Evelio Rosero is an oddity among Colombian writers of his generation. He doesn’t write for newspapers, doesn’t write for magazines, doesn’t get his photo taken at public events, doesn’t have a weekly column, doesn’t accept bureaucratic or diplomatic posts, doesn’t attend cocktail parties or book launches, doesn’t enjoy the pageantry of book fairs and literary gatherings. His face is not familiar to the average citizen. He is a writer, period, one who has devoted 30 years to writing and nothing else, without stopping to wonder whether the cultural press—the “parrots,” as he calls them—takes any notice of him or not.
Rosero set out to make his living as a writer from a very early age, and by writing tirelessly (and submitting work to all sorts of literary competitions) has gradually managed to do so. He has published novels for young readers, poetry, long novels, short novels, all kinds of stories. His nineteen titles published (and seven prizes won) in 25 years make him one of the most prolific Latin American writers of his generation, comparable only in this sense with someone like the ever-abundant César Aira.
Educated in Catholic schools in the Andean city of Pasto in southern Colombia, and in Bogotá, the city where he has spent most of his life, Rosero recognizes that his years with the priests have left a deep rage, one he has been able to measure out and use to his advantage in the creation of several of his books. Lured by the siren song of Europe, like any number of self-respecting Latin American writers, he lived in Barcelona for a few years as well as in Paris, which only served to confirm how much pleasure he got from life in Colombia. For years now his daily life has been as austere and orderly as his writing: he lives in a middle-class apartment complex overlooking a lake with wild birds, rides his bike around Bogotá, and is in a stable relationship. He seems to have tamed the monsters, to have confined them to those books of his infested with solitary, misunderstood beings, who are often also desperate, ill, insane, or senile. All of them are Colombian heroes undertaking, almost always, fruitless pursuits with no point of return.
Translated into a dozen European languages, published by the finest houses in Spain and Latin America, praised by critics, studied in universities, Rosero’s dark worlds have managed to reach a wide audience. He is an oddity indeed, a writer who in spite of the considerable recognition he has attained has never come out of hiding, who has always defended his absolute independence, who never let himself be impressed by popularity’s glossy trinkets. He affirms unashamedly that literature can and should change social reality, and that this is one of its main functions, something practically none of his colleagues would now dare to say, at risk of seeming too engaged.
Confined to my apartment by a dangerous respiratory illness (feeling almost like I was at the end of an adventure written by Rosero) I conducted this interview via email from another neighborhood of the gigantic city of Bogotá. A few days ago, Rosero wrote in one of his messages that lately he’d lost his enthusiasm for writing. Reading his books (intense, taut, sincere, uncomfortable, uncompromising) and especially given how many he’s written, makes it hard to believe him. English-speaking readers need not worry; Rosero’s recently publishedThe Armies, which received the prestigious Tusquets International Prize and the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, is the first of a surely long list of his novels to become available in translation.
Translated by Anne McLean.
Antonio Ungar You spent part of your childhood in the upper Andes, in the south of Colombia. Tell me whether your literature has been affected by the city of Pasto and the geography of the region of Nariño.
Evelio Rosero Yes, of course. Childhood is the most formative stage in a writer’s life, or anyone’s. Especially the villages I’ve depicted in my novels, I’ve noticed—after the writing—correspond to the memory of those villages in the Andes that my family used to visit. So, in my fiction, their description is linked to an ancestral memory: their rural spaces and atmospheres, their indigenous faces, their geographical and human abysses, is unconscious.
AU Many of your books are for a young readership and yet, in some of your novels—in En el lejero (In the distance) and in some scenes of The Armies—groups of children are threatening creatures; they chase the protagonists, throw stones at them, make fun of them. In The Armies, a group of kids plays with a grenade and threatens to physically annihilate one of the main characters. Why? Are these just coincidences that aren’t worth spending too much time on?
