Colombian Literature

- By Bogota Brillance -

“The knowledge of the world does not reside in the minds of old men, but in old books.” Rafael Martinez (Historian and Bookbinder - La Candelaria). If Poetry is the Music of the Soul, then you might hear all of Bogota singing.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, far from being a square head...
Indeed poetry and literature seem to be part of the Colombian DNA
and are inextricable from their being.  They are in the ancient walls, cobblestones and on the lips of ghosts in La Candelaria.  They ring-forth in chorus with the church bells of Usaquen, as storytellers thrill crowds with amazing tales.  The verse and rhyme of children’s stories are carried on the wind in the parks, and festivals give rise to a multitude of voices.
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The extensive library system is comprised of six mega-libraries;
four within the city network, in addition to the Biblioteca Nacional and the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, which is sponsored by the Banco de la Republica and is the largest and most utilized public use library / cultural center in the world.  The Bogota network also includes 16 branches, an extensive mobile book system and library kiosks in parks and at some Transmillenio stations.  Many other libraries can be found in universities and museums, such as the Casa de Poesia Silva, discussed above.

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The Casa Poesia de SilvaThe Casa Poesia de Silva, once home to one of the world’s greatest poets, Jose Asuncion Silva, houses a treasure trove of international poetry in books, on video and CDs.  A comfortable salon provides the perfect space where visitors can listen to selections from the formidable audio library.  Lectures and readings are held in the intimate theatre space, and the bookstore stocks an impressive array of works by Colombian poets.

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In a unique example of Colombian ingenuity and community service, teacher Luis Soriano in a rural Colombian town, in the Department of Cesar, created the Biblioburro book distribution system.  With a passion for learning and teaching, Soriano uses his two donkeys Alfa and Beto to transport the books that are loaned primarily to children who might not otherwise have access to such materials.  This effort has gained so much recognition that donations of 4,000+ books have been made to the Bibloburro project, and the construction of a brick and mortar library is underway.

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An initiative by the federal government called ‘Biblotecas Vivas’ also provides books and library resources to military bases, rural communities and indigenous populations, with a goal of providing resources to every Colombian.

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The annual Book Festival / Feria del Libro organized by the Camara Colombiano del Libro / Colombian Chamber of the Book at Corferias is an international event that is considered one of the most important book festivals in the world.   Additionally, The Fundacion Pombo, created in honor of Colombia’s fabulist Rafael Pombo, hosts the Children’s Book Festival / Festival de Libro Infantil. The Alcaldia of Bogota publishes several books a year that are given away, or used in the annual book swapping event in Parque Simon Bolivar called Libro al Viento.

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Bogota, often called “The Athens of the Americas” for its embrace and advancement of democracy, knowledge, philosophy and the literary arts, has long-enjoyed a great heritage of storytelling and the written word.  With over 100 bookstores and entire shopping districts dedicated to books, Bogota’s literati have an entire world of literature to explore.

Cafés, like the legendary Windsor, Asturias and El Automatico, were a regular gathering and drinking places for poets such as Leon de Greiff, Jorge Zalmea and Arturo Camacho Ramirez, reporters, painters, sculptors and caricaturists.  The spirit of El Automatico was recreated at the 2009 Feria del Libro / Book Festival, to celebrate the publication of a book that chronicles the illustrious life of this famed literary hub.

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Literary Movements:

Silva, Rivera, Pombo, Isaacs, Acevedo de Gomez, Zapata Olivella, Mallarino, de Greiff, Garcia Marquez, these are just some of the names that evoke passion, history, romance, realism, lyricism and fantasy within the Colombian lexicon.

Over the centuries Colombian literary themes have changed to reflect, or respond to, the issues of the day.  Major literary movements include:

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Colonist: Formed during the Spanish colonization and concentrating on religious themes, some of the authors of this time were Hernando Dominguez Camargo, Francisco Alvarez de Velasco y Zorrilla, Francisco and Francisca Josefa del Castillo.

