Today I decided to venture out and experience the hustle and bustle of a regular weekday in the streets of Bogotá. To do that, I call a dear friend who comes to pick me up after lunch on his way back to his office, like he always does when I’m in town. To get to his office, we have to cross Bogotá from north to south in bumper-to-bumper traffic. (Traffic is so bad that cars have restricted circulation hours depending on their license plate numbers.) But since we had not seen each other for months, the inside of his four-by-four becomes a cozy den where we catch up on life. I ask him to update me on the political situation, to give me his assessment of what has happened since President Álvaro Uribe took office last August and began implementing his “Big Heart, Strong Hand,” campaign slogan, which really means strengthening the country’s military might to fight the rebels. (The previous president had tried peace talks and failed.) “It seems that they are really hitting them,” he tells me. I tell him that every day I notice a news story stating the number of rebels killed—a couple of days ago, for example, I heard 20-something. They’re not only being killed, he explains, they’re also deserting, and many local leaders are being captured. But the big shots are still at large. It is unclear if this is because they are so adept at hiding in the jungle, or because they are so well protected, or because the government is waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
The traffic moves so slowly that the vendors and the beggars have time to hock their wares. A young woman, perhaps in her late 20s, carries a stack of black garbage bags and a cardboard sign that reads: “I am a displaced mother of the country’s violence. I have to sell these bags to survive. Please collaborate.” Behind her, two boys, who are maybe 12 and 13, raise bags filled with fruit they need to sell. I am about to roll down the window, but my friend reminds me that I can’t. Bulletproof windows are too heavy.
He drops me off at the offices of El Malpensante, which, loosely translated, means “the bad thinkers.” Spending an afternoon here is one of my favorite things to do in Colombia. Six years ago, Andrés Hoyos, a contrarian by nature and cantankerous on principle, decided that he would challenge the odds and publish a thinking magazine in a country of non-readers (or, more accurately, of readers who like their news magazines to feature the voluptuous bodies of beauty queens). He found a partner in crime in Mario Jursich, his antithesis, an affable, easygoing man. Together they founded (and still run) a stunning literary, political, and cultural magazine, an amalgam of Harper’s and The New Yorker that they call “a magazine of paradoxical readings.” El Malpensante issues now almost 18,000 copies, and in Colombia, where statistics show that the average person reads less than two books a year, this is quite an achievement. But Andrés and Mario have also created an informal support network for fellow “bad thinkers.” People call them, as they would a hotline, to have an intellectual vent. They receive self-published novels, 1,000 pages long, dedicated to them. Letters to the editor often run to many impassioned pages.
Andrés and Mario prefer to talk poetry instead of politics, but they wear their politics on their sleeves. They are what the Colombian government is not: inclusive, irreverent, fearless, committed to rigor and beauty. elmalpensante has run a collection of homoerotic photographs of Peruvian matadors, and an entire issue arguing for the legalization of drugs. They’ve published both an essay titled “Give War a Chance” by one of George W. Bush’s hawks, Edward Luttwak, and a defense of the Communist Manifesto by Marcel Berman. Today, they are excited about André Gide. Mario has discovered that León de Greiff, Colombia’s master poet, translated Gide (as did Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov). And that La Symphonie Pastorale was selected as recommended reading when it was published and was reviewed in Ideas, a literary magazine published in Barranquilla in 1920 by none other than Ramon Vinyes, the Spanish erudite who arrived in Colombia after fleeing Franco and ended up teaching an entire generation of Colombians how to read. (Gabriel García Márquez, as a young man, met him and immortalized him in One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Mario hands me a copy of Borges’ translation of Gide’s poem Persephone, published in 1933. El Malpensante will publish it in their next issue, he says with the excitement of someone who has just won an arduous battle.
In their own way, Andrés and Mario are fighting for Colombia. The government believes that, first and foremost, Colombia needs to vanquish the rebel army, and that only when this happens will the Colombians be free. El Malpensante exists to remind the government that the free flow of art and ideas, of opinions and of beauty, is also essential. To quote from Gide: “Knowing how to free oneself is nothing. The difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom.”