Other portraits of solitude

Other portraits of solitude

Consider this: you arrive in a new city, a different country, a different part of the world. You attempt to understand it in a few days, write about it, condense it. You want to build a bridge and cross it at the same time, though culture and history can keep you apart. You want to enjoy the heath, the tropics. But you also want to be lucid about the plight of its people.
Foto: Stephen Ferry/FNPI.
Susana Moreira

Foto: Stephen Ferry.

Susana Moreira Marques traveled to the Caribbean coast of Colombia as a fellow of the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation. She traveled through the territory of 100 Years of Solitude 50 years after its publication. This is her resulting essay.  See more images of this work

Consider this: you arrive in a new city, a different country, a different part of the world. You attempt to understand it in a few days, write about it, condense it. You want to build a bridge and cross it at the same time, though culture and history can keep you apart. You want to enjoy the heath, the tropics. But you also want to be lucid about the plight of its people.

Consider that you come with a novel as your only guide and that a novel can shed light but also induce you to error. You come taken by the hand of a dead writer who in afterlife is still able to convey the dread and beauty of carrying an heritage, both as an individual and a collective.

You want to find a starting point to understand how hundred years turn into another hundred years and another hundred, and human nature keeps oddly recognizable.

*

The square (la ciudad):

Plaza de los Coches is as good as any place in the historical centre of Cartagena de Indias to start speaking about legacies and the strange mechanics of the passing of time.

On one side of the square there is the Clock Tower, the Colombian Big Ben, on another old, beautiful, well-kept colonial style buildings, painted in tones of yellow, and red.

It's hard to keep track of all the names given to the square through the centuries: Plaza del Juez, after the judge who condemned and replaced Pedro de Heredia, the city founder; Plaza del Esclavo, after the market of African slaves; Plaza de la Hierba, after the market of food for horses, donkeys and other animals; Plaza del Puente, after the passage over water connecting to the area of Bocagrande; Plaza del Rollo, after the column where announcements were put up for the population to see: mostly lists of the accused by the Inquisition and lists of slaves - men, women and children - up for auction.

There is a constant movement of tourists and passers-by in the square. Street vendors - usually black men - coming from distant suburbs, sell hats, sunglasses, traditional crafted bags. They push carts selling ice cream or freshly squeezed fruit juice. Black women dress up in exotic, colorful, long dresses to sell bananas, mangos or pineapples, balancing the baskets of fruit on their heads. Men hold pictures of bright beaches - las islas, they shout -  selling day trips.

At nightfall, all kinds of people sit outside for a beer, at Donde Fidel, listening to loud salsa music. Prostitutes - usually black women - wait against an ancient wall. The movement continues through the night with musicians playing drums and voices singing. In the silent moments, the sound of the horses hooves hitting the ground, pushing old-style carriages, is audible, giving an impression of being in another time.

Plaza de los Coches is as good as any square testimony of the transitions of power to think about how colonialism and racism shapes a city and its people.

*

Because you look for images that confirm your suspicions, you find them: for example, leaving the city into the country side, the fragile structures built by fishermen in the middle of the water, each set a bit apart from the other. A man might not be an island but he certainly spends a life building an island for himself; his own room, his own world, whether he's a writer or a fisherman.

The image of solitude is also the image of persistence and independence. And, of course, creativity.

*

The square (el pueblo):

Like in all small towns, there is one square in Aracataca, the home town of Gabriel García Márquez, and that is where life revolves around. There is a church, shops, bars and street sellers in the corners. In the centre of the square there is a round old structure that seems to serve no purpose other than for kids to run around it.

A screen and chairs are set in front of the church for the projection of a film written by Gabriel García Márquez.

Middle aged women came with their best clothes. Young women have dressed up their children. Old men sit down concentrated. Young men wonder around the square, a beer in hand.

Two little girls, wearing matching bows in their heads, play with each other, clapping their hands and singing, as the film starts. A little boy rubs his head, sleepy, against his sister back. The girl wears roller skaters. She smiles at me. Some time later she rolls her skates to the chair next to me to ask me where I'm from and to tell me she'd like to see faraway places.

One of the quiet men standing on the sides must be a writer. I was told the town is full of writers, everyone of them hoping to be the next Colombian Nobel, throwing lucky words like lottery tickets.

Aracata might have been Macondo, one day, but it has now grown into Aracataca.

*

You look for fiction and find facts; you look for fantasy and find detailed history.

