Perspectives thread in translated Colombian novel “Come the Day”

Jun 30, 2017 Comments Off on Perspectives thread in translated Colombian novel “Come the Day” by

by Jon Lindsay Miles

Manuel Mejía Vallejo’s El día señalado is one of some fifty novels published between 1951 and 1967 that took as their subject the civil unrest in Colombia known as “La violencia”. In his book-length study of the Colombian novel, La novela colombiana: Planetas y satélites (1978), Seymour Menton considers Mejía Vallejo’s novel the title amongst these most worthy of literary analysis. Others have long been available in English — Álvaro Cepeda Samudio’s La Casa Grande (original Spanish-language publication 1952), and three by Gabriel García Márquez: No One Writes to the Colonel (1958), In Evil Hour (1960) and One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) — but it has taken a full half-century for the novel find its way into English, having been translated promptly into German, Danish, Dutch and Swedish after its publication in 1964. Come the Day is now available in a limited edition from Immigrant Press, an independent publisher based in southern Spain.

A murder committed by a madman on April 9, 1948 provoked serious rioting in the Colombian capital. The Bogotazo, as this violent response to the death of Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán came to be known, led to disturbances across across the country, becoming an episode of national unrest lasting in some regions until 1965. The shock of “La violencia” also spilled into what was at the time a mediocre national literary culture, leading to comparisons with the Mexican and Cuban revolutions in the volume of books that followed and their significance for Colombian literature. A reading of Come the Day confirms Seymour Menton’s interest: there is nothing commonplace in the way Mejía Vallejo has written his novel.

Mejía Vallejo also wrote short stories, the plot lines from four of which provided the threads which the Antioquian author then gathered into his novel. The sense is of threads not woven into a tight literary form, and it seems that the author trusts in his reader’s ability to bring together a collage of episodes into a coherent picture. The clear lines of the various plots and intrigues in the book, however, make this work far easier than might be suggested by its form.

The principal thread is a first-person story of revenge, that of a young man on the road in search of his father, to pit his fighting cock against that of this man who abandoned him and his mother when the youngster was a child, and then kill him. It is this thread which advances the reading of the novel, as well as prepares the drama of its culminating, Western-style set piece in the fictional town of Tambo. The other threads depict small-town life in the region of Colombia where “La violencia” settled after its first months, and persisted for almost two decades: the Andean Highlands known as the paramo. These stories are told in the third person,  yet they include incursions by first-person voices which narrate the interior world of characters present elsewhere in the action on the page, absent or even dead.

The novel is divided into three parts which begin with a prologue, each of these providing a poetic interlude deepening the identity of a particular character in the novel. These prologues work as much by the use of suggestion and silence as by direct presentation, becoming presences without voices, existing in silence. These have been referred to as figures from the world of Juan Rulfo, and show the suffering of ordinary folk in all its intensity. Mejía Vallejo keeps the events of “La violencia” itself largely in the background, in the slowly and partially revealed stories of secondary characters, in the makeshift barracks where a military detachment has been sent, and high in the paramo above the town where the guerrillas who are the object of the brutal Sergeant Mataya’s manoeuvrings threaten their attack on Tambo.

Come the Day has its selection of archetypes of small-town life: the prostitute Otilia who has fallen in love with the most fearsome of the guerrillas; the one-armed gravedigger who waits patiently to bury those who did him a murderous injustice and drove him off the paramo; the sensitive potter; and the four, well-to-do “señoras” who are the stereotypical busybodies of town life. But the depth in Mejía Vallejo’s novel lies in the human complexity written particularly into the figure of the newly arrived town priest, Padre Barrios, who wants to plant the barren townscape with young trees, and that of the lame cacique, Don Heraclio Chútez, who is the landowning centre of power in Tambo. These two circle each other through the novel in a test of moral strength; but neither is immune to the reason to be found in the other’s words: “If God knew guilt as man did,” the priest says to Don Heraclio one evening, “then remorse would now be killing him.”

“The Lord’s ways are mysterious,” Sergeant Mataya thinks, before he informs Don Heraclio in a key passage that the planned trap for the guerrillas has been set. His soldiers have carried out an ambush on the paramo, the sergeant has allowed Padre Barrios to go out to attend to the dying guerrillas, but only so as to entrap and kill whatever might remain of the latter. And yet Don Heraclio begs the sergeant who he has authorised to carry out the killing: “[D]on’t harm the little priest.” “But you’re not losing your convictions, Don Heraclio?” answers the soldier. In the episode following this conversation, we witness Don Heraclio expressing the kind of sentiments we might rather expect to hear from the priest, as he observes the fate of a dragonfly caught in a spider’s web.

