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The Best Colombian Novels

recommended by Pilar Quintana

Abyss by Pilar Quintana

English translation out this week

Abyss
by Pilar Quintana

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Colombian novels shot to international prominence after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, which told the story of his small, Colombian hometown by mixing in fantastical elements. The novel spoke to readers around the globe and García Márquez would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Here, contemporary Colombian novelist Pilar Quintana introduces us to the works of this 'genius' as well as some of the other great novels of Colombian literature.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Abyss by Pilar Quintana

English translation out this week

Abyss
by Pilar Quintana

Read
Buy all books

For people who maybe haven’t read any—or maybe only read one—could you start by telling us a bit about Colombian novels in general? What’s distinctive about Colombian literature?

We have a genius, Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014), and he happened to write classics not just of Spanish literature or literature in Spanish but of world literature. I think that’s huge. It really amazes me that a person from a tiny town in the Caribbean area, which is not the most developed in the country, was able to accomplish this huge achievement. Cien años de soledad is a great novel like Don Quijote de la Mancha. It’s that big. García Márquez also wrote El amor en los tiempos del cólera, Crónica de una muerte anunciada and El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, which are all big novels. It got very difficult to be a writer in Colombia after him because the whole world was looking to Latin American literature—and especially Colombian literature—and you couldn’t get there. It was just too much.

There was a generation of writers who were writing magical realism—because that was expected from us writers from Latin America and from Colombia—and felt they didn’t have a space in literature, that they were overshadowed by this genius. It was very difficult for that great generation of men and women who wrote. But I think it has changed. Little by little. My generation, I don’t think we feel overshadowed anymore. Time has gone by, and we recognize the genius in him. He is a literary father to us, but he is more like our grandfather, and you don’t have the need to kill your grandfather. You have the need to kill your father, but not your grandfather. So I think that that has been liberating.

Our greatest classic of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a fantasy novel. But when you go to libraries, you never see it in the fantasy section. They put it in the section of Latin American literature, or of classic literature or of Nobel Prize literature. But it is a fantasy, and it is surprising that Colombian literature has been very conventional and not risky. It has been mostly realistic literature and literature that talks about our history, our violence, our struggles as a nation. It hasn’t explored genres like fantasy fully. And I think that also started changing a few years back, when there was a surge in small, independent publishing houses. They weren’t publishing the big names, just new writers, and they were looking to the regions, to different genres. Colombian literature nowadays is much more diverse. You can find science fiction, fantasy books, realistic novels, short story collections. It was more difficult to find those kinds of books before. So that’s been great.

And how do your novels fit into that story you’ve just told of contemporary Colombian literature?

When I was a young writer, Bogotá was ‘Capital Mundial del Libro’ or World Book Capital and I was invited by Hay Festival to be part of a group called Bogotá39. We were 39 writers under the age of 39. They wanted to say, ‘Here are some promising young writers.’ They asked me, ‘What’s your literature about? And I said, ‘I have no idea! I’ve only written two books.’ But what we all seemed to have in common was that we were from big cities, not from the countryside, so they said we were writing urban literature. So I was convinced that that’s what I was writing. But then my books became more and more about the jungle. My third book was set in a huge building complex, but most of the action in the novel took place in a small jungle on top of one of the buildings. My literature started having more and more nature in it. Like in The Bitch or in Abyss, which is coming out now. I think it was a myth that my generation was writing books about cities that happened only in cities, because it’s not only me, but many other writers are writing books that happen in the Colombian countryside, in the mountains, on the beaches, in the jungle, on farms.

That’s a nice introduction. Let’s turn to the novels you’re recommending. You’ve already mentioned One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, which came out in 1967. I think most people who enjoy novels have probably read it, it was very much a book everyone read when I was a student in the early 1990s. I was reading it again last week and wondering how much you miss if you’re not Colombian. What’s the book about, would you say?

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a saga. It’s the story of a family, from the couple that had the first kids to the end of the family, which is also the end of times. When you read reviews of One Hundred Years of Solitude, they’ll say it’s the story of Latin America—and perhaps it is. But, essentially, it’s the story of a town from when it is founded until it finishes its history.

Do you feel it’s based on García Márquez’s personal experience?