Aureliano Buendía, the coronel who remembers seeing ice for the first time with his father while waiting to be killed by a firing squad at the start of 100 Years of Solitude, closely resembles historical leaders of guerrillas and armed groups, men entrenched in fighting, stubborn in the face of defeat, sick with the power of leading other men into slaughter or being slaughtered, instigating both awe and fear, confident, paranoid, obsessed men; and some of them - the case of Manuel Marulanda Vélez, founder of the FARC - even got to die, like Aureliano Buendía, a guiltless, natural death.

You find out that words can accurately convey the absurd imagination of violence and you also find out how words can render it bearable.

*

Dictionary of killing:

Corte de corbata: they cut your throat horizontally and pull your tongue out like a tie hanging off your neck. 

Picar para tamal: they cut your body piece by piece while you are alive. This has the advantage of making it easier to bury you since your body will occupy a smaller hole in the ground. 

corte frances: they cut the top of your scalp while you are alive.

bocachiquiar: they puncture your body in several places and wait for you to bleed to death.

Corte floreo: they mutilate your members and then attach them again to your torso like petals of a flower.

Also, see: simple beheadings, hangings, crucifixion, death by burning, death by beating. 

The lessons of La Violencia - the conflict between Conservatives and Liberals, from the late 40s to the early 60s - were later perfected by the paramilitares and the FARC guerrilla. In total: almost 70 years of conflict, approximately half a million dead, around 7 million people displaced.

*

100 years in a life:

Jorge Leal Molina's grandmother came from Spain, from a village no one remembers the name anymore, in the beginning of the 20th century. She married a Colombian man and stayed in Colombia until her death. Jorge's father started working at the banana plantation, owned by the United Food Company, when he was a young man. It was a powerful company. Jorge's father would later describe it as an octopus, one harm producing bananas, another, reaching Africa, mining for diamonds, and so on, spreading throughout the world. 

Jorge's father married a young woman from a nearby district. She had seven pregnancies, two abortions: all males. Jorge was the second in line and from his mother inherited only her green eyes and a kind disposition. She was a big, strong woman, stronger than her husband, and became the man of the house. It was she who would be in charge of the farm they would own later. She could carry heavy bags of coffee beans by herself. He would manage the money and consider new investments. He was a homely man. She was social and a giver; she liked people and would later become involved in politics, a move that would eventually lead to her death in her late 50s.

Jorge grew up in the compound of the Company: ten thousand hectares ruled by a small group of managers and engineers from the United States. A deployment from the army would constantly watch and maintain the safety of its grounds. As a kid, Jorge and his brothers would play with the American children. They would dress up for Halloween with costumes unsuitable for tropical weather. They learned baseball and badminton. It was a different country, neither Colombia nor the United States, and a country with its own rule of law, the basis of which was the power of the few over the many. The memory of the killing of tens of workers during the 1928 strike was still fresh.

Jorge's father had bought the family house from a manager who was leaving, and it was in this house that he was born and grew up and in this house he would learn of his mother's assassination. 

Jorge left the compound, the village of Sevilla, the 'Bananera' Zone, the Caribbean coast and, eventually, Colombia. He lived in Spain, in the northern part where summers are cold. He had just returned home, and was living temporarily in the same old house, planning to return to Spain, when the assassinations happened. First the people in the village heard, and people in the farms around, and they were the last to find out. Someone called on his father at dawn.

Jorge found his mother dead not far from a road, with a bullet in her chest, another in a leg. A few meters away, lay his brother, who had been shot in the back of the head. The family pieced together how the FARC had kidnapped a relative of a worker his mother trusted, and he had killed her.

It had been a long time since the American families had left the compound, being transferred to other plantations or going home, and the loss of Jorge's mother reinforced the solitude of their life in the compound. Years later - having survived, without loosing his mind, the loss of his wife, his son, and part of their land, also taken by the guerilla - his father died. The other brothers left, except Hugo.

Jorge never returned to Spain. Never got married nor had children. He never resumed his life. He  takes care of the farm the family still owns. He became himself a local leader, focusing on helping other victims of violence and fighting for land restitution, some kind of justice.

He lives with Hugo in the house. Their rooms are far enough to give him sometimes the illusion of living on his own.

The centre of the house is a large living-room with broken armchairs, sofas with old-fashioned upholstery, old curtains drawn, beautiful collections of unused china set on the dinning table, books disintegrating, black and white pictures of the family on the wall. They never use the living-room and keep it in the hope of visitors, dreaming of a museum.

Outside, the house is surrounded by ruins and the intense lush green of the unkempt grounds.

*

You don't believe in ghosts but you fear them; you believe in preserving memory but fear being lost in your own time.

*

"This is true Macondo", says the man holding a machete in his hand. "Here. True Macondo". Behind him, his wife sweeps fallen leaves. 

