I came to London, like so many people have come to so many places, fleeing from the history that was my lot, or rather, from the history of the country that was my lot. In other words, I came to London because here history had ceased some time ago: nothing happened in these lands anymore, everything had already been invented and done; they'd already had all the ideas, all the empires had arisen and they'd fought all the wars, and I would be forever safe from the disasters that Great Moments can impress onto Small Lives. Coming here was, therefore, a legitimate act of self-defense; the jury that judges me will have to take that into consideration.
For I, too, shall be accused in this book; I, too, shall sit on the timeworn bench, although the patient reader will have to cover more than a few pages to discover of what I accuse myself. I, who came in flight from Big History, now go back a whole century to the core of my little story, and shall attempt to investigate the roots of my disgrace. During that night, the night of our encounter, Conrad listened to me tell my story; and now, dear readers - readers who shall judge me, Readers of the Jury - it's your turn. For the success of my tale rests on this supposition: you will have to know all that Conrad knew.
(But there is someone else... Eloísa, you, too, will have to get to know these reminiscences, these confessions. You, too, will have to deliver, when the time comes, your own pardon or your own guilty verdict.)
My story begins in February 1820, five months after Simón Bolívar made his victorious entrance into the capital of my recently liberated country. Every story has a father, and this one begins with the birth of mine: Don Miguel Felipe Rodrigo Lazaro del Niño Jesús Altamirano. Miguel Altamirano, known to his friends as the Last Renaissance Man, was born in the schizophrenic city of Santa Fe de Bogotá, which from here on in will be called either Santa Fe or Bogotá or even That Shit Hole; while my grandmother tugged hard on the midwife's hair and let out screams that frightened the slaves, a few steps away the law was approved by which Bolívar, in his capacity as father of the nation, chose the name for that country fresh out of the oven, and the country was solemnly baptized. So the Republic of Colombia - schizophrenic country that will later be called New Granada or the United States of Colombia or even That Shit Hole - was a babe in arms, and the corpses of the executed Spaniards were still fresh; but there is no historical event that marks or distinguishes my father's birth, except for the superfluous ceremony of that baptism.
My father was - as I have already said - the Last Renaissance Man. I cannot say he was of blue blood, because that hue was no longer acceptable in the new republic, but what flowed through his veins was magenta, shall we say, or maybe purple. His tutor, a frail and sickly man who had been educated in Madrid, educated my father in turn with the Quixote and Garcilaso; but the young Altamirano, who by the age of twelve was already a consummate rebel (as well as a terrible literary critic), strove to reject the literature of the Spaniards, the Voice of the Occupation, and in the end succeeded in doing so. He learned English to read Thomas Malory, and one of his first published poems, a hyperromantic and mawkish creation comparing Lord Byron to Simón Bolívar, appeared under the signature Lancelot of the Lake. My father discovered later that Byron had in fact wanted to come and fight with Bolívar, and it was only chance that finally took him to Greece; and what he henceforth felt for Romantics, from England and anywhere else, began to replace little by little the devotions and loyalties his elders had left him as his birthright.
Not that this was difficult, for by the age of twenty the Latin American Byron was already orphaned. His mother had been killed by smallpox; his father (in a much more elegant way) by Christianity. My grandfather, an illustrious colonel who had fought against the dragoons of many Spanish regiments, was stationed in the southern provinces when the progressive government decreed the closure of four convents, and saw the first riots in defense of religion at bayonet point. One of those Catholic, apostolic, and Roman bayonets, one of those steel points engaged on the crusade for the faith, stabbed him months later; the news of his death arrived in Bogotá at the same time as the city was preparing to repel an attack by those same Catholic revolutionaries. But Bogotá or Santa Fe was, like the rest of the country, divided, and my father would never forget it: leaning out of a window at the university, he saw the people of Santa Fe in procession carrying a figure of Christ dressed in a general's uniform, heard the shouts of "Death to the Jews," and marveled at the thought that they referred to his stabbed father, and then returned to the classroom routine, in time to observe his fellow students stabbing with sharp, pointed instruments cadavers recently arrived from the battlefields. For there was nothing at that time, absolutely nothing, the Latin American Byron liked more than being a first-hand witness to the fascinating advances of medical science.
Reprinted from The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vásquez by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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