“Perhaps Schopenhauer was right: I am all other men, any man is all men, Shakespeare is in some manner the miserable John Vincent Moon.”
By opening his debut novel with these lines borrowed from Borges, Venezuelan author Luis Mora-Ballesteros foretells the central concern of his literary project: representing the universal in the particular. Here, the particular in question is the writer’s own Táchira State, in the rural borderland that straddles Venezuela and Colombia. In its portrayal of this place and its people Mora’s work exemplifies the defining themes of the twenty-first century: migration, assimilation, and the creation of new collective identities.
Diptych is a term borrowed from visual art that refers to a symmetrical composition laid out on two panels side by side; Diptych of the Border is likewise symmetrically composed. It weaves together stories of migrant families who for decades have fled endemic violence in Colombia to settle in an overlooked region of Venezuela, forming a hybrid identity unique to the area. Later in the novel, in the 2010s, we meet migrants escaping Venezuela’s current economic disaster, moving in the other direction to form a new diasporic community in Colombia. Diptych attempts to show how such collective identities are constructed. In the following excerpt from the novel’s opening pages, we see a mosaic of images: new surroundings that provoke a sense of difference (“there’s no sea here…”), snapshots of the violence that drives people away (“the march of balaclavas and rifles…”), the conditions on the ranches and sugar plantations where some will end up as migrant workers, and countless small details that lend the text an authentic sense of place.
The narrative moves loosely through space and time; events usually hinge around a shifting, expansive present tense. We meet a character and are promptly told what will happen to them months or years in the future; later in the novel we encounter them at another time and in changed circumstances, without entirely knowing what happened in between. This nonlinear temporality is characteristic of Mora’s writing and suggestive of how trauma flattens time and distorts memory.
The central plot of the novel concerns a journalist, Juan Ángel, who has travelled to the borderland to write a story on a mysterious guerilla leader. We learn that he attempted to write a kind of crónica, or literary journalistic piece, about the region, before giving up and focusing on a straightforward feature story. It’s revealed that many sections of the novel, including this excerpt, are part of the failed crónica. With this narrative framing device Mora creates another layer of symmetry in his diptych: the style continually oscillates between free-flowing prose-poetry (the crónica) and a tighter realism that relates Juan Ángel’s investigations. This collating of heterogeneous styles results in a work that “straddles the line between tradition and avant-garde.” (Bernardo Navarro Villarreal, writing in Latin American Literature Today.) The book was a finalist in Spain’s 2019 Martín Fierro competition for novels of social criticism. It is the first volume of a planned trilogy.
There’s no sea here and those souls that flee from war have crossed the rivers. They are ferried over in a long canoe or packed onto a raft. They will continue on foot and, when they begin making their way through the clandestine trails, the inspections will become more stringent: “This one! No, not that one!” they hear someone say from the other side of the border. They also hear that nearly all of them are from the coast or from North Santander; few are from Alta Guajira. Many come and not all make it across. The lucky ones will set foot on the riverbank of the Venezuelan side and then they will run, dragging along boxes and possessions through backtrails and unfamiliar roads. Those from Guajira flee from hunger and from the drought that has struck the peninsula. It’s said that out there no one has seen rain in ages, which makes planting impossible and condemns tens of thousands to thirst and disease. Others fear the explosions and shrapnel that send the homes of Ocaña, San Calixto, and Sardinata into mourning. Out on the eastern fringe of Colombia, fighting between armed groups for control of the coca, coal, and palm plantations has displaced hundreds of peasants, until then devoted to the traditional tilling of their fields. It rains here, and in the faces of the Carrascal children joy is a faraway place, the joy of seeing toads jump and hearing frogs croak. Tomorrow, Sunday, a new family will see to the cheese making and the Paolini grandchildren will meet Marina Hoyo, their new nanny. New arms will stack the coffee and new strength will turn the wheel of the sugar cane mill. Other hands will squeeze udders and other fingers will keep pace with the steady rhythm of the lead milker.
Around here few know that those who come from Colombia have travelled for miles. They are children, women, and men who have not renounced life, who hide like stray animals to avoid being taken captive by predators. Their faces and shoulders are tanned from the sun. Their skin is cracked from the winds of the sea. Some have traversed the jungle. Others travelled over the plain. All are enclosed in a sadness, forever suspended in a nostalgia of years. Tomorrow, the first Sunday of May, when the hacienda takes roll and passes out numbers, a huge mass of hands and feet will set out from the other side of the border, trying to flee the horror and the bombs, leaving behind relatives and deserted towns haunted by Death waving his scythe. Others will abandon their parcels of land and tiny plantations, giving wide berth to the bodies of those who were shot and tossed into in the headwaters, bodies that will end up at the mouths of the Catatumbo, Tarra, and Tibú rivers, after the march of balaclavas and rifles. Before this happens, very early in the morning, indefinite quantities of goods brought from places very near a port with no sea in North Santander will seek purchase and a place to stay on this side. It’s Saturday: night falls in Puerto Santander and in the hacienda John Jairo weeps as he goes to sleep, trying to swat away a cloud of mosquitoes that bite his feet and buzz around his neck and back. Night passes away and early morning approaches; the first milking is already done.
The silence is over. Guardián gets startled and starts to bark, waking a ranch hand who was nodding off during his watch. The sun rises a few hours later: it’s May 5th, 1987, and with their chirping and singing crickets and roosters usher in the pale sun of a warm Sunday morning that promises a torrential downpour by late afternoon. A pot of coffee sweetened with cane syrup boils on a stove, and José Venancio Duque gives instructions by gesturing and shouting from the top of a roof. Winter intervened early this year, and El Paraíso is a bad place, where the Treaty of Tonchalá will soon sweep away three decades of existence.