ER Children are also threatening in some of my “children’s books.” Cruelty in children is a reality, just like their innocence. I am aware of all these passions, as elemental as they might be, when writing—whether a children’s story, or a full-length novel. When I write for children, or when I used to write, because I seem to have lost the joy in doing this, I don’t think I’m addressing marvelous, winged creatures. As a boy I suffered, as children suffer in this life, as intensely or more so than grown-ups. The coincidence that you point out to me seems, for this reason, very important. It had puzzled me that no one else seemed to have noticed.
AU Is there any relationship between your works for young people and those for adults? Is there any interplay between the two? Are they independent universes?
ER Interplay has to exist, because we’re talking about the works of a single author. That said, I haven’t bothered to unravel the links. I know that several of the children in my novels for adults are also central to other stories for young people. That, I think, gives a greater weight to their countenance, attitudes, and tenacity. In my novel En el lejero, the children who pursue the protagonist through the streets of the town were already familiar to me—they were the same children as the ones in some of my other novels. But I never bothered to tell anyone.
AU Tell me what role Bogotá plays in your life and work. Do you think you’ll live here for the rest of your life? In this city of almost eight million inhabitants you live a long way from the historic center and the places where artistic events are held and where the so-called “cultural news” is made. Is this an accident of real estate or a deliberate act?
ER If Pasto was my childhood, Bogotá was my adolescence. In fact, I was born in Bogotá, and learned to read and write in a religious school, in Bogotá. Pasto, Nariño, nourish my small towns and villages, the rural part of my work. Bogotá is the metropolis. Actually, it’s the only Colombian metropolis; the other cities, Cali, Barranquilla, Medellín, are like big villages. Bogotá, and this is also involuntary, not at all on purpose, is the most representative city of my urban stories, and of one novel Plutón (Pluto), which is almost 400 pages long. But I also lived for some months in Paris, and three years in Barcelona: I know some of my urban stories originate from the milieus of Paris and Barcelona mixed with others from Bogotá; those are the sorts of cocktails literature offers. Bogotá fascinates me, although it also terrifies and disgusts me. It’s a city I love, especially for memories of my time at the university, not high school, which was completely horrible. The city is permanently advising us of our past within it. Any street, a little square, a church, can take us back to a conversation, a kiss, or a toothache. I walk around Bogotá a lot; I cycle all over the city; I often visit the Luis Ángel Arango library, in the historic center, but artistic events, I don’t know why, don’t particularly interest me. Instead of following cultural news, or having its parrots follow me, I’d rather go to the cinema, or stretch out with a book on the gentle hills of Independencia Park, where beautiful women stroll by, or even meditate.
AU Many of your stories tell of odysseys in which a solitary hero faces, like Ulysses, the conspiracy of dark forces, implacable real and imaginary enemies, and his own human weaknesses: it happens for example to Ismael Pasos in The Armies, to Jeremías Andrade inEn el lejero, and to a certain extent to the nameless narrator of Los Escapados (The escaped ones). Are destruction and breakdown good material for the narrative trade?
ER Remember that things are going well for Jeremías Andrade at the end of En el lejero; the town itself returns his granddaughter, who had been kidnapped. This novel is very much linked to the one that follows it, The Armies. It is, in a way, its “preparation,” its prelude. The protagonists of both novels are 70-year-old men. The viewpoint is similar, but not the same. We could say that the literary dissatisfaction I felt over the first one, was the genesis of The Armies. The first is a terrible dream, a nightmare we try to shake off with pain, with sadness, until we wake up. The second is no nightmare, it is reality itself knocking on your door with its knuckles, three hard knocks, knocks with the sound bones make—death. I couldn’t be satisfied with what I had reached in En el lejero. There the nightmare took control of everything, like in Señor que no conoce la luna (The man who didin’t know the moon), another type of allegory. But it didn’t go beyond that: a nightmare. It wasn’t true. I had to force myself to transfer my real fear, my sporadic terror as a citizen, to the pages of a book, as a rebellion. I never ever thought destruction and breakdown would be good material for my trade. It’s that Isuffered this destruction more and more; I suffered it deep down inside, in my way, as I know that directly or indirectly everyone in the country suffers it, except the president and the magistrates, except the generals and the guerrilla commanders and the paramilitary chiefs. I suffered it by just watching the news at lunchtime: a mother telling of her massacred children, then the country’s indifference; a model talking about soap operas, then the list of the missing; the so-called false positives (civilians murdered by the military and subsequently disguised as dead guerrilla fighters), which still go on with no one doing anything to stop them; and then the Colombian national soccer team, which is another disgrace like the country—all that generates a novel. I hope humor and joy might shape another novel, if it comes to pass. It would be just as interesting an experience as the other.
