Category: Colombia

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The Solitude of Latin America

Posted by – April 19, 2014

Gabriel García Márquez’s Nobel Prize Lecture, 8 December 1982.

The Solitude of Latin America

Antonio Pigafetta, the Florentine navigator who accompanied Magellan on the
first circumnavigation around the world, kept a meticulous log of his
journey through our South American continent, which, nevertheless, also
seems to be an adventure into the imagination. He related that he had seen
pigs with their umbilicus on their backs and birds without feet, the female
of the species of which would brood their eggs on the backs of the males,
as well as others like gannets without tongues, whose beak looked like a
spoon. He wrote that he had seen a monstrosity of an animal with the head
and ears of a mule, the body of a camel, the hooves of a deer and the neigh
of a horse. He related they had put a mirror in front of the first native
they met in Patagonia and how that overexcited giant lost the use of his
reason out of fear of his own image.

This short and fascinating book, in which we can perceive the gems of our
contemporary novels, is not, by any means, the most surprising testimony of
our reality at that time. The Chroniclers of the Indies have left us
innumerable others. Eldorado, our illusory land which was much sought
after, appeared on numerous maps over a long period, changing in situation
and extent according to the whim of the cartographers. The mythical Álvar
Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, in search of the fount of Eternal Youth, spent eight
years exploring the north of Mexico in a crazy expedition whose members ate
one another; only five of the six hundred who set out returned home. One of
the many mysteries which was never unravelled is that of the eleven
thousand mules, each loaded with one hundred pounds weight of gold, which
left Cuzco one day to pay the ransom of Atahualpa and which never arrived
at their destination. Later on, during the colonial period, they used to
sell in Cartagena de India chickens raised on alluvial soils in whose
gizzards were found gold nuggets. This delirium for gold among our founding
fathers has been a bane upon us until very recent times. Why, only in the
last century, the German mission appointed to study the construction of a
railway line between the oceans across the Panamanian isthmus concluded
that the project was a viable one on the condition that the rails should be
not of iron, a scarce metal in the region, but of gold.

The independence from Spanish domination did not save us from this madness.
General Antonio López de Santana, thrice dictator of Mexico, had the right
leg he lost in the so-called War of the Cakes buried with all funeral pomp.
General García Moreno governed Ecuador for sixteen years as an absolute
monarch and his dead body, dressed in full-dress uniform and his cuirass
with its medals, sat in state upon the presidential throne. General
Maximilian Hernández Martínez, the theosophical despot of El Salvador who
had thirty thousand peasants exterminated in a savage orgy of killing,
invented a pendulum to discover whether food was poisoned, and had the
street lamps covered with red paper to combat an epidemic of scarlet fever.
The monument to General Francisco Morazan, raised up in the main square of
Tegucigalpa is, in reality, a statue of Marshal Ney which was bought in
repository of second-hand statues in Paris.

Eleven years ago, one of the outstanding poets of our time, Pablo Neruda
from Chile, brought light to this very chamber with his words. In the
European mind, in those of good – and often those of bad – consciences, we
witness, on a forceful scale never seen before, the eruption of an
awareness of the phantoms of Latin America, that great homeland of deluded
men and historic women, whose infinite stubbornness is confused with
legend. We have not had a moment of serenity. A Promethean president
embattled in a palace in flames died fighting single-handedly against an
army, and two air disasters which occurred under suspicious circumstances,
circumstances which were never clarified, cut off the life of another of
generous nature and that of a democratic soldier who had restored the
dignity of his nation. There have been five wars and seventeen ‘coups
d’etat’ and the rise of a devilish dictator who, in the name of God,
accomplished the first genocide in Latin America in our time. Meanwhile,
twenty million Latin American children died before their second birthday,
which is more than all those born in Europe since 1970. Nearly one hundred
and twenty thousand have disappeared as a consequence of repression, which
is as if, today, no one knew where all the inhabitants of Uppsala were.
Many women arrested during pregnancy gave birth in Argentine prisons, but,
still, where or who their children are is not known; either they were
passed into secret adoption or interned in orphanages by the military
authorities. So that things should not continue thus, two hundred thousand
men and women have given up their lives over the continent, and more than
one hundred thousand in three, tiny wilful countries in Central America:
Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. Were this to happen in the United
States, the proportionate ratio would be one million six hundred thousand
violent deaths in four years. A million people have fled from Chile, a
country noted for its tradition of hospitality: that is, ten per cent of
its population. Uruguay, a tiny nation of two and a half million
inhabitants, a nation which considered itself one of the most civilized
countries of the continent, has lost one in five of its citizens into
exile. The civil war in El Salvador has created, since 1979, virtually one
refugee every twenty minutes. A country created from all these Latin
Americans either in exile or in enforced emigration would have a larger
population than Norway.