While José Venancio Duque walks down the stairs, a long line of day laborers and milkers begins to form outside on the uncovered patios where the sun-toasted grains are collected by the hands of children and women whose names are unknown to most of their peers. Duque is accompanied by two armed ranch hands who shadow his steps and follow his orders. Each of them holds a .22 caliber shotgun. One by one the men standing in line walk up to a wooden table and collect their pay. The sum is precise: 1,200 bolivars for those who must leave and 500 for those who can stay and go to the market later. The overseer seated behind the table counts the bills and a woman keeps record in neat cursive. There are no vouchers or receipts, only cash. The first group of men will cross back over the imaginary line that separates them from Colombia. The second will go into town to do their shopping. Two hours later, the ones who received the larger sum are ready to climb into the truck parked in front of the hacienda. Those who will go to claim the goods assigned to them in the little book at the rancher’s commissary store are also ready. The first group walks in a line toward the truck and one by one they climb in with a serious, distant look in their eyes, and they take their seats on the benches set inside the cattle cage. No one smokes. No one exchanges a word with anyone. A couple of men chew tobacco, that’s it. For the twenty-six men that arrived last Sunday at dusk, their workday began with the milking on Monday and now they are leaving on Sunday at dawn. The other men pray and put themselves at the mercy of the Three Divine Persons. Iván Darío and Azael Luis can’t be part of this group; instead, they must leave the ranch. Iván Darío lost his wife who died two months earlier in the landlord’s house, after she had taken a bath and ironed the clothes of the Paolini twins; he has finished the work needed to pay off the funeral expenses. Full of sadness, he folds his migrant worker’s permit and puts it in his back pocket. Doing this nearly wakes his son Samuel, who tosses and turns next to his little sister Juliana. The girl clutches a toy horse carved out of wood that John Jairo gave to her when they said goodbye forever. Azael Luis lost his good hand sawing wood and, thus disabled, he is no longer as productive in the planting work, according to José Venancio. The second group of men walk with their wives and children toward the main gate and don’t speak until they’ve passed through the first of the fences made of wooden posts and barbed wire. They will wait for one of the Jáuregui Express buses that come from Maracaibo and will take them into town to go to the market and later the ten o’clock mass. Then they can use the occasion to say hello to relatives who work as shoe repairmen, electricians, and carpenters, and they waste no time retrieving the new slip of paper that will let them continue crossing the border. On the Colombia-Venezuela border roll is taken and one of the armed ranch hands turns away a crippled man who tried to get up into the cage. His body is forever branded with the mark of war that afflicts thousands of men from North Santander in his beloved Colombia. As for the men lined up in front of the truck, they will soon begin a two-hour journey along the road running north-south that makes up the Machiques-Colón highway. The green cage of the cattle truck doesn’t look too comfortable. It’s somewhat dirty and still smells of whey and a trace of manure from the load they transported three days ago to the La Fría industrial slaughterhouse in the town of García de Hevia in Táchira State. The ones who go that way are displaced, some say. They’re victims of the conflict, others claim. For most people, they’re almost invisible. None of them seem to be missed by anyone beyond the border, the village, or their own street.
There’s no sea in El Paraíso and those who will come here don’t know it; on the Colombia-Venezuela border the deal was a success. This afternoon the truck will bring back twenty-eight men and six women with nine children. Bianca Patiño travels among them and dreams that soon she will send money to her mother so she can buy some new little shoes for her son Julián who was sleeping and didn’t see her leave. The brute strength of those chosen to work in El Paraíso guarantees them bread and temporary shelter. Yet others have not been so fortunate. Dozens have spent days camped out next to the lumber, crouched under the banana and avocado trees, waiting; in the shadows of night, in the endless weighing of options, in the vain hope to conquer the riverbank, to jump the fences, to knock down the barricades, and to squeeze through the wooden rails that stand between them and getting across. To these men the border feels like an insurmountable barrier, a fortress with gates they must batter down before entering, even though it’s an invisible line that exists by order from on high, a line they will never understand…
Evening comes, bringing forth the golden red sun that hangs in the distance and the overseer José Venancio Duque inspects the ones who arrived today. The scent of fresh milk and cane syrup drifts from the sugar mill and the cowshed after the third milking and the end of the sugar making. A clamor of whistles and driven cattle floods the air while herons and pía birds fly over the grounds of the El Paraíso hacienda. The maize seeds and sugar cane sprout up like weeds, for the earth here is rich, an Eden for the grazing of cattle and the fermenting of whey and cream cheese. Far from here, in Puerto Santander, it’s nearly dark and a lead hollow-point bullet lodges itself in the temple of Iván Darío. His last memory takes flight and deposits him in a faraway place. He’s in Valle del Cauca, running naked amid the banana trees that kiss the river. In one of the streets the voice of Rafael Orozco sings Binomio de Oro’s “A ritmo de cha cun cha,” and two women sing along as they sell skewers of meat and papas chorreadas with lemonade. Far from there, in El Paraíso, José Venancio Duque has sullied the honor of Marina Hoyos, after finding in the departure of Azael Luis the opportunity to rape her; for weeks he will force her to submit to irreparable abuses. Months later he will take her into town to live with him and perform the housework. Some time after this, one of her twin boys will die of a measles infection. There’s no sea here and it so happens Rómulo Alegría will sing to the moon that hides in the distance, his voice trembling, his memory full of sadness, his gaze fixed on yesterday… There’s no sea here and it turns out they call black coffee coffee, and they call coffee coffee with milk.
Translated by Alex Halatsis