant navy.
In 1981, he set sail on a rather unconventional tour of the world on ships filled with Colombian coffee. “I saw the shadow of a world few Colombians could see,” recounts Enrique. “The world was like a mysterious forge” and a desire to become a writer was born there among the grime and grease of the world’s decaying ports. During his three ocean-faring years, an unconventional seaman read the great writers, learned Italian, French and English was earned among the crew, status of “odd man out.”
This almost Conradian-awakening consolidated a quest for academia, after earning his letters, in 1996, he submitted a short story titled El día de la partida to one of literature’s most prestigious prizes – Juan Rulfo – and won. A bold new voice was emerging on Latin America’s literary scene, and Serrano who still considers himself “an odd creature” set sail again, but this time on an ocean of words. His love of history explored the trials and villainry of personages of old.
His first novel, La Marca de España, released in 1999, takes on Seneca, the Roman philosopher and trusted advisor to Nero; the Muslim theologian of Islamic Spain, Ibn Hazam; The Duke of Alba whose antics with persecution and warfare is known to posterity as “the Butcher of Flanders,” as well as other morally-dubious characters who shaped the destiny of the Iberian peninsula.
The search for origins is a pivotal trait in Serrano’s novels, but this year, the author of the epic Tamerlán (2003) and El hombre de diamante (2008) broke with the genre of historical fiction to publish his first major essay that has been generating its share of controversy, given its rather inquisitive title – ¿Por qué fracasa Colombia? or “What makes Colombia a failure”.
So what does makes Colombia “fail”- if it fails at all? And what does it mean to be “Colombian” should there be any distinction from a “Moroccan” or a “Canadian”, for instance. For Serrano, it comes down to accountability, from the individual to the collective. This historical “about face” begins when Colombians forgot where they came from.
Colombia until the early 19th century was a patchwork of villages that clung to an isolationism handed down from early Spanish colonizers to the New World and a racial mix of Moors, Andalusian peasants, Basque sailors and North African adventurers. The country that would become Colombia exuded conservative, risk-averse values, and populated by a peoples who managed to find a balance between the secular and religious in their daily lives. Provincial elites emerged to rival the closed political circles of Bogotá – also small and isolated during much of the last century.
Beyond the historical and anthropological research woven into Serrano’s essay and which could be misinterpreted as a tract on “failure” or work that scorns contemporary Colombian identity, ¿Por qué fracasa Colombia? is a study of the conservative conventions that gave rise to a nation, and a rural–urban split that eventually resulted in the rise of an emerging middle class that now exercises its hold on public policy, opinion, and academia. “To say this, is to set yourself up to ridicule and go against the vanguard,” remarks Serrano, despite the fact, his essay is ranked among the top-five bestselling books released this year. “I shun the vanguard of immediacy. To be an independent thinker, one must go refute artificial polarization.”
The long and arduous peace process with the country’s oldest guerrilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and that resulted in a contested plebiscite on October 2nd, is just one manifestation of the immediacy that governs Colombia and urgency to make up for lost historical ground. And the fast-track peace to end more than a half-century of conflict, is far from a “perfect consensus” claims Serrano, for in order to have “perfect consensus” there has to be an understanding of “historical imperfections”, or deeper understanding of nation-building, the importance of a middle class in hedging that which they are most afraid of losing: change. The immediacy of this “peace,” validated by an “intellectualism of clichés” has created a rift, alienating academia, the media and political elites from a silent majority who still safeguard staunch conservative values. Hence, the unwavering popular support of former president, Álvaro Uribe.
Far from warmonger or cynic, Serrano has held up a mirror on Colombian identity, taken on the literati and self-professed heirs of a Raymond Chandler or Faulkner narrative. Then, the all-boys private school educated opinion movers, who with hyperbolic exaggeration, fuel sentiments of distrust, alienation and negativity among everyday Colombians. This sense of alienation has hampered the country’s innovation, development and historical responsibility. “The sense of collective identity is an ideologically and emotionally charged debate,” believes Serrano. “There is an over-charge in enthusiasm. A need to be visible.”
2016 was an exceptional year for Colombia to be visible on the world stage. The peace process with FARC made headline news, and so too, the failure of the final accord to the ratified by millions of voters. This permanent need for re-affirmation has grown, because, according to the essayist: “Colombia is like an adolescent, full of dreams and aspirations, but who acts like a child with no clear notion of its destiny.”
If we are a product of all that has come before, then Colombia, must accept its recent past – one that catapulted it towards modernity and at the expense of the countryside. Small, provincial capitals, grew into out-of-control mega-cities, expanding the middle class, and who continue to envision a better future – at least one better than the one before. Waves of provincial migrations from farm to suburb has given the country “no time to plan, or create a more cohesive society,” explains Serrano; and while the world examined the root causes of our internal conflict, for many it remains a “nuisance” that interrupts a frenzy of aspirations, rather find resolution within a historical and social context.
Serrano’s essay is a stepping stone towards more essays in which he hopes to research the limitations of nations, a feature of the world, rather than language. For this accomplished writer on philosophy and history, our understanding of cultural criticism must be logical and compassionate, rather than assume a narrative of superiority, that tends to contaminate academics.
From the vantage of a coffee table in Bogotá’s historic La Candelaria, Serrano’s understanding of Colombia could be applied to understanding the socio-cultural and political forces that gave rise to Donald Trump, the safeguarding of post-colonial values in Britain by Brexit supporters and the repudiation in many other political spheres of elites and all they stand for. “The years ahead should be years of reflection,” says Serrano who will be taking up the issue of identity next month at the Hay Festival in Cartagena.
“We are not as virtuous as we would like to think, and not as bad as taken to be,” states Serrano will author more books in the years to come. But he admits that currently the opinion essay format opens up a different aspect of expression that interacts well with readers, especially a younger audience. While for some he may have crossed into a realm that sets him up to be labeled “un-patriotic,” for Serrano, part of a writer’s duty is to safeguard an individual dis- course, and the freedom of expression that is increasingly under threat by radical populists.
Back in the realm of fiction, Serrano’s works are biographical and steeped in storytelling. From the final hours of senator Seneca, to the barbarity of the Turkic conqueror, Timur (Tameralán), this author has made his mark on Latin American literature with his exquisite prose and proving, that being a contemporary novelist, does not exclude you from writing “out of time.”