Iván Ulchur Collazos. Alguien al otro lado de la línea [Someone on the other end of the line]. Cali: Ediciones Grainart, 2019. 104 pages.
What do these characters have in common? Gauguin, the painter who retreated to a remote island in the South Pacific; Juan Coral, who also hid out in an unknown town in the Colombian Andes; and Ezra, the university professor who sought refuge in another kind of island —his relationship with his wife, Zobeida,— so he could drive away his fears? There are likely as many answers to these questions as there are readers of these stories. In any case, this last story, which shares a name with the title of Colombian writer Iván Ulchur Collazos’s latest book, keeps the reader in suspense as it skillfully combines the trivial events of daily life in a traditional household and the tragic history of Colombia. The plot of Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Ulrika” serves as an intertextual link, as if what unfolds in Ulchur Collazos’s story had been previously written in code. The anonymous voice at the other end of the receiver drives the narrative suspense and triggers the sometimes treacherous, sometimes loving dialogue of the couple. All of this occurs amid a backdrop of tension in the city where the story’s events occur and the intertextual dialogue unfolding between Borges’s characters Ulrika and Javier Otálora.
In “Alguien me asedia a Rafaela,” the anonymous narrator-protagonist, who has barricaded himself in the Cefiní bar, nurses his jealous paranoia about Rafaela. He is a character who lives in a world of delusional games, which is why a series of glances descend into a kind of suspicious triangulation involving a stranger, Rafaela, and his distorted ego. This is the semiotics of the gaze, where every gesture, every word, every popular icon—Gardel, Humphrey, Bogart, Aznavour—add to the story’s conflict. At the same time, we read Wittgenstein’s quote that “Language is an immense network of easily accessible wrong turnings”—a phrase that synthesizes the hidden dialogue between the eyes and the word. A question posed by the narrator-protagonist signals a cooperative pact with the story to the reader: “Rafaela, don’t you think Humphrey Bogart has the gaze of an imposter?” At that point, Casablanca’s leading man and the anonymous person glancing bind together into a singular dark object of desire and threaten the narrator-protagonist’s psychological stability. The narrator-protagonist then does mental and verbal backflips to mark his territory and defend his manhood, both of which are threatened in this game of glances.
In the story “La pista,” an anonymous professor from Gethsemani College retraces the footsteps of Agenor, a poet and rebel, while jogging in a park amid elderly people and squirrels. The protagonist recalls ominous tragedies of counterinsurgency violence that have left Colombia hemorrhaging and which leave in question the destinies of both Agenor and Joe Burkanhaler, a hiker and ecologist who always takes care of the squirrels.
In the stories of Alguien al otro lado de la línea, the protagonists walk the tightrope of uncertainty and belong to a club of empty souls; they are part of the “mistaken perception and distortion” of things, as Ricardo Piglia reminds us in the book’s epigraph. In this consistently playful writing, with its instances of verbal daring, these stories reveal the slow routinization of love, the background of Colombian social violence, and dialogues between characters who observe the progressive collapse of the very few ideals they have. Another recurring element is the significant emphasis on the senses: for example, sight in “Alguien me asedia a Rafaela,” in which Koke dies in his paradise, or hearing in “Alguien al otro lado de la línea” or in “Uno se llena de presentimientos.”
Love is like fear in this collection, since fear casts its shadow over everything. The protagonists are mediated by this shadow in these stories, which themselves are narrated in a space of doubt and vertigo, and with a dose of black humor. And the humor, which is sometimes bittersweet and other times ironic, acts as a balm preventing terror and impotence from paralyzing the characters; humor is a kind of black hole through which total despair escapes. At the same time, fear of loss, the disturbance of fragile routines, and the shifts of telluric skepticism turn the gears of these stories. Tension, suspense and concealment of hidden information go hand in hand and keep readers on the edge of their seats. For this reason, it makes sense that an anonymous caller asking for the “Memory Funeral Parlor” would impact Ezra, given he lives in a context of habitual violence (as occurs in “Alguien al otro lado de la línea), or that the simple sound of a hen clucking about laying an egg is mistaken for the sounds of criminals showing up in the middle of the night (as in “Uno se llena de presentimientos”), or that a pretend dialogue would stem from a pretend seduction itself occurring before a pretend audience (as in “Cuando el amor nace así de esta manera”). All of this invites us to look at the barrier separating tragic reason from drunken madness.
When read carefully, we perceive that the secret of these stories lies in the narrator’s ability to involve us in banal events, which all of a sudden become epiphanic experiences; for all of this, we can thank a writer who knows how to select and combine verbal signs well in order to create the necessary dialectical alternations of the narrated events.
Whoever said we are all Ulysses was thinking of heroic journeys, or, perhaps, the hope of returning to the kingdom or its ashes. But we could add that we are all Gauguin, Juan Coral, Ezra, or Agenor, the most successful characters in these stories. Especially given the weight of humanity we carry on our shoulders. It’s a matter of looking around, weaving stories, or taking refuge in an island, like Ulchur Collazos’s characters. And also hope with stoic patience that this somebody on the other end of the line gives us a clue as to who it is. The other option is to let sleeping dogs lie. That way, we could live peaceful lives, although we likely wouldn’t write a single line, as this talented Colombian writer knows all too well.
Jorge Eliécer Ordóñez Muñoz
Translated by Amy Olen
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Proofread by Jenna Tang
Jorge Eliécer Ordóñez Muñoz (Cali, Colombia 1951) has published the following books of poetry: Ciudad Menguante (1991/1996), Vuelta de Campana (1994), Manuscrito de Sísifo, which was awarded the Premio Nacional de Poesía in 2013, Cuerpos sobre Campos de Trigo, which received the Premio Eduardo Cote Lamus in 2014, and La Tarde no Cae (2015). As an essayist, he has published La fábula poética en Giovanni Quessep (1998) and Novelas colombianas desde la heterodoxia (2015), as well as the anthology Desde el Umbral: Poesía Colombiana en Transición, volumes I and II (2004 and 2009).
Amy Olen is Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her Ph.D. is in Spanish and Portuguese from The University of Texas at Austin. She holds Master’s Degrees in Translation Studies and Spanish and Portuguese, both from UW-Milwaukee. Her research interests include Latin American Indigenous writing and Translation Studies.