Cartagena—And a fine lunch is offered, for visiting writers, at the beautiful naval museum of the city of Cartagena de Indias, the old, walled citadel that is the pearl of the Colombian coast. The ostensible purpose of the banquet is to sample the delicacies of “Macondo”: the magic-realist domain brought to vivid life by Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude. That invitation could be offered any year, but it is just now four decades since the novel’s publication, and the museum—normally heavy with encrusted old ships’ cannon and other marine tackle—has an entire floor of paintings and etchings given over to depicting the scenes and denizens and personalities of the García Márquez story. Since the English adventurer Sir Francis Drake—or “the pirate Drake,” as he is known in these latitudes—makes a couple of appearances in the tale, this is somehow within the flexible maritime rules.
For this reader, the most arresting episode in the Macondo saga was the epidemic of insomnia that afflicted the tribe. Crazed with sleeplessness, and forgetting elementary words, the villagers at first decided to write the names of things (like knife or cow) and affix them to the relevant objects. But then they passed into a new state of insane awakeness, which made them also forget how to read. … In the nicest possible way, Cartagena is still a city that never sleeps. There is music, and various discrepant forms of private enterprise, at all hours.
How else to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a century? Well, García Márquez himself is now 79, so a competition is being announced to find the 39 best young writers in Spanish America, the results perhaps to be announced before old “Gabo” himself turns 80. Forty plus 39 is 79. For that matter, one third of 39 is 13. While all this numinous calculation is being pursued in the secular and literary world, I pay a visit to the adjacent cathedral of Santa Catalina de Alejandría. A large plaque, dated January 2007, informs me without sentiment that the lovely old church has been restored, by the combined good offices of Carlos Mattos Barrero and “Hyundai Colombia Automotriz.” (Drake pounded the old Spanish cathedral with ball and shot because the papists did not bring him the silver ingots fast enough, but his mercenary Protestant rage seems quaint when contrasted with this matter-of-fact materialism.) García Márquez himself floats above and even somewhat beyond these local preoccupations. His handsome house near the old walls is proudly pointed out, but he is as often to be found in his other habitations in either Havana or Los Angeles, and may indeed be the only person now living who can appear—or perhaps I mean to say “materialize”—with equal facility in either one of those two improbable cities.
Cartagena prefers in some ways to propose itself as more prosaic: as Colombia’s most orderly and normal center of population. The inhabitants of Cali and Medellín may have lived for decades in a narco-world of tense wakefulness and fear, and friends in the capital of Bogotá tell me that it’s only in the past few months of the tough-minded Uribe regime that they have felt safe taking a drive out of the city at weekends. But in Cartagena one is supposed to be able to relax and take a paseo at any time without apprehension. As if to prove this point too much—the permanent tendency of all nervous governments—Colombian military and police forces were at every corner of the city for the annual literary festival, assuming relaxed yet vigilant postures, and my own little public event was drowned out by the hovering of a deafening helicopter. I later learned that the vice president had planned to attend, and that the security nightmare had to be viewed in light of the fact that, in an earlier phase of his career, he had been a long-term, compulsory guest of the great cocaine cartelista Pablo Escobar.
I gathered this information at a cocktail party in the beautiful Palace of the Inquisition, scene of many hideous dramas (including a personal appearance in the main square by the devil himself, before he was successfully exorcised) and now the home to the gentlest museum of torture in the hemisphere. It’s pretty obvious that the replica of the guillotine in the courtyard does not date from the Inquisition, because the guillotine was invented by later French opponents of clerical absolutism, but underneath almost every other instrument of faith-based sadism appears the reassurance (written in Spanish only) that this particular item was never in fact put to use in Cartagena. An unsorted museum of virtual artifacts of fictional torture, or of might-have-been autos da fe, has something particularly Colombian about it.
“In fact,” sighed a knowing Colombian friend, “this whole country is a case of samples. We have some iron, but not much. We have some emeralds, but not that many. We have oil, but only a little. We have coffee, but not enough of it. …” He left the statement unfinished. Colombia does have one product which is unrivalled both in its purity and in its abundance, and as I write these words there are millions of people in the West quite willing to pay excellent money just to acquire a hint of this magical powder. It was decreed long ago, however, by the lords of Macondo, that only criminals and bandits would be able to take part in the trade. Our own politicians are inconsistent about everything else, but since the time of Richard Nixon, they have been unswervingly obedient to Macondo rules. In this lovely place, which we in our arrogance consider to be a problem rather than a country, you can see the frozen and preserved legacy of Nixon’s “war on drugs” and even Bill Clinton’s “Plan Colombia.” Try asking why this policy is still pursued in spite of its evident and repeated and inevitable failure, and why it has been allowed to poison the society with death squads and corruption and poverty, and you will receive no answer. That’s because everyone involved is so janglingly and hectically wide awake, and so hooked on the junk speed of “zero tolerance,” that they have completely and absolutely and blissfully forgotten.