Novels of Colombia’s Patriarchy

Fathers dead and fathers dying—as well as adult children struggling to leave their fathers’ shadow—shape two recent novels from Colombia. Though one concerns a ...

Fathers dead and fathers dying—as well as adult children struggling to leave their fathers’ shadow—shape two recent novels from Colombia. Though one concerns a dilapidated seaside resort off the Caribbean coast and the other a cherished family farm in the mountainous coffee-growing region, a theme of fraught masculinity underlies both novels.

Tomás González’s The Storm depicts an older man and his two sons caught on a dangerous fishing expedition: not only do they encounter a furious natural disaster, but also a reckoning with the skipper’s tyrannical nature and its deadly consequences. Meanwhile, Héctor Abad’s The Farm is about how three adult children deal with inheriting a paternal farm. This latter narrative also confronts what these farms—called fincas—have symbolized for middle-class, often conservative voters, and how the feelings these plots of land evoke have been employed by strongman politicians to advance dangerous, patriarchal politics.

This backdrop of confrontations with patriarchy gives poignance to a moment in Abad’s novel, when a daughter finds a note from her late father at their family finca. It says that literature should be “full of action, with no space for clichés or sentimental meditations.” Abad ironizes here. His novel, a compendium of simple joys and brooding sentiment, disobeys the father’s advice.

Indeed, both González’s and Abad’s works reject—and still, in their own ways, display yearning for—the oppressive, yet comforting, certainties of patriarchy. This ambivalence travels with the authors, as well as their characters, in their journeys through the sites of the Colombian Dream. The resulting novels will leave a long-lasting impression on readers—at least those readers ready to see through these authors’ orphaned eyes.

Second homes are about as uncommon in the United States, and as far removed from the daily life of the middle class, as maids are. Yet both of these are staples of the middle class in many places in Latin America. Understanding how the second homes owned by extended family punctuate daily life in Colombia—the “farm” of Abad’s English-language title—greatly aids in understanding the battered psyche of the country as a whole.

Such fincas, it turns out, can even affect elections.1 Key to strongman Álvaro Uribe’s 2002 presidential election was a campaign promise: to allow the middle classes to return to their fincas, which had either been seized by insurgents or become inaccessible due to the armed conflict. Here, Uribe channeled Rudy Giuliani’s broken-windows policies. Instead of turning to the country’s many other pressing priorities, he focused instead on securing roads so that car-owning city dwellers could spend long weekends in their beloved country estates. The strategy worked, cementing Uribe’s image as a stern yet compassionate patriarch, as encapsulated in the slogan mano firme, corazón grande (firm hand, big heart). Sentiment—and the love of fincas—is really at the heart of it all.

For his part, writing for the New York Times in 2012, Abad wished “that piece of old furniture called Álvaro Uribe would stop getting in everybody’s way in the middle of the living room.” The former president had become a cantankerous social media presence, whose incendiary tactics have come to echo Jair Bolsonaro’s in Brazil and Donald Trump’s in the US. Like his comrades in tweets, Uribe had (and still has, as senator) a knack for rallying sympathizers. Abad opposes this both explicitly in his public interventions and implicitly in his novel.

To Abad’s credit, his intention in examining fincas goes beyond providing local color. A suitable fourth epigraph for the book, alongside the Leviticus, J. M. Coetzee, and Dulce María Loynaz selections, would be Walter Benjamin’s over-quoted dictum that “every document of civilization is a document of barbarism.”2 Examining the fincas—supposed outposts of civilization—helps us to examine not just Colombia at large, but its ambivalent place within Western civilization.

The finca, allegedly a haven of civilization, is revealed to be the very fountain of Colombia’s dangerous conservatism.

Toward the end of The Farm there is a passage—echoing the revelation and clarity of Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses—that tells it like it is. Here, Jon rants about his husband Antonio’s infatuation with the family finca.

Jon and Antonio live in New York, a place where the Stonewall riots are memorialized and where they, as gay men, may live fully in the open. (Although Bogotá recently elected its first openly lesbian mayor, homophobia runs deep in Uribe country.) The family’s finca—called La Oculta, which is also the original title of the novel in Spanish—lies at a remove from the cosmopolitan acceptance of New York. In the nearby hills of Antioquia, brutal deaths—of all kinds—recede into oblivion. What, Jon asks, can the finca really offer them?

La Oculta is, as all fincas are, supposed to be a locus amoenus: a haven from barbarity. Jon is not buying it. Instead, he finds that

the friendliness and kindness of the people of Antioquia was not normal, the excess of courtesy, according to him, was actually hiding a fear of violence. … He also said that in reality he believed that our family, and in general all of Antioquia, suffered from a type of finca madness. … That he definitely did not understand that attachment to land, to the ancestors who’d settled it, to rural property. That it was insane to spend one’s life buying and selling farms. That land in the United States was more fertile and cheaper, and besides, it was the campesinos [peasants] who worked the land and not the people who lived in the cities, who nevertheless always had their minds on fincas. … That to see so many birds he’d rather go to the Natural Science Museum. And he kept talking like that for hours, like someone throwing verbal punches.