That’s what he says, and I’ve wondered many times how much is based on his own story and how much it is embellished. We all grew up hearing stories of ghosts and fantastic stories about things that happen in the countryside. For us, it’s just anecdotes, but he takes those and makes literature out of them. I remember when my book, The Bitch, came out in France, I was surprised to read in a review, that it was a book of magical realism like Gabriel García Márquez. I was like, ‘What? I’m very realistic in my writing!’ But there is an indigenous doctor in the book, what I think you call a witch doctor in Europe. For us, it’s not that I go to witch doctors. But, in the countryside, every day people go to witch doctors, because they don’t have hospitals, and that’s the only healthcare they can get. That’s regular, everyday life. It’s reality. I’m not making it up.

Also, in Abyss, isn’t there a jungle inside the apartment where they live?

There is, but that’s also reality. I was born in Cali, which is a hot weather city here in Colombia. We don’t have seasons—or we have two seasons, which are the wet season and the wettest season. We have dry spells, but mostly we have rain. It’s raining all the time. In Cali, I lived very near my school and my classmates would say, ‘Let’s go to the jungle.’ The jungle was my apartment because my mother had so many plants there that you felt you were in the jungle. And that’s not particular to my mother. It’s not weird. In Cali, many people live in their apartments with their windows open and lots of plants. You see birds everywhere. I remember reading in a bird guide that a person birdwatching in Canada for a whole day would see the same number of species that a person in Cali will see in 15 minutes waiting for the bus. That’s our reality. Nature is all around. Perhaps what is characteristic of me is that I note it. Some Colombian writers do not write about it because it is so obvious that you take it for granted and you don’t see it.

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Let’s go on to the next novel that you’ve recommended. This is the second of two books by Gabriel García Márquez that you’ve chosen for your list. It’s called Chronicle of a Death Foretold and was published in 1982, the year he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Why have you chosen this particular book by him as another of your best Colombian novels?

I could have chosen the five books all by him because he was a genius! But I also had to talk about other Colombian writers. Crónica de una muerte anunciada is my favorite book by Gabriel García Márquez. I just love it. I read it when I was 13 or 14. It’s a book that as soon as I finished it I started reading again, and again, and again. I was obsessed with it. It truly made me want to become a writer. I said, ‘I want to write a book one day that will obsess a person like this book obsessed me.’

Since then, I’ve read it many, many times. I teach it in my workshops, I work with it. It’s a perfect novel. Every creative writing lesson that you want to give is in there: the narrator, the narrative times, the universe, the character development. I just loved it. And it’s a short novel, which is a very difficult genre. A big novel, you can sometimes write a vague paragraph, or a sentence that doesn’t quite work. But with a short novel, as with a short story, the whole thing has to be good.

Looking at all the books on this list, as well as your books, in preparation for speaking with you, one of the things that came out of them was the nature, which you already mentioned. But there is also quite a bit of violence, especially in this one, which is about a murder. Would you say that violence is an aspect of the literature of Colombia, as well?

It is. Also, just like sometimes we can’t see nature because it’s everywhere, the same happens with violence. I used to be married to an Irish man. We arrived to live in Colombia and there were problems at the university that’s very near to my mother’s house where we were staying. He was Irish: he knew about bombs and violence, and the dangers of growing up in a country that’s torn by war. But there were these explosions, and he asked me, ‘What are those noises that I hear?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, those are bombs.’ And he said, ‘Bombs? Where?’ and I replied, ‘At the university.’ He asked, ‘Are engineering students doing experiments?’ And I replied, ‘No, the students are fighting the police.’ And he was astonished at how everyone carried on with their life as if nothing was happening.

Violence is so ingrained in our daily life, that it’s also a big part of our literature. We have many stories about violence. Since my books have been getting published outside of Colombia—and especially in other languages—I’ve been asked why I don’t write about the war. I do not talk about the Colombian war in my books but I do look at other types of violence, perhaps more subtle types of violence that happen in our everyday lives, but we don’t notice them or we don’t talk about them because there is such bloody violence out there from the war that that’s the focus of all our attention.

And in terms of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the man is murdered because of these strange honour codes?

Yes, he slept with a virgin who was going to marry another guy. She gets discovered because when she gets married, her husband finds out she’s not a virgin. Her new husband takes her back to her home and says, ‘Thank you, I don’t want this lady. She’s of no use to me, because she’s not a virgin.’ They look for who to blame for deflowering her and her brothers kill him.