Republican: Giving rise to the voices of independence and romanticism, the revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar was also one of the most important writers of this period.  Other authors include  Camilo Torres, Francisco Antonio Zea and Jose Fernandez Madrid.

Costumbrist: At the close of the 19th and beginning of 20th Centuries, some authors explored themes of peasant life while criticizing the federal government and seemingly disinterested society.  Authors of this movement included Tomas Carrasquila, Jose Maria Cordovez Moure, Jorge Isaacs, Rafael Pombo and Soledad Acosta.  In 1871 the first Academy of Spanish Language in the Americas was established in Bogota.

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Maria, by Jorge Isaacs, is perhaps the most known novel to emerge from this period.  The novel called the best romantic narrative of Latin America, is set in a hacienda in the Valle de Cauca.  On the surface, it appears to be a simple plot of unrequited love between the narrator, Efrain, and his 15 year-old cousin, Maria.  Isaacs draws the reader in by depicting the details of the Caucan landscape, something that he knew very well; romance and reality converge to create a hypnotic aura.  The furtive steps of new love is played out with silence, whispers, secrets, unspoken sentiments, misunderstandings, knowing looks and the illusion that their romance has gone unperceived by the family.

Isaacs was originally from Cali and worked at various trades before becoming involved with governmental posts.  He promoted the education of women, sought the establishment of night schools, agricultural and craft. Subsequently, he served as general superintendent of Public Instruction in the State Primary Cauca (1875) and Tolima (1883-1884), and other governmental postions.

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The famed, almost mythical, society called La Gruta Simbolica, or the Symbolist’s Grotto, was also formed at this time during Colombia’s One Thousand Day War by a group of six “men of letters”: Luis Maria Mora “Moratinos”, Julio Florez, Julio de Francisco, Ignacio Posse Amaya, Miguel Peñarredonda, Rudesindo Gómez and Carlos Tamayo.  After narrowly escaping a batallion of soldiers, the group took refuge in the home of Dr. Rafael Espinosa Guzmán where they engaged in a long night of drinking rum and intellectual debate.  With the dawn came the birth of La Gruta Simbolica, named after a pamphlet written by Moratinos, De la decadencia y el simbolismo / Of Decadence and Symbolism extolling the values of the Decadent and Symbolist movements (as promoted by French poet Charles Baudelaire, and further expanded upon by Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stephen Mallarme –among others).  Something that differentiated these writers from their French counterparts, and likened them more to another Decadent –the British playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde– was their thrilling use of wit and creation of puns.

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The men would initially meet in secret at a restaurant located behind a hidden door across from the Primary Cathedral, but over time the membership grew from the original six to more than sixty.   Salons were then held at cafes and bars with illustrious sounding names like The Gold Bottle, The White Rose, The Cradle of Venus, The Frisky Cat and The Big Road.  Members would drink, recite verses, create sonnets, play word games, squabble and hold what could be described as the genesis of poetry slams until the break of dawn.  Overall, La Gruta Simbolica was an incubator for writers and thinkers such as Eduardo Echeverria, Edmundo Cervantes, Carlos Tomayo, Gustavo Gaitan, Gonzalo Santamaria, Francisco Restrepo and Francisco Valencia.

Stone and Sky: Reacting to industrialization and depersonalization, writers such as Carlos Martin, Eduardo Carranza, Jorge Gaitan Duran and Jorge Rojas wrote works exploring the transformation of Latin America.

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The highly poetic and imaginative novel La vorágine (The Vortex) by Jose Eustasio Rivera is considered by some to be the best South American novel, and it is certainly one of the most important narratives from Latin America.  The masterpiece, also thought of as Colombia’s greatest literary work (up until the publication of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude), was written after the author, a lawyer and diplomat, learned of the exploitation and mistreatment suffered by the workers on the vast rubber plantations as he traveled through Colombia and into Brazil.  After publication in 1924, Eustasio Rivera was elected as a member for the Investigative Commission for Exterior Relations and Colonization.  In this capacity he published newspaper articles criticizing government contracts and neglect of the rubber workers.