This tirade raises many interesting issues. For one, note how the improbability of an openly gay life in Colombia goes unmentioned. This may be because heteronormativity has somewhat lost its grip on the Country of the Sacred Heart—not that it does not remain a pressing consideration.3 But more importantly, it’s because the site of oppression, the kernel of conservatism, is the finca itself. We can return to the Benjamin quote: the finca, allegedly a haven of civilization, is here revealed to be the very fountain of Colombia’s dangerous conservatism.

In this unanticipated twist on the Joycean motif, Jon’s monologue is akin to a “coming out” as a finca hater. Although he has tried to see what his husband sees, to love what he loves, Jon must finally speak his mind. When Antonio finally listens to the long tirade, as his sister Pilar reports, he feels heartbroken. To choose between the two loves of his life is excruciating for Antonio; to witness that the love of his life loves something else is equally devastating for Jon. The personal is, indeed, political.


The South According to Coetzee

By Derek Attridge

The Farm explores this dialectic in fits and starts. Sections with the headings “Antonio,” “Pilar,” and “Eva” (the third sibling) deliver different perspectives in vivid, however programmatic, fashion. Mourning provides the book’s unity of action. The narrative opens with a phone call “in the dark, early hours of a New York winter’s night” with the news that Anita, the matron of the family, has died at La Oculta.

Loss is a subject that Abad has already explored in his masterful El olvido que seremos (2006)—translated into English in 2010 as Oblivion: A Memoir—a coming to terms with the real-life assassination of his father, Héctor Abad Gómez (1921–87), a doctor and human rights activist. The Farm sustains the force of that nonfictional piece in a different register.

Throughout, the novel teaches how to love the fincas in all their anachronism and civility, their conjuring of a genteel and earthly ethos. But it also reveals the lurching fear—voiced most explicitly in the secondhand stream of consciousness—that this love may be an agent of social degradation.

But while fincas have a unique history in Colombia, they represent something much bigger. For example, in the above excerpt, Jon longs not for the farm and hills, but, instead, for the Natural Science Museum. Mastery over and display of nature is, really, very Colombian. But it is far from exceptional.4 The love for manicured landscapes and sumptuous greenhouses—on display throughout Abad’s novel—offers many a lesson about the barbarity in civilization, in the South and the North, that emerge when reading between the lines.

It might be a sign of the recent pains of patriarchy—or perhaps its reorganization—that other novels, like González’s The Storm, deal with similar issues. Two adult twins, Mario and Javier, set out to fish with their domineering father—“his chest furred with gray hair, his legs muscular and veiny”—to provide for the seaside family hotel they operate. The resort, nestled in a lush semirural Caribbean setting, is the kind that would receive lukewarm TripAdvisor reviews.

There is a rising storm seemingly far off on the horizon that the father and sons choose to ignore, while other (perhaps “more local”) fishermen wisely keep their boats ashore. What follows is a contest of wills, on many levels. Not only does the punishing ocean push the men’s physical endurance to their limits, but in their struggle for survival, deep emotional wounds also come to the surface.

For a novel that deals with strained family ties and the revealing of secrets, it is notable how all the literary affiliations of the novel lie in the open, for everyone to see. Yes, there is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, with all its aging macho glory, as well as García Márquez’s nonfiction The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, often regarded as a rewriting of that novella. But there’s also the Iliad, with tourists’ internal monologues taking the place of the typical chorus. Talk about hubris! Astonishingly, González pulls it off.

Although steeped in literary history, the novel does not come across as cerebral or overwrought. The book’s Spanish title is Temporal, the word both for a storm and for a temporary state. In her deft translation, Andrea Rosenberg had to choose between these two meanings. But she compensates by paying close attention to lyrical passages in the novel that play with the passage of time.

Sometimes this yields awkward, purposeful phrases in the English version. In the words of Nora, the delusional mother of the twins (a Penelope of sorts), we read, “It keeps dawning and dawning. What for?” The question encapsulates the tension between page-turner and mood piece that gives the book its elusive quality. The gerund sounds less odd in Spanish than it does in the English present progressive, but in both cases the verb choice reveals something about the character’s mental state.5

González’s and Abad’s novels are not just symptomatic of a national ethos, but of the worrisome resurgence of toxic masculinity on the world stage.