Macondo is near the banana plantation. It's a short drive away, parallel to the train tracks. It has two streets and a school. The houses are close to each other, in a straight row, and each has a bird cage hanging outside. A house like the others seem to serve as the church: on the wall there's a paper with a quotation from the bible referring to how words will judge the ones who don't listen, in John 12:48, written by hand. The streets aren't paved. The caged birds sing constantly.

Time doesn't seem to play a role here. There seems to be no past neither a future; only a present repeating itself.

In the small village called Macondo - the same name as the fictional village of 100 Years of Solitude, though it's hard to say how much García Márquez knew about this place - people come to their doors to watch me as much as I watch them. Kids follow me and other outsiders as if we were García Márquez' gypsies, bringing the latest wonders and tricks from afar.

During the bus trip, I see other tiny villages like this, perched on the road, only slightly different from each other, like frames of a picture shaming a nation.

*

Green, the fan like leaves of banana trees, green, the road cutting straight across the landscape surrounded by the Sierra Nevada where up there, somewhere, rows of tourists dressed in khaki, wearing expensive trekking shoes, try to reach ciudad perdida, the 'lost city', to contemplate the loss of a civilization.

 

*

You're not an explorer. You miss home. You don't like tropical climates. You're not strong. You're not brave. Yet you want to stay, feeling the pull of tragedy and the possibility of redemption; and of the ignorance of plants and the science of different and hurt bodies.

*

Approaching back the city, the road runs close to the water: the Caribe looking like a vast field, only slightly agitated by the wind and the tides.

The sea goes on.

*

A life, a personal dictionary:

Horror: the face of Neryle (as described by herself), aged 5, waking up to see that the dead bodies are still on display in the village square, in front of her window.

Silence: the face of Neryle, aged 7, looking up from her bed in the dark to her father hiding, between the ceiling and the mezzanine of their large house, from the armed men.

Sorrow: the face of Neryle, shortly after arriving in the city, one more displaced child of one more displaced family, understanding that life doesn't often improve.

Hunger: the face of Neryle, drinking water to go to bed with a full stomach.

Humiliation: the face of Neryle, as a neighbour denies her food, and another sheds her children from her.

Longing: the face of Neryle, thinking back to the large house and the farm and the pure air, memories easily confused with abundance and trust.

Anger: the face of Neryle, kicking and screaming and hitting school mates.

Friendship: the face of Neryle, realizing one girl had broken through her solitude.

Power: the face of Neryle, aged 9, deciding to take matters into her own hands; she takes a bus, alone, and goes back to her village.

Resignation: the face of Neryle, as she returns to the city and her worried parents, knowing exactly where she belongs.

Love: the face of Neryle, when one boy approaches her kindly.

Confusion: the face of Neryle, giving birth, aged 15.

Maternal love: the face of Neryle, watching as her child starts making difficult choices. 

Identity: the face of Neryle, being singled out by a teacher at university for being poor, black, a girl, from the countryside.

Awareness: the face of Neryle, as she discovers that she's not alone and there are so many others to be kind to.

Usefulness: the face of Neryle, keeping the kids in her neighbourhood busy throughout the weekends, so they have more hope to hold on to. 

Achievement: the face of Neryle, when she remembers without crying.

Strength: the face of Neryle (as as she tells me of her life in the cloister of Cartagena's University), explaining that tragedy can unite a family, and that people can become invincible in their small unity.

Joy: the face of Neryle (as I imagine her, elsewhere), dancing with a man she does not tell me about, in an open-air dance, decorated with street garlands.

*

You look for differences and find similarities. You look for the past and find the future.

You think of the words of Melquíades, the gypsy character of 100 Years of Solitude, part scientist, part philosopher and part wizard, prophesying that one day everyone, from their home, would know what's happening in distant homes. Though what responsibility comes with that power remains unknown.

*

You can see the tricks of the writer. You have indentified the patterns, the repetitions; a name inheriting a past name, a face resembling a past face, the storyline closing in on a character, on you. Still, the most spectacular trick is that the writer makes you hope for the best; and for more time.

*

Though you believe in writing as an act against disappearance, you will never know why some things are chosen to be kept with words and others not.

This could be the last image saved from the trip: A woman carries her little girl and gently tells her off. A man looks absent standing by an open door. It's the middle of the afternoon and the neighborhood is quiet. There's a loud sound of a TV reaching the street: a telenovela. The woman who carries the toddler stops walking, puts the child down, the child complains, the mother picks her up again. All the flowers have blossomed in the street. Perhaps they are always like this, eternally blossomed.

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