Te acuerdas del mar. Óscar Godoy Barbosa. Clarín Alfaguara. 2020. 288 pages.
“Mala decisión” [Bad idea]. The novel, Te acuerdas del mar [You remember the sea] opens with this phrase, foreboding more to come past the first chapter, and touching on the tough decisions the characters must face in terms of their individual dreams and circumstances. The taxi driver at the beginning of the story must tackle a life or death situation: “Cuántas veces, al observar a sus pasajeros ya acomodados en el puesto de atrás, percibir sus alientos y leer sus rostros, no ha tenido más remedio que darles la espalda, con un frío en todo el cuerpo, encarar la ruta y confiar en la suerte” [How many times, upon seeing his passengers settled in the backseat, taking note of their breath and the looks on their faces, has he had no choice but to face the front, his entire body cold, stick to his route, and trust in fate]. He feeds off of the fear-induced adrenaline, the usual course of action.
“Polvo y fragmentos de arena y barro se restriegan contra su nariz, su frente, su mejilla izquierda. Percibe el olor de la suciedad acumulada en el tapete de los pasajeros” [Dust, bits of sand and mud brush against his nose, his forehead, and his left cheek. He notices the smell of filth coming from the passenger seat floor mat.] It is a taste of the direction his life has taken. He is at the mercy of these criminals. His captors hold his life in their hands, while he remains helpless, face down in the backseat. Helplessness can be sensed through tactile and olfactory details, a deep-rooted feature evident in similar circumstances as well, such as a particular gaze shared by women of the same family across generations. These details are also sensed in food or music, at times pleasing, other times dreadful.
The novel develops by means of two interwoven narratives, the stories of Don Luis and Diana. The narrative of Don Luis is told in seven parts, in which the recollections of two armed players in the war—an ex-dissident (taxi driver) and Don Luis, a quiet man with a hidden dark past—unexpectedly cross paths. Meanwhile, the story of Diana, told in eight parts, serves to generate complementarity, contrast, and a widening of perspectives, balancing the flow between Corso and Don Luis. Another female character, Betzabé, also helps to offset the dark secrets of her grandfather’s past that are gradually uncovered.
Each separative narrative transports the reader to three important moments in time: the violence of the fifties, the violence of the guerrillas, and the violence against ex-guerillas who laid down their weapons, still seen in Colombia today, after signing the peace deal with the FARCs; similar acts of violence also arose following the extermination of liberal guerilla leaders as well as those granted amnesty in other peace efforts. As such, distinct acts of violence are portrayed through memories, and are still relevant today.
The primary focus of the novel is dominated by frenetically paced narration by Corso, an ex-member of an armed group, who has embraced the dynamics of the clandestine during his time as a taxi driver. It is revealed that his name is short for Corsario, in such a way that it clearly makes reference to the “Corsario negro” (The Black Corsair) by Salgari, highlighting the similarities between the personalities of the pirate and the dissident. This is the first instance where we see of the metaphor of the sea emerge. As the chapters progress, it becomes increasingly more palpable through the individual interpretation of the character developed by readers of this genre of literature. In this way, the sea narrative serves as the structural and poetic core of the novel.
It is important to note that the memories of the two central characters are not direct representations of specific members of paramilitary or guerrilla groups. They are humanized interpretations of actors on either side of the war, in differing time periods, each having experienced distinct eras of “direct” violence in Colombia, with no intention of provoking any more confrontation than what was already present. The structural and cultural acts of violence do not come up in the narration, but the focus is shifted toward the effects that the war had on the protagonists’ families and the impact it had beyond their own generations.
“—¿Cuándo ocurrió? —le pregunté, abrumada por el dolor que empezaba a formarse por dentro, un dolor que todavía me acompaña. Pero la llamada se cortó” [When did this happen? I asked him, clouded by the pain that began to form inside me, a pain that follows me to this day. But the call was cut short].
This is the voice of Diana, who since a young girl has been a victim of a conflict she does not understand. Through her we become familiar with the voice, personality, ideals and fears of her mother, who took part in the war. Similarly, we get to know her grandmother, who assumed the role of Diana’s mother. Paired with the voice of Betzabé, granddaughter of Don Luis, the two girls form a counterpoint to the unidimensional perspective that initially seemed to be the dominating force. The two girls, one a daughter and the other a granddaughter, have their own versions of family, these men, and the war. In Diana’s case, as she is part of the generation that suffered the aftermath of the war, her journey of “forced displacement” leads her to understand more about this predicament. Both Diana and Betzabé share their experiences as young girls in wartime, which above all, set up the final stages and ending of the novel.
In summary, the author does not settle for obvious solutions and the chance encounter of the characters’ ideologized recollections of the war is neither simple nor obvious, at the detriment of the narrative’s function. The author employs literary techniques so that the reader is the one who ties together the stories of Corso, with his particularly spirited narration, and that of the dark, reserved intimacies of Don Luis, which are slowly revealed through his memories. All of this is then reevaluated through the presence of Diana and Betzabé. It is not a question of choosing one side over the other, but rather stepping inside the shoes of each actor in the war, who present both human contradictions and moments of light.
It is worth mentioning that it is difficult for a Colombian author to avoid writing about war in Colombia and even so it is rarely successful. The subject pervades the fabric of daily life, and the dynamics of its history and economy since the day Colombia acquired its independence. The names of those involved and the terms used to classify the “acts of violence” may differ, but the devastation persists. The war ceases momentarily, there is some sort of agreement, which is then violated, the country once again begins to tear itself apart; therein lies the challenge: how does one write about the violence in Colombia without influencing the reader’s perspective? Beyond the recognition the novel received after winning the 22nd Premio Ñ-Ciudad de Buenos Aires in 2019, the author overcomes this challenge gracefully.
Alexander Castillo Morales
Translated by Christopher Dean
Alexander Castillo Morales (Colombia, 1974) holds degrees in Visual Arts (Universidad Nacional de Colombia), Linguistics and Literature (Universidad Distrital FJC), and Hispano-American Literature (Instituto Caro y Cuervo). He worked as a volunteer at the Fundación del Trabajo para el Muchacho de la Calle for six years, as a reading promoter at Fundalectura for nine years, and as a university teacher for thirteen years. He is the author of the short story collection Las monedas de la traición (2014). He was a winner of the 2007 RCN- Ministerio de Educación short story contest. He is currently earning an MFA in Creative Writing in Spanish at NYU and writing a book of short stories, El Jardín de los juguetes rotos.
Christopher Dean is a freelance translator (Spanish/French to English) from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and is currently a master’s student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in the Translation and Localization Management program. He holds a master’s degree in Spanish Linguistics from the University of Florida and is an alumnus of the JET Programme.