AU Many of your heroes are characters who are beset by death, illness, a world that seems to conspire against them. Does this have something to do with the real experience of the writer Evelio Rosero? Is it just a technical decision that impels the stories you want to tell?
ER The writer is a human consequence of those around him, or those who were around him. I’m sure I haven’t only written about myself. Those things you mention, death and illness, the world conspiring against a person, are universal in any literature, here or in Cuzco, Moscow, or Detroit.
AU In some of your books the main character, clearly distinct from the rest, has communication problems with their surrounding world. In En el lejero the protagonist—and the reader with him—does not easily distinguish between the reality of the senses and thereality of the mind (and when he does distinguish, it’s the third-person narrator who takes charge of blurring the boundaries). In The Armies, madness and desperation gradually seize the protagonist, taking him hopelessly further away from the real world. Tell us a little about any literary considerations that might have led you to use that relationship between individuals and their surroundings.
ER All I know is that this madness, this knife’s edge where reality and unreality take place, are here, they breathe around every street corner, and they are what propels my writing.
AU You lived in Paris and in Barcelona. What was that like? Why did you decide to return to Colombia?
ER Colombia is my country. My parents, my grandparents, my first love and the last, are all from here. Besides, I confess that things were quite difficult for me in Paris. Not so hard in Barcelona, but difficult there too. In Paris I had to busk in the metro, playing the flute. One time the doors opened and I saw two girls, holding hands. The door of the subway car closed, they disappeared, and I was left with a novel of two girls who love each other. I called it Juliana los mira (Juliana watches them). Without finishing the novel I went to Barcelona, in the middle of the summer. I’d arrived in Paris in the winter. That’s probably why I like Barcelona so much. In Barcelona I finished Juliana, and spent three years living off vino pelión, as my friends and I called the cheap wine we used to drink. I wrote El incendiado (The burning child)—the story of the death of a child at the hands of two bakers. One doesn’t write any better by leaving the country—that’s what I think, but I had to go away to understand that. It would be a shame to have to leave this country, with its plantain soup, cumbia, and Andean flutes. I came back to Colombia, and after less than a week in Bogotá I fell in love and went to live in Chía, in the Cerca de Piedra district, among cows and chickens. The little brick house seemed right out of a fairy tale, but also out of nightmares. I stayed there six years, and I wrote Señor que no conoce la luna, because before I lived in Chía I’d never really seen the moon, as simple as that, I didn’t get to know the moon in Paris or in Barcelona. I’ll die here, I was born here.
AU It seems like in Latin America there are two very strong literary traditions, one closer to realism (Mario Vargas Llosa, Reinaldo Arenas, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, almost all of Carlos Fuentes, etc.) and another closer to fantastic literature (Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, Felisberto Hernández, Adolfo Bioy Casares, etc.) How do you locate your work with respect to those antecedents?
ER I admire Vargas Llosa, his distinctive way of assembling his novels, his technique. Fuentes is not a writer I’m particularly fond of. Felisberto Hernández amazed me, years ago, like Borges and Rulfo. I’ve enjoyed Latin American books without stopping to wonder whether they fit into the fantastic or realist genre. It’s about finding good literature and enjoying it, as a reader, and taking it on board, as a writer. One learns from everybody, no? They are universal voices that one inevitably incorporates into one’s own voice. I’ve noticed that I was interested in fantastic literature when I was starting out, 30 years ago—I have a lot of short stories in this vein—but also, and simultaneously, in realism. I often combined the two angles in a single composition, but never deliberately. I believe more in spontaneity in creation, than in experimental intentions.