This is not a story about modern Colombia, I hope?

This is a story from the past, in a small town. This is not modern Colombia. But there is lots of violence against women in this country. It was evident before, but it became even more evident with the pandemic. The struggle is there and it’s real. You can read Crónica de una muerte anunciada and feel it’s not that old because it’s still happening in some ways. Not like that. Women, perhaps, are not sent back to their homes if they marry and turn out not be virgins. But there’s lots of violence against women. The unsafest place for a woman in Colombia is in her own home. So that’s a problem.

Let’s turn to the next novel you’ve chosen, which I wasn’t able to find here in Oxford, either in Spanish or English. It’s called Una holandesa en América (1888) and it’s by the 19th-century Colombian author, Soledad Acosta de Samper. Tell me this book and why you’ve chosen it.

The Colombian classic of the Romantic era is María (1867) by Jorge Isaacs. It’s an extraordinary novel which we all read in high school, because it’s obligatory to read it. It was really good for me to read it. But, in those days, writers were building their ideal of a nation. What is the ideal man? What is the ideal woman? In Jorge Isaacs’s novel, the heroine is a silly girl. She doesn’t read. She’s proud because she only reads the book of prayers. She doesn’t disobey. As you’re growing up, that’s the model of the woman that they tell you is the ideal woman.

But then I read Una holandesa en América by Soledad Acosta de Samper, which was written around the same time and set in the same era. It’s about a girl who reads and is clever. She doesn’t want to marry just because. She’s 27, so already a spinster (in those days) and a lady says to her, ‘Look, that widower over there, he wants to marry you.’ And she says, ‘Oh, no, he’s an old guy. I don’t want to marry him.’ And the woman replies, ‘You can’t aspire to a better man than that.’ And she says ‘Then I won’t marry and I will keep working on my farm. I’m happy as I am.’ I would have liked to read this novel in high school. It’s a great novel. I think it’s unfair that it’s not obligatory to read it, just like María. I think high schoolers should read both novels and see both sides of the story. For many years, we have privileged the voice of men, of male writers in Colombia, and only now are we looking back into our literature and finding other voices. This is another voice.

Why is the title about a Dutch woman in America?

She’s a little Dutch girl and her parents emigrate to Colombia. She lived in Holland and her parents have a farm in Colombia. When she is older, she travels in a boat to America and tells it from her point of view. That’s also interesting. In Jorge Isaacs’s book, María, Colombia is like a paradise and everything’s good. We know from the history books that it was not, that there was war. Soledad Acosta de Samper writes about that war. I was reading it during the pandemic in Colombia, when there was social unrest. Reading it, I felt that the country hadn’t changed that much. We still have the same social unrest for the same reasons and it’s having the same effects on our daily lives.

Let’s go on to the next book, La vorágine (1924) by José Eustasio Rivera. Tell me about this book and why you picked it. Is it translated into English as The Vortex?

Yes, it is. It’s another one of our classics. It’s a fantastic book. It’s about a lady and a man who run away. First, they go to the Llanos Orientales, a place in the centre of Colombia which is huge and wild. They end up disappearing into the jungle and getting swallowed up by it. It’s an adventure novel, but it’s also about the struggle of the indigenous people during the Amazon rubber boom. It’s a very painful novel, because it tells us how the indigenous peoples of those areas of Colombia became slaves during the rubber boom.

Is it a work of magical realism? Was there a tradition of magical realism before Gabriel García Márquez came along?

No, not in Colombian literature, but there’s Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) from Cuba. When you read Carpentier, you can find the roots of what García Márquez wrote later. You can also read William Faulkner and you find it there as well. García Márquez is taking what others did before him to develop his magical realism.

La vorágine is very realistic. What I like most about the book is its description of Colombian nature—of the jungle, the skies, the rivers—which is very important to me as a writer. Along with Jorge Isaacs, the author of María, he was a master at this. They were important teachers for me in how to write about the nature that surrounds me. They notice it. They were able to see the nature around them with the eyes of a foreigner, which is to be amazed by it.

Was this novel also a work of reportage? Was he trying to make people aware of what was going on in the rubber plantations?

