The following interview was carried out by the students in the class “Monográfico de autor: Albalucia Ángel” at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and edited specifically for this dossier.
Los girasoles en invierno is my first novel. It’s not hard to envision the effort that goes into writing, day after day. Word after word. Page after page. And that’s how one goes piling up the pages. Editing. Reediting. And so on, until it feels like the end. Then one rereads, reedits ad infinitum, if one must. Until one day one gets tired, takes a deep breath, and stops. Period.
My first novel didn’t take off at the time, even though it’d been a finalist for the Premio Esso (1970). I published it myself. But Dos veces Alicia was published by Barral Editores not long after I wrote it. Once Carlos Barral was my editor, the rest of my novels were published in a normal time frame, let’s say. Misiá Señora was delayed a little because Barral didn’t have an editorial, but when Argos Vergara commissioned a “prestigious” collection, Barral included me right away. The same thing happened with Las andariegas (1984).
¡Oh gloria inmarcesible! (1978) was released in Colombia a year after I finished it, thanks to Gloria Zea who was dead set on publishing me with Colcultura. It’s worth clarifying that that was a deciding factor in the government opting to remove her from the directorship of that institution. And that short story collection was pulled ipso facto from circulation, given that it was categorized as “pornographic.”
Trying to bring novels to Colombia to distribute them was something else. I’d found an obstacle impossible to overcome. For example, I think it was in ’82 and ’84 when two editions of La pájara pinta were published without a contract, just because someone got it into their head to do so and period. Then, for 40 years, the silence was absolute, broken only thanks to the intervention of Alejandra Jaramillo Morales, who took charge of convincing an editor at Ediciones B to read La pájara pinta.
While we’re on the subject of the writing process, at the time of Los girasoles en invierno I was in France, immersed in what’s called nouveau roman. Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute were my favorites. Precisely, systematically, I started those first lines with a clipped, movement-heavy tone. Time passing ran parallel with the condensation on the glass, my fingers hurrying it along: the hand moves lazily, one, two, three, four… And as you can see, on the second page this rhythm disappears. My tone ascends in memory, my “style” breaks off towards new horizons that deeply impact upon my own voice. The voice of a woman that’s waiting in a Parisian bar, watching the rain, taking in the surroundings, reading Bradbury, sipping a coffee… And the rest is a tropical fantasy, as the people who got to decide who was and wasn’t the “genie of the lamp” back then would say.
But the most difficult book to write to date was Estaba la pájara pinta sentada en el verde limón (1975), for various reasons. One of those reasons was being bound to a text recounting Colombian history, beginning with a disastrous chapter (the 9th of April 1948), as well as periods of dictatorship, political persecution at the hands of a volatile system, student revolts, displacement of farmlands all hemmed into the middle of that chaos. From those memories (which, as that Dylan Thomas epigraph says so clearly, “have no order, and no end”) and belong to the one telling them, a child from Pereira. And that implies an abiding precision.
The accuracy of a historical text is measured by irrefutable facts, not by press images and much less by telling the tale from a unique perspective. Personal memory is a starting point that should transcend the imaginary, you know. In this case it’s clear. Memory: mine and the collective. What’s reported in the press. What people who were there said at the time. And all that comes together and proves tricksy, because there’s no way of telling the untellable without being true to the notion of never betraying that memory. Yours and that of your fellow citizens, who gave me proof of their dark and dismal vision. There’s no room there for what we call “imagination,” in my opinion, because catharsis is complete. That distant pain is felt and lived in line with the telling of it, in writing. That novel also includes childhood scenes. And they’re happy. Pristine. Mischievous, no doubt. But the pain persists. Death pursues us. The pain of a child with her eyes open to the fate which chose her at that moment. No filter. No mercy. No respite for the precocious conscience, that bursts forth, all of a sudden, like a kaleidoscope in perpetual motion.
In that novel, there was also a shift from writing about Europe to writing about Colombian violence that, if I’m being honest, was foreordained. I’d written about 40 pages of La pájara pinta. It didn’t have a title or a direction. I had no notes or plan for what I thought would be a retelling of my childhood mixed with the recollections of the time. I was in Madrid and a gang of six young men attacked me in a car park, in an attempt to steal my Mini-Morris. And that’s when the story shifted. I went into that lucid and beautiful tunnel we call “death” and came out the other side. It wasn’t my time. But my body was beat up and it seemed like only some kind of miracle would be able to save me from that dubious diagnosis I’d been given back then. So, I came home to Colombia intending to rest.
