Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

Concerning Violence, Part 1: The People Are Missing

Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

Concerning Violence, Part 1: The People Are Missing

Article excerpt

Preface: The Apotheosis of War in Colombia

Not even God would bother coming to look in here. During afternoons like this the city was lost to me. Turning its back, the city closed itself to my gaze as well as to the eyes of any of its inhabitants, humans and not. It surrounded me but never faced me. The surrounding solitude imposed upon me a background of meaning: the city was human but cried like a caged animal. It had become a black box. If so, I was the cat within it.

The city was Bogotá, but it could have been any other city-a city in Germany, for instance. Many years ago I was a kid in Colombia who spent long afternoons during summer break doing work at my Aunt Clara's shop to buy himself a bicycle. The shop sold colors, creams, and slimming girdles that promised passersby all sorts of magical effects. In they came, dead city dwellers, to this small cube fitted with transparent shelves exhibiting alchemical potions; out they went, feeling made up, alive.

In most cities, reality is defined by whether you are alive or dead. Not in Bogotá, certainly not back then. To begin with, it rains too much. The city turns gray and you can't see, for it rains lead and heavy metals. The real vanishes in front of your eyes. Then there is the apotheosis of war. I use the term "apotheosis" in two senses. The first sense is deification. Ever since war became our true religion, no one in this city could be certain whether to count oneself among the living or for how long. Life and death are now matters of probability not so much in the sense of a game of chance or a throw of the dice but instead in the aesthetic sense that invented fables provided us with as much conviction as historical examples, if not more. Second, I use the term "apotheosis" to mean "quintessence." My reference here is to an 1871 painting by Basil Verestchagin that he dedicated to all conquerors, past, present, and to come. That image, more real than reality itself, evokes the quintessence of our reality. Like the painting, the reality of our war-torn cities consisted mainly of a pyramid of buried boxes with no remains, piled high like a massive monument in the central square or like an artwork of the future memorializing the zombie apocalypse. But the people are missing.

That is what happens above, on the surface. But if you turn that surface upside down, you will see that the whole country was and still is a mass grave. Was our reality ever something other than a horde of destructions? This horde of destructions is a picture of ourselves, as Wallace Stevens says, "now, an image of our society."1 Let me call the subjective effect of a landscape torn apart by war and indebtedness, which becomes parallel to and more real than the objectivity of violence and plunder, "the upside," with a nod to Verestchagin and the 1980s nostalgia of the Duffer Brothers.

That summer in the upside was a long, lonely, silent season. Customers were rare, friendly visitors more so. Boredom set in, an uninvited, speechless companion. During a hunting expedition to the back of the shop prompted by boredom, I found a stack of books: crime stories by Raymond Chandler and Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon, a newspaper edition of Mike Hammer's series, two spy thrillers byJohn Le Carré, and a compendium of mysteries penned by one Horacio Bustos Domecq. The summer of solitude was about to be saved by pulp fiction. Then my cousin went missing.

The People Are Missing

It is common sense and logic to think that a missing person is either dead or alive. We call them desaparecidos, the disappeared. There were plenty of those during the apotheosis of the war in Colombia; my cousin Hugo was merely one of them. His mother, my auntie, came to the shop and told me that in the morning when she was still in bed a bird flew in, mistaking a huge painting of a forest for the real thing; the bird circled the room, saw its error, and flew back out the window past the orange trees to alight on a high-voltage wire. …

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