Boom Town: African and Latin-American Literature in Cartagena

Last week's inaugural Hay festival in Cartagena confirmed that Latin American literature has moved on from magic realism. Maya Jaggi meets the writers working in the shadow of Gabriel García Márquez.

Gabriel García Márquez spent his first night in Cartagena de Indias in jail, after police found him wandering the streets peso-less during curfew. It was 1948, the onset of Colombia's bloody years of La Violencia, and he was 20, a budding journalist. But a night in the cells failed to dampen his wonder at the Spanish colonial seaport. As he wrote in his memoir Living to Tell the Tale (2002), after wading though a swamp of blood and mud, corpses and ruins, "the world changed in Cartagena… this solitude without sorrow, this incessant ocean, this immense sensation of having arrived".

Cartagena is still a world apart. A melting pot of African, Amerindian and Iberian cultures, it belongs to the Caribbean, not the Andean or Amazonian landscapes further south. A Unesco world heritage site since 1984, this walled city on South America's northern coast, with its cobbled squares and galleried arcades, is also a place to which Colombians came to escape the troubles: the 40-year civil war, the kidnappings and narco-trafficking, the Left-wing guerrillas and Right-wing paramilitaries.

For the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, "Cartagena is separate from national politics - free of drugs and violence. It's a window on Latin America, but it's also a symbol of the independence of culture from politics."

García Márquez, now approaching 78, has a house within these 16th-century city walls; and the man who nearly six decades ago was being run in by the police was last weekend guest of honour at the inaugural Hay festival in Cartagena. Conceived by the director Peter Florence as a "Hispanic version of Hay-on-Wye" - alongside other Hay festivals in Majorca, Segovia and, from 2007, China - it is to be an annual celebration of Spanish-language writers. But it has also drawn English-language authors - this year, Hanif Kureishi, Vikram Seth and Owen Sheers - hoping to spur interest abroad in the younger generation of Latin American writers; writers who, 40 years on from "El Boom", still fret in the shadow of their literary grandfathers.

The idea for the festival was Fuentes's, though a "commitment to Nadine Gordimer" in South Africa kept him attending, and García Márquez - Gabo, as he is known here - rose graciously in his black-and-white checked jacket to take a bow, but declined to speak. His friend Jaime Abello Banfi says he was "very enthusiastic", but that his status as a living monument can be trying. Harassed on his way to hear Vikram Seth, for instance, the Nobel laureate retreated to the writers' room in a former Carmelite nunnery, to watch the talk on a screen.

So the festival belonged, in a sense, to those younger writers. And at the 1911 Heredia theatre, a rich wedding cake of marble and chandeliers named after the colonial city's founder, audiences were packed. The glamorously well-heeled draped themselves in the lower balconies, while students - some of whom had endured 36 hours in buses or jalopies - craned from the gods.

Not long ago, roads linking Colombia's cities would have been more dangerous, but security is seen to have improved under the conservative president Álvaro Uribe, and there is already an embryonic drive to re-brand the country for tourism. Military police with automatic weapons were stationed on streets and roofs, but according to the culture minister Elvira Cuervo de Jaramillo, "Colombia has two faces: perception and reality."

Writers, of course, have a habit of contesting reality, and it was here in the Caribbean that magical realism - which was, wrongly, conflated with "the boom" - was born, presaged by the Cuban Alejo Carpentier's "lo real maravilloso" in the 1940s. For García Márquez, the Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) - the banana plantation he fashioned into a continent's mythic genesis - had deep affinities with Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha country in the Deep South. For the Nicaraguan writer and former Sandinista vice-president Sergio Ramírez, a shared African culture is key. "To be from the Caribbean is more an idea, or a sentiment, than a geographical space; it's part of your soul," he says.

For Jorge Franco, a writer in his early forties based in the Colombian capital Bogotá, the boom authors may have been an inspiration but their roots were mainly rural. "Nowadays, we're urban, and our cities are very similar - Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Mexico City, even Madrid. That changes the language." Yet "readers abroad still wanted flying grandmothers; we had a hard time telling them there's a new voice in Latin American writing".
Set in his home town of Medellín, Franco's novel Rosario Tijeras (1999) belongs to a burgeoning literature in Colombia and Mexico dubbed "narco-realism". The love story between a drug cartel's hit woman (a spin on a "hired killer" sub-genre) and a drug lord is "my debt to Medellín", says Franco. "It was a nice place to grow up until drug trafficking took over in the 1970s. We didn't know what was happening; we saw a lot of money - big buildings, luxury cars. Then the next step was terrorism."

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Gregory Tague