julianne pachico the lucky ones
Colombia From Afar and in English
In 2018, I translated Julianne Pachico’s collection of short stories The Lucky Ones (2017, published in Spanish as Los afortunados by Seix Barral in 2019). The book follows a diverse group of characters that share the experience of having lived in Colombia in the 80s and 90s, amid the violent political and civil unrest generated by drug trafficking and the war on drugs. The book was inspired by Pachico’s own childhood and teenage years, as her British-American family was transferred to Colombia for work reasons, and Pachico was born and raised in the country before moving back to the United States, and later to the UK.
The book is a collection of eleven stories that are all interconnected in one way or another. Together, the stories form a kaleidoscopic novel. One of the centers that holds everything together is a private school on the outskirts of the city of Cali, and more specifically, a cohort of girls who come of age amidst the political unrest of the 90s. The book narrates how these girls’ lives are impacted by terror in direct or indirect ways, and, extending like a spider’s web, the book follows an intricate set of characters related to these girls. It is an exploration of trauma, of how violence creeps under your skin and lingers through the years. Present in every story, Colombia’s deep and rigid class divisions appear as one of the main lenses through which the country is critically dissected. Through their juxtaposition, class and violence are revealed as deeply interconnected, offering a subtle but sharp insinuation that class and classism stand at the heart and as the cause of Colombia’s struggles.
Being Colombian myself, I knew the process of translating the text was going to be interesting. The Lucky Ones allowed me to relive experiences all too familiar. On the one hand, Pachico and I are the same age and share a similar social background, making her experiences of Colombia very similar to mine. Additionally, she was both a foreigner and a native, a condition that resonated deeply with me. After so many years living in the United States and making this foreign country and its language my own, I have developed a particular way of understanding my country of origin. This perspective is the result of my obvious intimate relationship with the country, and of observation from afar that has been shaped by the intellectual and personal growth I’ve experienced while being here. I understand the country with my gut, but I can also have a sharp critical awareness that is allowed and trained to think outside its box, from other contexts, from other languages, and with another set of tools, whether accurately or not. As a result, the book’s look into Colombia’s society and history—especially its crucial understanding of class as a structuring factor of Colombia’s identity—was in sync with many of my own perspectives and, what’s more, it echoed a bittersweet critical nostalgia for the country that was as much a personal problem as a literary issue.
My experience as a translator was not only marked by my personal circumstance, but also by a problem with language. Most of the situations that the book narrates happen originally in Spanish; house maids reliving their past traumas, girls’ worlds being torn apart by violence, conversations between guerilla fighters in the middle of the forest, etc. My role as a translator required more than transporting and adapting the text to another language and culture: it required me to return it to the original Spanish and Colombian culture in which it had happened, but in which it had never been written. Class became a primary concern when translating, as well: converting the text into Spanish required me to bring class into the speech of the characters, as well as urban and regional differences, or when to use tú or usted, all acute markers of class distance or closeness. A bunch of questions, both personal and academic, started to haunt me in the process of translating: To what language and country do these stories belong? Can these stories count as Colombian literature? Can one think a nation in another language and from afar, and still be true to it?
While these questions flew around my head, I was inevitably reminded of another Colombian book about the conflict: Ingrid Betancourt’s internationally famous memoir of her kidnapping, Even Silence Has an End (2010). Although this book has never been fully admitted into Colombia’s literary canon of its recent violent history, it is, without a doubt, one of the most relevant and poignant written pieces of recent Colombian discourse. Interestingly enough, the book was written in French. In her final words to the reader, Betancourt explains that she decided to write in a foreign language because it gave her the necessary distance and control to accurately retell what had happened. This became an illuminating mantra with which to approach The Lucky Ones. The language in which the book was written, and the images and visions it articulates about Colombia, are tightly connected. Julianne Pachico’s book thinks and represents Colombia from afar and in English, and the result is a critical nostalgia that is both an intimate, accurate, and enamored portrait of the country, and also a sad, fierce, and disappointed critique, where class appears as an essential problem.
While I am not affirming that only an outsider can perceive class as one of the structuring forces of the Colombian conflict, I do suggest that it helps. The insider/outsider perspective that defines Pachico’s literary voice allows her to separate herself from the class system itself and observe it from afar. Whether sociology agrees with this or not is a different debate. Let me expand on this a bit more by looking into some of the most striking images that the book presents.
In the story “Lucky,” Stephanie, an American teenage girl, decides to stay home during the weekend while her parents attend a party in the countryside thrown by a drug lord. She is alone in a fenced house in a secluded suburban neighborhood. Mysteriously, her parents don’t come back when the weekend is over, and her isolation extends inexplicably in what becomes an increasing mysterious apocalyptic scenario. Something has happened: there’s no power, the phones are dead, and the outside world now has signs of a war going on. Suddenly, a haunting presence—a sort of menacing homeless stranger—knocks on her door, perhaps offering her her only chance of survival. Terrified and confused, she avoids any contact with the stranger and tries to reinforce the security that surrounds her while she waits for her long-gone parents in a deep state of confusion and anxiety. But no one comes for her. In an inexplicable turn of events at the end, she opens the door and lets the stranger in.
The story makes a striking point about class. The disturbing apocalyptic scenario suggests that the structure that holds society together has ceased to exist and class separations become permeable. When she opens the door and eliminates the barriers between classes, the reader is left with a sense of extreme vulnerability and fear. The story, which is the first one of the collection and the one that gives the book its title, serves as an inaugural image—an allegory, almost—in which class divisions normalize society, and in which class subversion is a source of horror. The fact that Stephanie is American—the one American girl in her cohort—is not a coincidence: Pachico opens this book claiming her own perspective and offering class as a determining factor in her representation of Colombia.