Someone told me about an “invisible doctor” called José Gregorio Hernández and I gave myself over hopefully to that metaphysical experience. I’ve never much doubted these things anyway. I believe in dimensions beyond this third-party space we live in, going round and round in circles yet failing to find our way out of the labyrinth. And it worked. During that healing stay, I travelled around the country. Back then, in 1948, people were mourning the death of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and it was still big news. Kind of like what we’re living through right now, with “the real reality” of that secret, foggy memory that’s starting to emerge about the “Holocaust of the Palacio de Justicia.” When it comes to Gaitán though, nothing’s been uncovered. In my opinion, it was about reminding the new generation of an event that quite literally split the fatherland in two. There, listening to witnesses, the echoes and winds allied with ghosts and that novel took shape.
When I returned to Spain a little while later, that landscape of infamy and blood and screams in the streets, of people crushed by the lackeys of those who controlled their real and political fate, took over my life as a woman, my life as a writer. Time became a daily blur of page upon page and I spoke very little with my compatriots, including, among others, the circle of “venerable poets from Latin America.” I was invited, yes, but I didn’t attend. “No estaba el palo para hacer cucharas,” as my grandma Adelfa would say; it wasn’t the right time. That book was written in secret and although some people stopped by to see me in my Barcelona studio, I didn’t give an inch. Lots of them wanted to know if I was going to submit it for a famous prize, if the theme was similar to that song from childhood and “come on, what’s it about?” My ability to express myself grew “como la milpa en el potrero,” lush and fast. And in taking a beat from travelling through time and space, to put it one way, in the midst of avatars, paradigms, endless challenges and explosive cacophonies, I gave in to my Conscience: to Be or not to Be.
That’s why I don’t think that “social function” is the rudder that guides my writing. History, with a capital H, hasn’t been my whim. I count myself among the beings that pay vigilant attention to the world in which we live. I became an observer thanks to the Franciscan nuns who arrived from Switzerland bringing with them the new Montessori method and took us, lovingly, between the ludic and the concrete. Responsibility was drummed into us during walks around the village, where, among forests of native trees, we looked at the birds, the butterflies, the brooks. “What did you see in the countryside…?” Mother Rudolfina and Mother Nolaska asked us when we got back from that delicious morning outing and we lit up. They taught us to see, those European nuns. I owe the awakening of my Conscience to each and every one of them and I’ve no doubt that that seed was sown by the Franciscan school. Observing the ants, for example, and from there, observing the world with all its delusions and setbacks, peaks and troughs, that are taken up and transmitted in every society by way of the news, write-ups (in my time), or on the radio. And now, one can get caught up in this spider’s web, at such speed, with a mere click, that they lose sight of all else, I think.
I don’t think there’s a fixed “process” to my language, unless it’s that which I learnt from birth: inextricably paisa, a beautiful and clear Castellano, replete with phrases and sayings, harmonious and broad. Sayings from other areas never arrived, nor did I use vulgar nicknames in conversation with my family and friends, and when we ran into people on the street, it was charming and polite. There were people who “took advantage of” language, as my grandma would say. And that language of the “mule driver” who cursed his animals on the mountain roads annoyed certain people, but that’s our way of speaking. There was no “right way to write.” Nobody in my generation nor the previous ones, I guess, told us how to check that box. By which I mean: “That’s where this goes, dialogue is like this, don’t exaggerate in closed paragraphs, be more open to adjectives…” Or better yet: “you need to take the reader into consideration.” I don’t know. I digress. In reality, I was a precocious singer. I was blessed with that “perfect pitch,” as it’s called by those in the know, which helps you to better tune into the song of the wind. I once heard Cortázar say something that clarified the beat of my writing. “I put on jazz and start to write,” he told us one day in Barcelona. “And if the page responds to the rhythm of those notes, then it’s fine. If not, it’s clear I was distracted and not properly listening to John Coltrane.”
Anecdotes about the “boom writers”? I’ve got enough to fill a tome, but I prefer to keep them to myself. Lots of people ask me the same thing lately. Maybe it’s because—Mario Vargas Llosa aside—they’ve all passed on to “the great beyond” and feel comfortable and content in their new vision of the Universe.
