When you think of Colombian literature, you probably think of Gabriel García Márquez — he is, after all, probably the best-known Latin American novelist of our time. But amazing Colombian authors continue to fill pages with everything from magical realism to the not-so-magical realism of their country’s crime and tragedy.
In the years following García Márquez’s main reign, the country saw a surge in a “literature of violence, [which] had nothing to do with other literary movements at the time,” explains Dr. Ángela Inés Robledo, who specializes in contemporary Latin American literature at the National University of Colombia. Some of these books take Colombian violence as their main subject, and others make that history sit quietly in the back seat. But all explore the way the individual mind can break down in the midst of overwhelming outside pressures.
Carolina Sanín’s The Children
2014, trans. Nick Caistor 2017
Published in English a couple of months ago, this slim book tells the pseudo horror story of a woman whose life is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a 6-year-old boy on her doorstep. Later, the boy’s visions make the story even more surreal. Sanín’s language is tough and snide, but always quietly compassionate. Through her story, you’ll learn about more than just the strange ways of human care; very real aspects of today’s Bogotá constantly poke through the ghostly fabric of her story.
Laura Restrepo’s Delirium
2004, trans. Natasha Wimmer 2007
Winner of the prestigious Premio Alfaguara de Novela, Delirium is a detective story in which the culprit is the cause of one woman’s sudden madness. Restrepo and Wimmer move nimbly among four narrators: the unhinged Augustina, her husband, her rambunctious Escobar-affiliated ex and her long-lost aunt. Augustina’s insanity may be at the center of the book, but madness is hidden in every corner — and the ways of the cocaine-ruled 1980s Colombia permeates all.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling
2011, trans. Anne McLean 2012
If you want a full-fledged fictional exploration of Colombia’s drug trade, this New York Times best-selling noir novel should be your first stop. Like the previous two titles, the concept of losing one’s mind is never far off — here, though, the madness of the world is more palpable than the madness of any one character. After condemning the act of remembering, the narrator embarks on a time-traveling exploration of another man’s life. The prose moves quickly, and sentence-long details feel thick and colorful as full books.
Evelio Rosero’s The Armies
2007, trans. Anne McLean 2009
In The Armies, we see the horrific effects of Colombia’s sociopolitical plights on a single small town — and on the single mind of 70-year-old man, Ismael. It’s a slim book, but tragedies abound in its pages. Rosero pays attention to the subtle and simple details that we often take for granted, making parts of this book feel like a gory scene depicted pointillism-style with party balloons. As Ismael begins to lose hold of reality, the prose gets more and more complicated, but it never loses its ebullient (or manic) energy.
Robledo thinks it’s high time to move on from the focus on violence in the country’s literature. Author Sanín agrees, saying that the “current sociopolitical landscape plays too big a role in the themes and plots of [contemporary] Colombian novels.” Her suggestion? Writers need to avoid “writing about the themes and models that the First World has imposed on the Third World, and about which the First World wants to read.” In other words, the root of the problem is partially in America’s big hands — and what better way to start loosening that grip than by listening to some of these contemporary Colombian voices.