Class surfaces again and again throughout the eleven stories. Sometimes it appears through images of inequality, where suburban rich families are contrasted with the poor and the marginalized, or sometimes it appears in the character of a maid, a complex symbol that speaks of hierarchical and postcolonial societies. However, perhaps the most poignant way in which class appears is as an imaginary dialogue between a couple of teenagers in love. The story, titled “M + M,” unfolds through a dialogue between Mariela, another girl from the same cohort, and a guerrilla Commander. This unlikely couple met and fell in love when they were kids and when he, from a lower social class, was admitted to her school on a scholarship: “your skin was the same coffee-candy color of our maids and chauffeurs and gardeners, not like ours, peach-pale tan.” The dialogue that gives shape to the story is imaginary, as Mariela and the Commander are no longer in touch and are probably far apart from each other. The poignant paradox comes in the realization that this love story cannot be, not just because of time and distance, but because of class itself. Their encounter can only be an imaginary one, one that defies reality. At the end the lovers imagine their encounter, but in an even more fantastic way: the Commander, who now leads an army in the middle of the jungle, takes giant steps towards the city, like a giant man made of rubber, extending his legs through Colombian territory. In his journey, making imaginary leaps over the map, the space that marks their distance is revealed as an eerie landscape: below, he sees coca plantations and cocaine labs, abandoned villages, sites of massacres, unmarked graves, and all the hatred and violence rooted throughout decades in a country torn apart by the class system, violence, drug trafficking, and divisions. The impossibility of the action—a superhero’s jump across the map—echoes the impossibility of their union: what separates them is rooted deep in the social landscape of the country and renders them worlds apart.
Drugs, drug trafficking, and the controversial drug lord culture are also explored within the frame of class. If inequality is the backbone of the country’s political struggles, drug trafficking became its muscles by fueling the economy of the war and by providing a path for social climbing. We see this, for example, in the Montoya family and their luxurious and nouveau-riche-style house in the countryside, filled with exotic animals and rare art, an echo of Pablo Escobar’s lifestyle, and a place where extravagant parties are hosted for politicians and the like. The Montoya household, enriched by drug trafficking, embodies a kind of “Colombian dream” of social climbing and status acquisition obtainable through drug trafficking. While the illegitimate business was frowned upon, the money it provided was a ticket to legitimation in a society governed by class. But Pachico’s most poignant commentary on drugs and class comes by focusing not on this country house itself, but in the bunny cages of its extravagant zoo. In the story “Junkie Rabbit,” the book once again takes us to a fantastic and somehow apocalyptic world: a burrow where a colony of rabbits addicted to coca leaves suddenly face a shortage of supplies. Skinny, decimated, and showing alarming signs of abstinence syndrome, the protagonist of this story, a bunny who used to have a promising political future, crashes down while dreaming of the kids who, in the old days, used to pet him and call him sweet names. The burrow and its bunnies, sick and collapsing, offer an alarming spin on, and an allegory to, a society whose political and social system has been hijacked by drugs. In other words, the story offers a moral tale of a society gone adrift in its pursuit of opulence and power.
These acute attempts to dissect Colombia’s failure, and to present class as a sickness, are juxtaposed with images of profound nostalgia and enamourment with the country. In “Hunny Bunny,” La Flaca, another girl of the same cohort, is now living in New York and heavily addicted to cocaine. In the story, we see her struggle to negotiate her present life with her past and her addiction to drugs. We see her going through a closet where she keeps memorabilia of her childhood in Colombia. As she unpacks, the fearful way in which she approaches her memories and her past indicate that therein lies her trauma, the unresolved pieces of a childhood that absorbed a country being torn apart, and which have possibly led her to addiction. She finds letters from her school friends, stuffed animals, and an old cardboard map of Colombia. She scatters the pieces of the map on the floor and starts putting them together: “She builds the central mountain ranges first, then the bordering coast, the northern desert, the southern jungle, the eastern plains. Slowly but surely, the shapes become clear. The snout of Guajira, sniffing the Caribbean; the square tail of Amazonas, poking into Brazil. Cities make up the organs: the Bogotá heart, the lungs of Medellin and Bucaramanga, the kidneys of Cali and Popayán. Andean mountains ripple like fur, rivers and highways run like veins”. When she is almost finished, she kneels on the floor and takes a look: there it is, her country, which holds everything that she is, yet is now only a deep, frightening memory. Holding many of the cocaine bags in her hands as if they were stuffed animals to which she could speak, and perhaps close to an overdose, she lays on top of the map as she regresses into her childhood. “The unfinished map is underneath her as she pulls [the cocaine bags] close, holding them tenderly, whispering sweet nothings. She starts with English—sweety pie, candy bird, honey bunny—before moving on to half-remembered Spanish: corazón, querida, mija” (133).
This image, an expat mumbling words in broken Spanish and lying on an unfinished map of Colombia while her cocaine overdose takes off, captures the essence of The Lucky Ones: a painful nostalgia for that which is far away and gone, but also a fierce critique that exposes the causes of a decades-long struggle. At the heart of it all, foreignness and English, and not Spanish, become the distancing lenses through which Colombia is dismantled and reorganized from afar. As for the act of translation, if this perspective on Colombia depends on its epistemological and linguistic distance, the Spanish version, then, can be nothing if not uncanny. Uncanny in that it holds a mirror up to the country. Uncanny, too, in the sense that it dismantles the proprietary relationships between language and national literature. Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones is, ultimately, Colombian literature but, like Benjamin says when speaking about translation, “under a spell”.
Translated by Carolina Friszman