In the closing pages of the novel, Otilia the prostitute is in the pottery as the sound of exploding ammunition echoes outside: the guerrillas have at last launched their attack on the military force in Tambo. Otilia, having told the potter of the complexity of her feelings about her relationship with the malevolent guerrilla, and frightened by what is about to befall her, asks a question both intimate and universal: “Potter, what is a man?” The potter’s eyes turned quiet. “I don’t know.”

Excerpt from Come the Day:

“Sergeant,” said the other, grave: “don’t harm the little priest.” He turned and went off to his hammock with a weakness in his movements. While the drumming faded out above the outskirts of the town, the lame man’s face became relaxed as he recalled the night before, his urge to go out to his piece of land, revive the times of long ago, the days he’d been a wanderer and chose to stay in Tambo. He’d felt the long-forgotten pleasure when he’d leapt up over gaps and rocks, and made it to the crest without his stud horse underneath him. Years ago it was now – since the day he’d gone to plant that guaiacum that bloomed its yellow flowers – years without such simple joys. ‘One who doesn’t love some kind of tree won’t love the forest; one who doesn’t love another doesn’t love humanity; one who doesn’t love some plot of land will never know this world.’ The wooden posts were creaking as the hammock gently rocked. The triple-heeled boot on his foot sank in the network of the pita, while the other rested on the ground, responding to the rhythm. When the rocking movement lessened, Don Heraclio looked along the beams, he braced his stick against the wall to gain renewed momentum. Just beside the ring on which the hammock cords were knotted was the trap spun by a spider, and a dragonfly had just become entangled in its threads. Then Don Heraclio smiled: there was no reason for the dragonfly to be there in his room. The thing deserved the fate before it. Yet his smile began to fade when he discerned the spider’s movements in a crack along the wall. And now he waited for the battle.

His eyes continued watching while his thoughts became entangled in the fabric of his past. ‘… This world in which a man must live.’ Wasn’t this town his world now? Tambo? Twenty years it was now since he’d turned up in the town. He’d done the work to get that land which now belonged to the community. His only pure possession. All the rest: expropriations, tricks, from bets and legal thievery. And then… ‘Death makes us all so small.’ Death! And yet this weariness was really rather pleasing, he obeyed the leg now crippled of its appetite for climbing. He couldn’t begin to say quite how the priest had worked his way inside him, without seeming to intend to, as if giving the appearance that he wanted quite the opposite. As now he worked inside his land.

Half the spider’s body now protruded from the crevice. The dragonfly was ever more entangled as it struggled. Threads of web were trembling but resisted all its efforts, and the spider’s first three legs advanced. ‘Don’t harm the little priest.’ And Don Heraclio knew a restlessness. He’d felt a certain calm when in the presence of the priest: it was a long-forgotten calm, a wish to pacify his conscience, to adjust himself in some way to decisions that he’d made. A man acts in accordance with the people who are around him, with the values he’s inherited or those he’s manufactured. If one took away their goodness, some would find themselves defenceless, they would fall without its influence to give them some direction; they would die in perfect grief. But for himself, he favoured strength, preferred the energetic wickedness that some had been prepared for, where that tension would remain though they’d been stripped of all their virtues; it is these who are true humans, with the spirit and the muscle fit to taking up the fight.

And yet he didn’t want excuses from a superficial study of his actions in the past. ‘The past? Each act is always present and it never loses force through all the passing of the days to come…’ He didn’t understand why things would calm down when the priest spoke. But this plan to plant the parched lands, build more houses, set up workshops. He remembered, very close beside the guaiacum he’d planted, seeing the washerwoman beating out her washing in the stream. The water running in the heat of afternoon was also gentle. And the smoke from the volcano, and the voices of those ploughing. He’d observed María’s rancho… ‘Threw it up in half a day!’ ‘We’ll build a lot of houses, work as a community to build them all.’ ‘And what if the guerrillas come? They’re up there on the Páramo, down here we’ve the volcano, and on one of these fine days…’ he brought his hands together, parted them to mimic an explosion: ‘boom!’ ‘I’d join them, work beside them all.’

He set his stick against the wall and gave himself a push, and this time harder for the spider tried to penetrate the dragonfly with some part of its body. Something also flinched in Don Heraclio as if punctured, in a part he’d thought as foreign but was tethered to the day. He felt the struggling of his memories.