And that “great beyond” draws me incurably back to my dear Pepe—José Donoso, the Chilean writer—and to those moments, which became never-ending, of chats and more chats because why not, because he’d just got back from a trip, because we hadn’t seen each other in ages, according to him. “You’ve got a call from Hotel Donoso,” Gabo announced. That’s where I was staying back then, complete with all that loving attention showered on me by Meche and that unforgettable morning hug from Gonzalo and Rodrigo before going off to school. In between all of the incessant and apparently “emergency” calls from Pilar Serrano (Pepe’s wife), I got to Vallvidrera. That’s where they lived with Pilarica, their daughter, and Pelegrín, their delight of a pug. “And Pepe?” “Oh, yeah, Pepe!” said Pilar. “Don’t worry, he’ll be here soon. He’s in Madrid but he’ll be back any minute…” Hours went by like that, like in that children’s song about the tiny boat that couldn’t navigate. We ate Chilean specialties, we talked about the world and its pleasures; Pilar was up to date with the news and the goings-on of the prince were her forte. Afterwards, we’d prune roses in the garden, go back to the house, have a Tío Pepe (white vermouth) to be in keeping with that host, that unpindownable traveler: “And when will Pepe be here…?” “Patience, there’s no rush…” Like so. Another two, three, four hours…until the early hours of the morning. “Pilar, I’m dead tired.” “Don’t you dare! I promised Pepe that I’d keep you awake…don’t sleep!” And the effort to keep myself awake paid off when the birds were chirping the break of dawn and the door to the Donoso home swung open. “Congratulations, Marulanda…!”
That’s how Pepe decided, decided to change my name, because why not.
And that was the early morning entrance of the ruddy bearded man; tired, yes, but with that killer, haven-of-a-smile gifted sweetly by his whole being. We hugged; he dropped his luggage. Pilar was dead to the world, ditto Pilarica and Pelegrín, so we’d knock back Tío Pepe together. “Ayyy, maestro! How’s Madrid? On edge?” But it wasn’t with any political bent; it never really was. “I’m a snob, don’t you see?” And he had the latest news on Franco, just like that… and he put everything he had into the proposal, which he wasted no time getting to. “It came to me during the trip. Don’t say no, Albalú. I already have it all planned out and it can’t be undone. I just need your permission.” Just like that, casual. Like a raptor swooping in on a quail’s nest, to offer it to some damsel in the province. “Can you loan me Marulanda for a little novel that I’ve got in mind? Huh?” “Loan you? Well, I suppose, why not…”
And that’s how that magical and terribly sordid site was born. That allegory about the history of Pinochet’s Chile which was read at the time as something masterful. The critics back then understood that if José Donoso hadn’t ever influenced politics, with his Casa de Campo he’d smashed the record for outrage with that perverted—or reverted, I’d say—game. And Marulanda became what Macondo was; a reference point in a Latin American country.
“I’m neither from here, nor there…” is the great trusting hymn of universality. I chose my life myself, and early on too. And I wouldn’t change a thing. Those who neither shield themselves with dogmas nor comply with patriarchal edicts, nor commune with millstones. Those of us who dare to cross boobytrapped bridges and, like so, build once again a paradigm worthy of our human species. “Make love, not war,” was the chant of the hippies in the 60s. And I chose to be there. On the other side of the Atlantic. Or through the looking glass, if you prefer. Playing with that providence of being what I came to Be. Someone who’s always “awake” and mindful of their breath, which is the same as that of the Earth on which we live.
Here or there, the voices of the forgotten lay claim to me. And I’ve heard them, for as long as I can remember. And it could be a rhetorical device or a sign of “nuttiness,” but that’s led me to the wandering writing of a World in which I exist. It doesn’t matter where I string up my hammock or erect my tent, my blue and silver igloo, in which I’ve had unforgettable experiences.
In truth, if you must know, my “permanent residence” has always been my heart.
Translated by Lauren Cocking
Lauren Cocking is a Yorkshire-born, Mexico City-based writer, reviewer and translator working from Spanish into English. She’s currently at work on her first literary translation (a collection of short stories by a debut Mexican author) and trying to learn Welsh. Visit her blog to read interviews with translators and Latin American book reviews or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.