La hora gris. Eduardo Otálora Marulanda. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica. 2020. 112 pages.
La hora gris [The gray hour] (2020) epitomizes the boom of Latin American science fiction. This novel by Bogotá author Eduardo Otálora, winner of the Premio Nacional de Novela Ciudad de Bogotá 2019, is divided into three sections. In this work, the author pushes the characters to the extremes of humanity. Step by step, deeper layers and nuances of the significance of life, love, fear, and survival are laid bare. From the initial apocalyptic event, which is both the trigger for and the context in which the three stories intertwine, to the intimate and overwhelming final episode, Otálora shows a clear interest in disclosing tenderness and cruelty through the suffering of those who dwell on a poisoned planet.
This journey, along with a detachment from the moral and material layers that make up the concept of the human, is presented in a progressive way. The first part, “Figus,” begins with a moment of rupture between the known world and the new reality. Otálora introduces the chaos and infeasibility of the transition by using the implications of earth poisoning a peasant family. Written with staggering precision, we bear witness to the progressive fall of civilization. The exodus of Éver and his family is a process of detachment from and destruction of the self. We behold the loss of innocence as a result of the unmediated observation of horror: a human being pushed beyond his/her own limits. There is a greater shocking effect in this section, since the hopes of this first narrator are still inscribed in the social and moral system that has disappeared. Given the protagonists’ proximity to current values, “Figus” is a distressful section. Éver becomes the vessel of all the evils of Western civilization. The protagonists of the crisis are not men in laboratories or factories—in the end, the cataclysm’s origin is not entirely clear—but these helpless beings with no agency in pursuit for their own survival.
The second part, “Erian,” depicts an antiseptic and utilitarian society in which the human being becomes a renewable resource and morality is completely overturned. The story is framed through the perspective of a woman whose only power consists of lying about her own body in order to evade suffering, and whose sex and particular condition determine her use in the process of building an impossible human machine. This part of the narration is dominated by unleashed, but, at the same time, silent and passive violence which also reveals a sort of transition: this is no longer the world we know, but a bloody dystopia in which the values and interests of that dead world retain their names while meaning completely different things. The author explores the implications of using language and education as tools of control.
Eventually, in “Tata,” there is a sort of “closure” of humanity as a species. Chronologically speaking, the distance between “Figus” and “Tata” can be measured in thousands of years. In this last section, the author establishes both a new mythology and a new morality. Again, through our innocent eyes, murder and sacrifice, cannibalism, eugenics, the skinning of newborns and other acts would be considered cruel and vicious, but they are presented as defining elements of this new society. A type of morality reconstructed out of the remnants of a world in which little more than broken words, broken glass, and stories remain. This chapter, nevertheless, seems to present the human being completely stripped of his/her “humanity,” to the point of having lost its name as a species: sterile, cannibalistic, and putrid. It is impossible not to notice one of the priorities and elements continuously mentioned for these cavemen, and that is the “liab.” The author introduces the following scene: “One night after a sacrifice my abi told me tata, while I sing, you are going to play the liab. […] Then everything became white and the tatas and the amás came to hear me play my liab. Yes, my liab, because it was already mine, because I had made the world white just by playing the string” (108).
Were it not for the sound of a human gut in the air, there would be no hope left. I admire that the last two humans on earth think about music and the possibility of creating music during their last hours. I also celebrate that one of them gives their last piece of dried meat to the other. It could be said that La hora gris reveals to us the true dimensions of our crimes and hopes.
One of the many sides of the novel is the exposure to a lesson in humility and an invitation to show gratitude. Otálora captures his characters’ impotence as a way of rendering visible the wounds caused by other people’s crimes, and he does so from an undaunted position: the human being who is returning to a primitive state cannot be seen through the moral lens of the one who orchestrated his fall, but rather through the cruel and silent amorality of the countryside, the machine, and the cavern. It is neither the role of literature (of this literature) nor nature to pass value judgments; those are the pastimes of readers and priests. This does not imply that the novel is devoid of a dense and critical environment in which socio-political and economic systems are questioned; rather, the author’s choices lead to an examination of the ways in which human beings relate to the world without imposing a strongly ideologically biased perspective. In the end, the victims do not even have that intellectual right to see themselves beyond their immediate needs and fears, but their stories do allow us to see beyond our own limits.
Ricardo Tello Tovar
Translated by Aitor Bouso Gavín