Though, of course, I consider literary experimentation important. I enjoy exercises that help me to glimpse possibilities that I later try to develop, but just for myself. I don’t think the results deserve to be shared. For me, they’re entertainment. However, there’s another type of experimentation, which I might call hidden, and which is present in every novel. For a story, or a poem, to end up linked to a fleeting episode in a novel, to a brief paragraph, is a risky experimentation. In fact, the first book I wrote was experimental, and I probably made a mistake in allowing it to be published. I was barely 20 years old. I gathered up all the poems I’d written up till then, and, like a definitive farewell to poetry, decided to transform them into prose, and vivisect and disfigure them around a single character: Llo (an invented word that in Spanish sounds like “yo,” which means I). I subtitled it: a novelized poem. With this book I put an end to my pretensions to be a poet. I ended up discovering that I was, I am, a storyteller. I feel in my element with a novel. Poetry was an unconsummated love.
AU In the context of the last question, is García Márquez a writer who interests you?
ER Of course. He’s a living classic, one of the few we’ve got left. A goldsmith of words. He achieves that perfect balance between form and idea, to my way of thinking the goal to achieve. And not just his work: his life and attitude are exemplary. So he’s the best sustenance for any potential writer. I consider Chronicle of a Death Foretold to be as important as One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both of them, along with No One Writes to the Colonel, are his masterpieces. The Autumn of the Patriarch, all in all, strikes me as a failed attempt, but an attempt that many of the most acclaimed writers couldn’t even match. When a writer reads a book he reaches the highest degree of sublimation when he forgets that he’s a writer reading a book, unraveling possible methods or literary directions. That sort of reading delight I only experience with a very few writers: García Márquez is first among them. Doris Lessing, withThe Fifth Child, made me forget I was a writer; I read this book shocked, wounded, revived, like when I read Jules Verne and Daniel Defoe as a boy, or when I finally came to the great 19th-century Russian masters, in adolescence. Those readings went beyond living.
AU The Catholic church (and its apostles in Colombia) has a predominant role throughout your entire oeuvre. What role has the church placed in the life of Evelio Rosero? How has this experience affected your work?
ER I spent all of primary school and most of high school in religious institutions. That explains the presence of priests and religion in some of my works. But there was no encouragement to read in any of those schools. Just the opposite. I knew horrible teachers, grotesques of the intelligence, crude men giving lectures, and very protected as well by their religious leaders. I have no edifying memories of that life. My discipline, my rigor, if I possess them, I got the hard way, perhaps by following the examples of the literary heroes of my youth, but never from those luxurious seedy dens of education where students are trained for everything, except for the spirit, except for human generosity. The Catholic church, along with the politicians, or the first “fathers of the nation,” bear all responsibility for the civil disgrace of our countries, if we’re talking historically. Reactionaries, troglodytes, medieval, as well as perverted, the majority of priests in our educational history did nothing but prepare a mass of fools for perpetual resignation, and their leaders for extreme egotism. Not to mention the active participation of the Catholic church in the distribution of wealth, which has always been unjust.
AU Do you think writers, and artists in general, can have any influence on collective reality?
ER Of course I think so. If not we wouldn’t be here, talking about books. Literature changes reality, modifies readers’ attitudes and conscience. We ourselves have been changed, transformed, by certain books, for good or for ill. The consequences of literature are not immediate, like what a news report, a film, an article might achieve, but it pervades the memory more, it’s more profound, more deeply human and spiritual. The written word touches the soul’s marrow.
—Antonio Ungar is author of the short-story collections Trece circos comunes (Thirteen Common Circuses) and De ciertos animales tristes (Of Certain Sad Animals), and the novelsZanahorias voladoras (Flying Carrots) and Las orejas del lobo(The Wolf’s Ears), a finalist for the best book published in France in 2008. He writes journalism and lives in Bogotá.