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The City and the Writer: In Bogotá with Gonzalo Márquez Cristo

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Bogotá as you feel/see it?

I have always believed that Bogotá is a city afflicted by rain, a troubled widow under the storm, a red city without a sky, and since I was a child I was faced with its most devious, and also its most feverish poetic possibilities. The Colombian capital is a city of 8 million people where chaos is opposed to a great life force that keeps you from succumbing. One graffiti emblematic of the seventies, written by an anonymous hand in a salsa bar said: “el país se derrumba y nosotros de rumba” (The country is falling apart and we are celebrating).But it is this playful and delirious state founded by the nocturnal exorcism of dance and celebration that collectively frees the harsh reality of a people who have not solved the most basic experiential problems. Bogotá, therefore, to many sensitive people, is a city built during the night and destroyed with the wound of dawn.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Working as a journalist in November 1985, I covered the developments on the ground when the M-19 guerrilla group took over the Palace of Justice. It ended with a bloody military response and more than a hundred dead and several disappeared. I remember the sound of the guns, since I was five blocks from the Plaza de Bolívar, which was where the military with the backing of then President Belisario Betancur, undertook the recapture of the building which ended in the massacre. Today, 25 years later, finally television images have been shown of guerrillas and civilians who came out of the Palace of Justice alive only, heinously, to be killed by the military in the days that followed. Despite all those who fight against “memoricide,” those responsible for that grim day have not been convicted.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Since the work of the great architect, Rogelio Salmona (1927-2007), who built the iconic Torres del Parque at the end of the sixties, where the use of exposed brick achieved its consecration, the color of the city began to change, and in just three decades it has become a red city, which its inhabitants barely notice submerged as they are in this familiar landscape. His most important designs such as the Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez and the Biblioteca Virgilio Barco aremasterworks—with their bare architectural technique, which has produced many imitators. They are simply majestic.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Antonio Caballero, Luis Fayad, Evelio Rosero and Mauricio Contreras Hernández, who in some of their works have pursued the same “spirit of place” with which Lawrence Durrell was obsessed while working on Alexandria and Avignon. This extraordinary English novelist declares in one of his texts that if Paris disappeared and were re-founded by the Cossacks or the Mongols a couple of centuries later, someone would write In Search of Lost Time. With this, I mean to say that, the landscape determines our dreams and sometimes shapes our existence.

Is there a place here you return to often?

When traveling by cable car to Monserrate, Bogotá, the guardian mountain, you can appreciate the city in all its dimensions and take heed of the voracity of its progress, the successes and failures of the giant hive that we have created without the least bit of precaution. From this towering height, I like to observe the path the sun uses—when wounded and in retreat—to escape. Also, I return frequently to the Quinta de Bolivar, the house where the Liberator loved his Manuelita, (Manuelita Sáenz was the mistress of Simon Bolivar, who freed what currently is Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, from the Spanish in the 19th century), and where you can rest beneath the same shade that covered him, offered by those beautiful, hundreds-of-years-old trees. I return to the Gold Museum where the refined technique of pre-Colombian artisans produced pieces that practically levitate. The colonial barrio of La Candelaria is filled with secret places challenging the flight of time—the Botero Museum, contains a hundred paintings by great artists which were part of the master's private collection of Antioquia and donated to Bogotá in the year 2000, like “Women of Gallant Life" by Paul Delvaux, among many others.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Silva's Poetry House, where the poet José Asunción, one of the pioneers of Modernism in 1896 committed suicide, shot in the heart. The Goce Pagano, the first salsa bar Bogotá had, and which, because of the marginal status of the music at the time, was frequented by prostitutes, thieves, and the rebel writers of the seventies and eighties.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

All cities have two faces, a visible one and another, invisible one, which is always the more dazzling. The work of the poet is to make visible the invisible. Sometimes I wonder if the work of the lover or of the mystic is not the opposite: making invisible the visible, since why else would the body of the beloved sometimes be made of smoke or mist?

Where does passion live here?

Every city is a hieroglyphic sign, an anagram of sensations, a maze of affection and love, and so memory dances in the city streets in an unpredictable way, attacking you in the street corners and theaters, embodied in bars in late hours—and that is where life seems to exist for a moment.

What is the title of one of your poems about Bogotá and what inspired it exactly?

“The Incandescent Shadow” is the title of a long poem I wrote to exorcise my hometown. This culminating text from my book, Dark Birth, begins with this chilling question: “Is it the rain or death?”

Inspired by Levi,“Outside Bogotá does an outside exist?”

It is absolutely certain that the city follows us everywhere, like a Cavafy poem; the only other place I can find to help decipher the ways of my blood, is beside that stateless and libertarian god called love, or in that lightning that makes me see paradise. In other words, yes, I do  think that there is another habitable space, and not just for me but for all desperate beings of the world, and that wandering city is by our side, too close, in an alternate world that few can access, called the Night.

Gonzalo Márquez Cristo is a poet, editor, and writer born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1963. He is the author of numerous books, most recently, the anthology, El legado del fuego (Caza de Libros, Ibagué, 2010). He is one of the founders of the cultural review, Común Presencia, and director and founder of the web magazine, Con-Fabulación. He was awarded by the Ministry of Culture the Premio Literaturas del Bicentenario in 2010.

NH’s Discovery of the Month: Colombia is one of my favorite places. So many of its cities seduce meBogotá, Medellín, Barranquilla, Cartagena. Their struggling souls are vibrant. And together, they write a story we haven’t read. A few months ago, I spent almost two weeks in Medellín. Fernando Rendón has created one of the most extraodinary and dynamic festivals in the world, the International Festival of Poetry. He deserves a salute. Every night a reading, in small or large venues, under the rain or indoors, always packed with people. People who come live in poetry. It’s sensational and rare.

I am heading to Usaquén, north of Bogotá next. Apparently on Sundays, locals come to hear cuenteros or storytellers on the steps near a church. It can draw up to a few hundred people. That reminds of the hakawatis, also storytellers, once very popular in the Arab world. In the meantime, I am totally immersed in the poems of Juan Manuel Roca, Andrea Cote, and Piedad Bonnett’s Los privilegios del olvido.

This October was extra special because the Poetry Society of America celebrated their 100th anniversary on October 12 in New York City—it was exquisite to be part of the evening, listening to poetry, and celebrating PSA.

Published Oct 18, 2010   Copyright 2010 Nathalie Handal

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