La vorágine has been adapted as a well-received telenovela by RCN television, and an impressive theatrical piece by the Teatro Tierra.

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Nadaism:  Violent episodes of the 1940s such as the Bogotazo that was set-off after the assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, La Violencia of the 1950s, and the government of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla gave birth to the genre of nothingness, existentialism and nihilistic exploration.   The main voices of this time were Gonzalo Arango (the movement’s founder), Elmo Valencia (one of the co-founders), Jota Mario Arbelaez, Eduardo Escobar, Fanny Buitrago, Amilcar Osorio and Humberto Navarro.

On March 17, 2010 at the UN La Libreria on the Univesidad Nacional campus, Elmer Valencia launched his book "Bodas sin oro Cincuenta años del nadaismo" recounting the movements history and its paralleling of the Beats in United States.

Contemporary: The last half of the 20th Century has given rise to divergent voices and visions:

Eduardo Caballero Calderon, a reporter and diplomat, whose novels explored themes of miscegenation and urban-rural relationships.  Cabellero Calderon was awarded the Premio Eugenio Nadal for his novel El buen salvaje, other titles of his include Siervo sin Tierra, El Cristo de espaldas and La Penúltima Hora.   The Biblioteca Nacional has created an exhibit of private and public photos that inaugurated 2010 as the Year of Cabellero Calderon in March.

Manuel Zapata Olivella, born in Lorica, Córdoba, was a physician, anthropologist, novelist and playwright who recounted the Afro-Colombian experience.  Amongst his most famous works was Changó, el Gran Putas / Chango, the Great Whores from 1983.  The epic novel follows characters from Africa to enslavement, and a run for freedom in Cartagena, into the fight for independence in Haiti and the civil rights struggle in the United States.  Prior to Changó, Zapata Olivella’s novel En Chimá nace un santo Born a Saint in Chima, was a finalist for the prestigious Esso and Novela Breve Seix Barral / Short Novel Six Barrel prizes.

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Purportedly Zapata Olivella also undertook a journey on foot from Bogota to Manhattan and chronicled his adventures in a journal.  His 1954 play, Hotel de vagabundo / Vagabond Hotel, recounts his time at a hotel in Manhattan’s infamous Bowery.  At first he defended the United States to his brother Virgil, a position that he changed after visiting the country and suffering racial prejudice.

Other titles by Zapata Olivella include Chambacú, corral de negros, China 6 a.m., and El retorno de Caín.     Acting as a cultural anthropologist, in the late 1980’s Zapata Olivella conducted studies and tests to gauge the artistic, literary, cultural and sociopolitical life in Afro-Colombian communities.  His resultant report entitled Las claves mágicas de América (raza, clase, cultura) / The Magic Keys of America (race, class, culture) was published in 1989.  An important aspect of this work was to ask Colombians to consider the contributions made by Afro-Colombians, and the possibility of having African heritage themselves.

Zapata Olivella was also the brother of famed folkloric dancer and archivist Delia Zapata Olivella.  The new public mega-library in Bogota’s Tintal neighborhood is named in his honor.

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Álvaro Mutis, monarchist, poet, novelist and essayist counts amongst his circle of friends and contemporaries literary greats as Octavio Paz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Amongst his most famous works is the collection of eclectic poems and narrative styles Summa de Maqroll el Gaviero / The Misadventures of Gaviero, which mires the reader in the poetic undertow of Mutis’ observations on the human condition, isolation and death as reflected through the journeys of his solitary character, Gaveiro.   Other Mutis titles include:

La Balanza, Caravansary, Un homenaje y siete nocturnos, Diario de Lecumberri, Abdul Bashur, soñador de navíos and Caminos y encuentros de Maqroll el Gaviero.