He did travel and I think that was one of his intentions but, mostly, I think he needed to tell this story. It’s the story of a man who is running away from the life that he has to live and looking for his own destiny. He’s not a good man. He’s an outcast and a renegade. I like it also because of that: it’s a dark, dark novel, set in a dark place with a dark character, who is not a hero. He’s an anti-hero. But when he sees the reality of those people suffering, he starts changing.

Let’s go on to the last novel you’ve chosen which is more recent. This is En diciembre llegaban las brisas (December Breeze in English) by Marvel Moreno. 

I recommend this book to you very, very much. It’s just been translated into English. It’s by Marvel Moreno (1939-1995), a writer who wasn’t allowed to get known because she lived in a society that forbade women to be intellectuals and to be in the public arena. This book has had a long struggle to get read. People are reading it now and they’re recognizing its value. It’s a huge, big novel, like a Dostoyevsky or a Tolstoy, that wants to tell everything, that wants to tell the world.

It’s the story of several women in Barranquilla, which is a big port on the Caribbean coast. It’s a very small society, of people who think they are almost from the nobility. They’re very conservative. It’s set in the 1950 and 60s and tells the story of women there. It’s a very brave novel, because in those days—and even nowadays, even in my time—we were told that women do not have sexual desires, and that if you happen to have such desire then you do not talk about it and you do not show it. This book talks about women desiring and women being sexual creatures and women living their sexuality, sometimes in a liberating way, but sometimes also being abused by men. It makes for a very painful but, unfortunately, realistic portrayal of the lives of women in those days.

Is it quite long?

It’s a long novel, but it’s a novel you devour. You want the day to finish so you can get home and read. It’s that kind of novel. She has great prose. She’s a big writer. Like Tolstoy, you feel you’re reading a classic because it’s so elaborate.

Tolstoy is telling the story of Russia, in a way. Is she telling the story of Colombia?

It’s the story of Barranquilla, but from the point of view of women. That’s what’s amazing about it. We know the history told by men. She’s telling it from the point of view of women and it’s a very different story. She’s very critical.

So is Marvel Moreno being recognized as a great writer of the 20th century? Are she and Soledad Acosta de Samper on the syllabus these days? Are their books being read in schools now, or not so much?

No, they’re not on the syllabus but there are teachers, from a younger generation, who are saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to read them. It’s not on the syllabus but we’re going to read them because I want you to read these books.’

For the past three years, I’ve been working on a project with the Ministry of Culture in Colombia, which is called ‘Biblioteca de Escritoras Colombianas’ (‘Colombian women writers’ library’). We publish books by great Colombian female writers, books you cannot read because they are forgotten. I didn’t need to publish Marvel Moreno in this collection because she’s read nowadays. You can find her books in bookshops. Soledad Acosta de Samper I did have to publish in that collection, because her book is out there, but difficult to find. We were hoping to tell teachers, ‘She exists. She’s good. Read her.’

I hope people will also read your latest book, Abyss, which I’m really enjoying. Did you enjoy writing it?

Oh no, not at all. I don’t enjoy writing. I enjoy when I finish writing. It’s like running a marathon—I’ve run a half marathon—I enjoy it when I’m finished and when they give me my medal. I enjoy my books when they’re out there, when I can say ‘Oof I’ve finished, I don’t have to deal with this book anymore.’ I also enjoy planning a book. But the actual working on it every day and trying to get the sentences out? It’s a long and difficult process for me.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

February 7, 2023

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Pilar Quintana

Pilar Quintana

Pilar Quintana is a Colombian author. Her novel, The Bitch, won a PEN Translates award and the prestigious Biblioteca de Narrativa Colombiana Prize and was selected for several best books of 2017 lists. It was also chosen as one of the most valuable objects to preserve for future generations in a marble time capsule in Bogotá. Abyss, her latest novel, was awarded the Premio Alfaguara de Novela, a prestigious Spanish language award.

Pilar Quintana

Pilar Quintana

Pilar Quintana is a Colombian author. Her novel, The Bitch, won a PEN Translates award and the prestigious Biblioteca de Narrativa Colombiana Prize and was selected for several best books of 2017 lists. It was also chosen as one of the most valuable objects to preserve for future generations in a marble time capsule in Bogotá. Abyss, her latest novel, was awarded the Premio Alfaguara de Novela, a prestigious Spanish language award.