Guest Post by Richard McColl.
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And there I was, seated at the desk at the far end of the Macondo pavilion during this year’s Bogota Book Fair, signing copies of “Was Gabo an Irishman?” with my back disrespectfully turned on priceless, yet worn, first editions of Garcia Marquez’s works, when a young girl came forward and posed the following question:
“If you were to say something about Colombians from the perspective of a foreigner, what would it be?”
Her question caught me off guard, of course, for I had been the one, up until this particular moment, delivering the spiel as to why people might enjoy our book. “It’s a new vision of Colombia,” I said. “It’s an homage to Gabo,” was another routine line to my sales pitch, and the most desperate offering, a bafflegab proffered to those unknowing of the English language but interested all the same, “it’ll make for a nice adornment in your home.” The inquisitive girl had doubtless taken all of this in before requiring me to reduce myself into delivering a concise statement regarding the nature of her compatriots.
“I would say,” I said, lengthening each word and breathing deeply to buy myself more time. “I would say that Colombians wear an external joyfulness, but on the inside, there’s a nostalgia, which becomes clear to those who have spent any quality amount of time here.”
She seemed satisfied with my answer, thanked me, and moved on without purchasing a copy of the book. As an unscripted response, it wasn’t bad. I was glad to have focused on nostalgia, rather than melancholy, while both could easily be attributed to Colombia. Then it struck me: our book, albeit unknowingly, zooms in on one constant and potential source of discomfort or confusion, that of identity.
It’s only now, as the dust settles on our successful appearance at the Book Fair, that I have finally had time to reflect on how much I enjoyed pitching our book during the convivial madness of such an event. Being there, watching book lovers snap photographs of us from afar, as if we were secretly known to them as famous authors, and the dynamic with which we needed to apply ourselves to draw people in, and in turn, shoo off others wanting to use three foreigners – in particular two tall exotic blondes (co-editors Caroline Doherty de Novoa and Victoria Kellaway) – as publicity for their product with no return for us, was a learning process. And the end result was that I have most certainly come away from it all with further questions about what it means to be a Colombian.
“Colombians are survivors and they survive by splurging humor and imagination,” wrote Jordi Raich in his fascinating story contributed to the anthology.
Perhaps Raich’s insight from “Big Papa’s Funeral” best addresses my intellectual crisis when it comes to trying to describe Colombia and Colombians. He would know, of course, as the former Head of Delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Colombia. Raich’s enviable travels took him all over the country to towns unlisted on official maps. He was directly involved in the safe extraction of FARC guerrilla members from Colombia’s darkest jungles and their secure transfer to Havana, Cuba for exploratory peace talks. As an editor, my take on Raich’s piece, at first, was that he was spot on. For me, his reasoning represented a bull’s-eye in terms of what Colombia is and how it may progress.
But then, editing another piece by Colin Post, the U.S.-born and Peru-based editor of the Expat Chronicles and author of “Mad Outta Me Head: Addiction and Underworld from Ireland to Colombia,” it is clear that his story’s central theme is that of the “irresistibility of morbid love,” displayed by yearning couples in Latin America. This is a subject continually addressed by Gabo in his works. Is this “morbid love” a more complete way of digesting and understanding the Colombian psyche? There’s no mention of the FARC, nothing about the armed conflict, and no references to neither the colonial past so often blamed for today’s class issues, nor to Colombia’s regionalism and geography, all of which are so often touted as being significant keys to understanding the narrative of the country’s contemporary identity. I would be hard-pressed to deny that Post’s contribution to the anthology is any less important than Raich’s.
And herein lies the enjoyment that we three editors experienced, whilst hammering out corrections, letters of rejection, a coherent order for the stories in the book, and how best to promote the finished product — there was a realisation that every contribution was different, that there was magic realism, gritty realism, and social realism included. What we had on paper, in our possession, was no longer something that addressed the Macondian ambiance of Colombia alone, but also the political blitzkrieg that the nation has suffered along the years.
Ostensibly, “Was Gabo an Irishman?” is an anthology of personal stories inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but, it has become increasingly clear over time – having since edited pieces contributed by writers as far adrift as Australia, China, Holland and Spain amongst others, and having promoted and sold out of the book at the Feria del Libro de Bogota – that this is an offering about Colombia and our beloved Gabito, as well as its lens. There is no way that we can define Colombia, but, hopefully, “Was Gabo an Irishman?” goes some way to revealing more facets and complexities to the country than that which is continually covered in the mainstream press. Pick up this book, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the spread of non-fiction contributions which include central mainstays of Gabo’s texts such as love, politics, vallenato music, religion and the Caribbean, to name just a few.
The breadth and depth of Gabo’s work is sometimes forgotten behind the label of “magic realism.” Together with the magic, he wrote about dictators, shipwrecked sailors, kidnappings, conflict, repression, exorcisms, and so much more. Hopefully, through “Was Gabo an Irishman?” we have exposed a little more of Colombia and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Each of the 26 stories in “Was Gabo an Irishman?” attempts to highlight something particular to the Colombian idiosyncrasy, but perhaps none concludes so acutely and elegantly as what Courtenay Strickland wrote in her piece, “Si Dios Quiere”.
“Perhaps this has been part of my frustration since moving to Colombia. I just can’t pin this country down. I can’t pigeonhole the people, and I can’t define myself and my experiences – who I am and what I do – with the clarity that I had before moving here. Thanks to Garcia Marquez and my daily life here, I’m slowly learning to be okay with that.”