The underlying absurdity hints at a particularly profound ennui that González, a seasoned if underappreciated writer, investigates in this and other works from his remarkable oeuvre. His books include the English title In the Beginning Was the Sea (2014), a novel from the early ’80s about disaffected hippies attempting to live close to nature on the Caribbean coast—an urtext for The Storm—and Difficult Light, forthcoming in 2020.

The Storm constantly shifts from the embattled fishermen to the concerned family members to the more or less indifferent tourists. In so doing, it paints a picture of Colombian society and its expenditures: “Tourism around these parts is more recreational than it is intellectual—it features way more liquor than it does books, at least during the high season. You don’t tend to see bookworms on these beaches; they shrink from the exuberant noise and happiness.” The heavy drinking in González’s resort—and, for that matter, on Abad’s farm—gives the impression of a society that has survived the hell of highway terrorism only to reach the paradise of numbness.

Eager travelers spend, greedy fishermen wear themselves out, precious fish become scarce. And yet the fantasy of a picture-perfect holiday must live on: “[The father] sings the praises of the unsullied environment, though the twin knows full well—and doesn’t actually care—what they do with the sewage at the hotel.” In this fashion, unheroic, flawed, and eminently relatable characters punctuate the pages of González’s works.

It is best not to say much about the survival drama itself. The virtuoso narration, much as one may have read before about men braving the waves, is gripping. The twins’ fantasies of mutiny and parricide ebb and flow; their resentment washes over the reader. We learn about the father’s younger second wife, about Javier’s disapproval of Mario’s pot-smoking habit and his “unnecessary” battering of women, and about raging Nora being strapped to her bed. The cacophony of voices also spans the comically banal, including that of eight-year-old Yónatan, whose grandmother warned him to go inside before the storm came in, and of Johanna, “the one whose boyfriend stayed out in the sun too long the first day and got burned to a crisp.” Meanwhile, the fight for life continues through the wee hours of the night as Javier’s tiny headlamp sheds light on the father, who lies injured in the bottom of the boat.

At this point in the novel, after many pages of rhetorical twists, the line separating inside and outside the characters has completely dissolved. Of the father, Gonzalez writes:

Suddenly he’s alone. The pain in his ankle becomes as external as the thunder and lightning, and his sons disappear. Rising from the abyss toward the surface, toward them, comes an unknown something that provokes horror in the father, and tries to get into the boat. It’s not a fish. He’s delirious. Everything around him merges with the tall waves, and he forgets that they’re only fifty feet above the coral reefs and not suspended above an abyss. “You’re not going to bring me down, you bastards,” he says, attempting to sound resolute.

But he’s afraid. He’s hardly ever been afraid in his life.

It could be the storm mirroring inner turmoil, or a more radical continuity of nature and culture. Indeed, it could be an indictment of the fatherland, falling all the way down from its rolling green hills—where Abad’s farm is, allegedly, nestled peacefully—to its shifting underwater currents.

Whatever the case may be, the denouement of the fatherly plot, in Colombia as elsewhere, is hard to predict. González’s and Abad’s novels are not just symptomatic of a national ethos, but of the worrisome resurgence of toxic masculinity on the world stage. As noted, they offer different solutions to that pressing riddle. They do agree in a disquieting revelation: namely, that in order to see through the plots and schemes of the patriarchs, to wrestle with their legacies, one needs to have seen them first with burning love.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

  1. But what is a finca? The word deserves a spot in Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables. Closer to the Argentine chacra than to estancia, to the French gîte or fermette than to ferme, finca gravitates between the English manor, plantation house, and, yes, farm. The latter is, of course, Anne McLean’s compromise in her competent translation. Meanwhile, the German translation settled for finca in italics, perhaps because the troublesome Heimat, with both its homey and autochthonous invocations, was lurching in the translator’s mind. See Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, edited by Barbara Cassin, translated from the French by Steven Rendall et al. (Princeton University Press, 2014), and Héctor Abad, La Oculta, translated by Peter Kultzen (Berenberg, 2016).
  2. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt and translated from the German by Harry Zohn (Schocken, 1969), p. 256.
  3. Rubén Mendoza’s 2017 documentary Señorita María, la falda de la montaña, about a campesino woman, assigned male at birth, in the Catholic highlands, would be an excellent starting point for further reflection.
  4. See Felipe Martínez Pinzón, Una cultura de invernadero: Trópico y civilización en Colombia (1808–1928) (Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2016).
  5. It is remarkable how different regions and accents of Colombia (Rosenberg does her best to convey them) all descend upon the resort, which bears the unremarkable name “Playamar.” In a country that a prominent historian has called “a nation in spite of itself,” one whose literature has been studied as a patchwork of regional literatures, it is remarkable that this should be the case. See David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (University of California Press, 1993), and Raymond Leslie Williams, The Colombian Novel, 1844–1987 (University of Texas Press, 1991).
Featured image: Untitled (2019). Photograph by Jerry Wang / Unsplash