He’d grown up in a tiny place, sent kites into the air and gone round looking out for birds’ nests. He had disobeyed his parents, led the mischief that was natural in the children of his age. And then beginning at the age of ten he’d come upon aggression with the beasts one set in rivalry. He fell in love with fighting cocks, admired caciques in small towns who knew how to get their way, and felt the early, little triumphs of the bully now awakening. And as his early poverty had filled the youth with shame, he made a vow to be a strong man in the adult world of politics, have wherewithal in business – even if it meant he turned to dirty tricks; and then he’d earn the luxury of honesty in life, then he would grant to others proudly, never have to ask for favours. ‘If it weren’t to be like that,’ he’d said to someone later on, ‘I’d have to make a living always saying thankyou to another, quite the worst thing that can happen in the life of any man.’

His spur had caught up in the pita mesh, he pulled for several seconds as he looked back at the dragonfly. Someone shook a key-ring and unlocked a door inside; the irritation when he heard it close was written on the lame man’s face. He yanked his foot and ripped the tangled pita with his spur wheel. Don Heraclio liked to wear them loose to make him feel the manliness when listening to his footsteps. ‘He brings along an orchestra,’ said someone in the Red Cock once. He went out to find this gossip, walked his spurs around him three times and then, turning to his whip, he left the man as if asleep all through the contests of that evening. ‘Let him hear the angel’s spurs,’ the mayor had said as he was leaving. He’d been carrying his favourite bird, Four Feathers, underneath his arm, and called the other breeders to go with him to the cockpit.

He’d gathered many spurs, which hung as trophies on his office walls, while others had been lost in the adventures of his youth. Those spurs of copper, silver, steel, combined. His own cocks’ spurs as well. And once…

When the memories pleased him he would give the slightest smile and let his stick fall in the pita plants. When they were distasteful he would chide them with the stick against his triple-heeled boot. He thought of José Miguel Pérez, of María, of his wounded birds. The spider dragged the dragonfly away towards its lair. Why didn’t she wrap it in her web? ‘Because she engineers her own law…’ And they struck him as absurd now, all those things he’d done to make him strong. He’d made a contribution to the coarsening of Tambo, to the tension in the district. He’d debased himself by running scams the way aguardiente had become the vice of others, but the victims of his vice included many who were innocent. There were some acts of virtue, if one thought the term applied, but they were born of his defeat; they couldn’t be called an active choice, but the ashes of some fire he’d caused, the debris left by evil when this evil feels its weakness: the moral, but without its flame. He never felt that warmth which comes from doing something good. The bitter taste remained there in his mouth and in his spirit. ‘Don Heraclio, who is it you love?’ Nobody at all. He doesn’t even love himself. His selfish acts are cold and there is no one there to warm him. He sweeps away what faces him, a flood in which destruction offers only meagre triumphs, brought by instinct, nothing more. There was nothing that excited him like animals of tooth and claw. Tigers, cocks and sparrowhawks, the drama of their powers held in elemental forces. And then the powers of man.

He had arrived one day in Tambo with a tiger that was wounded. The tiger limped because he made it walk along the stony street. Don Heraclio limped because his knee had been torn open. The story of that afternoon was something for the townsfolk: ‘Tooth and nail it was between them.’ ‘Now the man is lame for good.’ ‘Maimed, and in an instant.’ ‘Where is it the bite was seen?’ ‘The tiger didn’t do it, you’ll find Juancho Lopera’s shotgun pellets buried in his knee.’ As to the truth, no one could tell you that. It is known that the tiger went on living in the lame-man’s house, and one day when the sun rose the people came on Juancho Lopera hanging in the tamarind tree. Cojo Chútez never spoke a word about what happened: he depended on the legend.

‘No one, Padre Barrios. Nobody at all.’

… These were the woeful days of Tambo and he’d played his part to make them so. ‘All of us has bad days,’ was the way the priest had answered him, and given him just the right look. Another pair of eyes, a different look, he would have moaned. ‘Which of us does not?’ he’d heard. ‘I feel these are the worst of days.’ ‘And what’s my civic duty, then?’ the lame man had replied.

The priest had stretched his hands out and expounded on the pita, how the factories would change the town, they’d live with greenery all around.

‘Don’t harm the little priest.’

And as the spider slipped into the crack, the dragonfly dragged after it, the lame man felt some tenderness. But by the time he’d roused himself and thought to intervene, there were just folds of broken web there in the opening in the wall. And now he moved his arms decisively, got up and bid them bring his horse. Perhaps it might not be too late…

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