Hola. Es ya mayo. May it be a month of joy and happiness. This edition of Tertulia covers the following topics: Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s new fascinating novel Volver la vista atrás, which inspired me to (re-)watch two movies: one of the classics of Colombian movie history, La estrategia del caracol, and a documentary about Spanish poet Antonio Machado, Los días azules.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Volver la vista atrás
The book recounts the life of Colombian filmmaker Sergio Cabrera (1950, Medellín) and his family who went into exile after the fall of Barcelona during the Spanish civil war. After stops in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the family settles in Colombia. Later on, they spent several years in Maoist China before they return to Colombia again in order to join a guerrilla movement. The book is more than a family chronicle that purports to be a novel. It is a thorough review of how political enthusiasm turned into violent militancy in the 20th century.
The novel switches between the family experiences of the past and a few days in October 2016 when Sergio Cabrera was attending a retrospective of his cinematic work in Barcelona. The death of Cabrera’s father in Bogotá during this stay activates his memories of the family’s eventful history during the last century. However, nostalgia is not the only motivation to remember. In order to establish a better relationship with his estranged son Raúl from a previous marriage who accompanies him in Barcelona, Sergio starts to recapture the events of the past.
The 475-page book is a fantastic page turner. If I haven’t finished the novel yet it is because I still have a backlog at work due to my accident. Besides, I don’t want it to end. I love Vásquez’s clear and precise narrative style and the dynamic rhythm of his language. He writes this novel as if the whole story were meant to be the blueprint of a movie: many dialogues give immersive access to what people think, do and how they evolve. Then again we gain reflective insights from a distanced perspective that help us keep the overview. In one interview, Vásquez mentions, that as a matter of fact they wanted to use Cabrera’s memories for a movie, but due to several «imponderabilities» - probably the high cost of a filmed family saga that takes place in three continents - he decided to turn his records into a novel. Well, maybe Sergio Cabrera himself will come back to the original idea and transform the novel into a series.
If you wish to learn more about the author, the story, and the protagonists of the story, I recommend this detailed and insightful interview with both Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Sergio Cabrera.
A good book is always more than a book because it creates allusions and references to other cultural artefacts. This is one aim that Volver la vista atrás reaches with ease.
In the following, I have randomly picked two prominent intertextual references from the novel to illustrate how well the book is embedded in its web of cultural contexts.
Colombian cinema: La estrategia del caracol
Sergio Cabrera is not any filmmaker. He is the director and producer of one of Colombia’s best-known movies, La estrategia del caracol (1993, The strategy of the snail). The film shows how the modest residents of an occupied building in a central neighborhood of Bogotá unite to prevent their forced eviction and thereby unmask the corruption and greed of the rich. Sergio’s father Fausto, the leading figure of the Cabrera family in Volver la vista atrás, plays the Spanish Republican emigrant Don Jacinto in this movie. With a beard and hairdo that resembles Karl Marx, the anarchist convinces the other residents of his very peculiar strategy which will prevent them from losing their home. When asked about the brilliant performance of his father in this movie (Fausto, who was a pioneer of television in Colombia, played in many of his son’s movies), Sergio Cabrera remarks that it was easy for his father to deliver this type of performance because he was simply playing himself.
I had a very hard time with the movie when I watched it for the first time many years ago. The audio quality of the DVD, a friend of mine had brought from Medellín, was so low that I got desperate. I thought my Spanish was too bad to follow the storyline. Anyway, I quickly found out that I couldn’t understand because it was a low-quality pirate copy filmed directly from TV. Nowadays, you can watch the movie in excellent quality on YouTube for free (even with added English subtitles).
Todo un clásico. The film is very funny and playful, very recommendable. I am not sure it is the best Colombian film of all times, but in my point of view it is the most Colombian film of all times ;).
The poet of the Spanish Republic: Antonio Machado in Los días azules
The title of Vásquez’s novel is taken from one of Antonio Machado’s most popular poems «Caminante, no hay camino» (translation: «Traveler, your footprints»)
Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.
(1912, from «Proverbios y cantares», Poem # XXIX, en Campos de Castilla)
Vásquez quotes verses 5-8 (in bold letters) on page 62 of the novel. Fausto recites the poem during a performance at Bogota’s Teatro Colón.
I tried to look up the original 1912 edition of Campos de Castilla and found a digital copy in the virtual library of Andalusia. Guess, what? The edition is not complete: The page with poem XXIX is missing! Somebody must have torn the page out from the physical book because they loved the poem so much or wanted to share it with somebody they loved <3.
Shortly after I had read this scene about Fausto becoming Machado when he recites the poem, a link to a new documentary about Machado popped up in my twitter timeline. My associative mind began to work, I bookmarked the link and watched the doc in the evening (thanks to the Instituto Cervantes, it was free at that moment of time). Laura Hojman’s documentary empathetically blends interviews, drawings, readings of Machado’s poems and landscape pictures to follow the tracks of his life and works. «Estos días azules y este sol de la infancia» («These blue days and this sun of my childhood») were the last verses the poet wrote in his French exile, shortly before he died on February 22nd, 1939.
You can rent or buy the documentary on Vimeo. The trailer is also available on YouTube:
This is all for this week. Let me know what you think about my readings and musings. I’ll be back with new topics on May 19th.