I dare to believe that it is this highly unusual state of affairs, and not
only its literary expression, which, this year, has merited the attention
of the Swedish Literary Academy: a reality which is not one on paper but
which lives in us and determines each moment of our countless daily deaths,
one which constantly replenishes an insatiable fount of creation, full of
unhappiness and beauty, of which this wandering and nostalgic Colombian is
merely another number singled out by fate. Poets and beggars, musicians and
prophets, soldiers and scoundrels, all we creatures of that disorderly
reality have needed to ask little of the imagination, for the major
challenge before us has been the want of conventional resources to make our
life credible. This, my friends, is the nub of our solitude.

For, if these setbacks benumb us, we who are of its essence, it is not
difficult to understand that the mental talents of this side of the world,
in an ecstasy of contemplation of their own cultures, have found themselves
without a proper means to interpret us. One realizes this when they insist
on measuring us with the same yardstick with which they measure themselves,
without realizing that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and
that the search for one’s own identity is as arduous and bloody for us as
it was for them. To interpret our reality through schemas which are alien
to us only has the effect of making us even more unknown, ever less free,
ever more solitary. Perhaps venerable old Europe would be more sympathetic
if it tried to see us in its own past; if it remembered that London needed
three hundred years to build her first defensive wall, and another three
hundred before her first bishop; that Rome debated in the darkness of
uncertainty for twenty centuries before an Etruscan king rooted her in
history, and that even in the sixteenth century the pacifist Swiss of
today, who so delight us with their mild cheeses and their cheeky clocks,
made Europe bloody as soldiers of fortune. Even in the culminating phase of
the Renaissance, twelve thousand mercenary lansquenets of the Imperial
armies sacked and razed Rome, cutting down eight thousand of its
inhabitants.

I have no desire to give shape to the ideals of Tonio Kröger, whose dreams
of a union between the chaste North and a passionate South excited Thomas
Mann in this place fifty-three years ago. But I believe that those
clear-sighted Europeans who also struggle here for a wider homeland, more
humane and just, could help us more if they were to revise fundamentally
their way of seeing us. Their solidarity with our aspirations does not make
us feel any less alone so long as it is not made real by acts of genuine
support to people who desire to have their own life while sharing the good
things in the world.

Latin America has no desire to be, nor should it be, a pawn without will,
neither is it a mere shadow of a dream that its designs for independence
and originality should become an aspiration of the western hemisphere.
Nevertheless, advances in methods of travel which have reduced the huge
distances between our Americas and Europe seem to increased our cultural
distance. Why are we granted unreservedly a recognition of our originality
in literature when our attempts, in the face of enormous difficulties, to
bring about social change are denied us with all sorts of mistrust? Why
must they think that the system of social justice imposed by advanced
European nations upon their peoples cannot also be an objective for us
Latin Americans but with different methods in different conditions? No: the
violence and disproportionate misery of our history are the result of
secular injustice and infinite bitterness and not a plot hatched three
thousand leagues distance from our home. But many European leaders and
thinkers have thought so, with all the childlike regression of grandfathers
who have forgotten the life-giving madness of youth, as if it were not
possible to live a destiny other than one at the mercy of the two great
leaders and masters of the world.

Nevertheless, in the face of oppression, pillage and abandonment, our reply
is life. Neither floods nor plagues, nor famines nor cataclysms, nor even
eternal war century after century have managed to reduce the tenacious
advantage that life has over death. It is an advantage which is on the
increase and quickens apace: every year, there are seventy-four million
more births than deaths, a sufficient number of new living souls to
populate New York every year seven times over. The majority of these are
born in countries with few resources, and among these, naturally, the
countries of Latin America. On the other hand, the more prosperous nations
have succeeded in accumulating sufficient destructive power to annihilate
one hundred times over not only every human being who has ever existed but
every living creature ever to have graced this planet of misfortune.

On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said in this very place, “I
refuse to admit the end of mankind.” I should not feel myself worthy of
standing where he once stood were I not fully conscious that, for the first
time in the history of humanity, the colossal disaster which he refused to
recognize thirty-two years ago is now simply a scientific possibility. Face
to face with a reality that overwhelms us, one which over man’s perceptions
of time must have seemed a utopia, tellers of tales who, like me, are
capable of believing anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet
too late to undertake the creation of a minor utopia: a new and limitless
utopia for life, wherein no one can decide for others how they are to die,
where love really can be true and happiness possible, where the lineal
generations of one hundred years of solitude will have at last and for ever
a second opportunity on earth.