Mutis is the winner of many international prizes and honors, such as:

  • Premio Nacional de Letras de Colombia 1974
  • Premio Nacional de Poesía de Colombia 1983
  • Comendador de la Orden del Águila Azteca – México 1988
  • Orden de las Artes y las Letras – France 1989
  • X Premio del Instituto Italo-Latinoamericano de Roma 1992
  • Orden al Mérito de France 1993
  • Premio Cervantes – Spain 2001

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez “Gabo,” is one of the best-known writers throughout the world.  His creation of the fictional world of Macondo set-off a maelstrom of praise, controversy and a cult following.  Gabo is credited with the creation of so-called magic realism, which seemingly erases the line between what we perceive as reality and a mystical realm. Some of his most vibrant imagery includes a swarm of yellow butterflies flying out from a girl’s mouth, an angelic winged suitor in love with an enslaved adolescent whore and the physical and spiritual ascending into heaven of a character while she is hanging the laundry out to dry.   Amongst his most famous works are One Hundred Years of Solitude, Autumn of the Patriarch and Love in the Time of Cholera. Gabo was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.  Garcia Marquez began his career as a journalist and applied this writing style to his non-fiction works such as News of a Kidnapping.  Other works by Garcia Marquez include In Evil Hour, The General in His Labyrinth, Leaf Storm, Innocent Erendira and Other Stories.

The theme of solitude is a constant in Gabo’s works, so much so that his Nobel Prize acceptance speech was titled Solitude of Latin America, wherein he explained, “The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.”

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The iconic Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Marquez in La Candelaria was built in his honor.  Designed by famed Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona, this stunning complex includes performance spaces, an exhibition hall, a bookstore that boasts 45,000 titles, and a Juan Valdez café.

Other contemporary writers include German Arciniegas, Piedad Bonnett, Maria Mercedes Carranza, German Castro Caycedo, Jorge Franco, Flor Romero, Cristina Maya, Daniel Samper Pizano, Laura Restrepo, Evelio Rosero, Fernando Vallejo and Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

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One of the most well-known and recognized literary voices was Colombia’s foremost poetry recitalist of the 20th Century, Victor Mallarino.  This actor, scriptwriter and director also created Colombia’s first comedy for television, “Home Sweet Home,” where he acted the role of the worker Otoniel Contreras.  Mallarino was also involved with theatre, most notably Bernard Romero Lozano’s Dramatic Art School.  A hall at the Teatro Colon is named after this important figure of Colombia’s artistic heritage.

In 2007 UNESCO named Bogota World Capital of the Book for its combination of a rich literary tradition, extensive library system, number of bookstores per capita, book and poetry festivals, a high literacy rate and an undying passion for reading.

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The writing of poetry and literature is not reserved only for a rarified few in Colombia. On the contrary, public and private writing contests are often held throughout Bogota.  One example is the contest held by the Casa Poesia de Silva in 2003 on the topic of war.  A total of 6,972 people submitted 30,000 poems.  The winning 20 poems were read at a special ceremony at the Plaza de Toros Santamaria before an audience of over 6,000 people.

La Gruta Simbolica also published a journal that displayed the divergent views and styles of its members; reaching 25 issues, the publication’s motto was:

“I like all genres, except for anything tiresome.”

Whatever style or genre you like, you will be able to find a book or tale to satisfy your literary yearnings in a shop, a library, at a salon, listening to a storyteller, at a festival or from the hand of a stranger.  Explore Bogota’s world of words and add a new story to your collection of memories.

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  • Guest (bilhoward)

    I live in Medellin and am also an author who writes historical fiction. I am currently writing a series of historical fiction novellas set during Colombia's fight for independence from Spain. The first "Zipaquirá" is available in both English and Spanish at Amazon and the second "Rionegro" is currently only available in English. The Spanish translation is in progress.

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