Colombian Literature

Pre-conquest Literature

The indigenous Colombian written language was discovered to be at its earliest stages at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Consequently there are practically no records of pre-conquest literature. The poetic tradition was oral; one of the few transcribed examples of spoken poetry is 'El Yurupapy', an oral epic gathered from
in the Vaupés region in the 16th century, though not published until 1890.

Colonial Literature

The literature produced during the colonial period (1500-1816) was mainly by an ecclesiastical elite, written for the benefit of an upper-class minority. The predominant themes were the conquest itself, Catholicism and observations of the New World. The two major writers of this period had themselves been major conquistadores.
Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada
(1499-1579), the founder of Bogotá in 1538, wrote
in 1567. The main purpose of this book was to defend Spain's reputation against accusations made by the Italian Paulo Jovii in his
Historiarum sui temporis libri XLV
(1552). Quesada sought to put the record straight on matters concerning the behaviour of his nation during the conquest of the New World.

Juan de Castellanos
(1522-1607) wrote a lengthy chronicle of the conquest called
Elegías de varones ilustres de Indias
Elegy of Illustrious Men of the Indies
, 1589). It was written in the Italian verse style popular at the time, and has been called one of the longest poems ever written. The most important piece of narrative prose written during this period was
El carnero
The Butcher
, 1638) by
Juan Rodríguez Freile
(1566-1642). This is a picaresque account of a year in the life of Santa Fe de Bogotá, using a blend of historical fact and scandalous invention to create a deliciously amoral book for its time. Mystic writing was also popular during the middle years of the conquest.
Sor Francisca
 Josefa de Castillo y Guevara
(1671-1742) was a nun who wrote baroque poetry, but was best known for her intimate spiritual diary
Afectos espirituales
(date unknown). Another Baroque poet of renown was
Hernando Domínguez Camargo
(1606-1659), who chronicled the life of Saint Ignatius in his epic
Poema heróica de San Ignacio de Loyola
Heroic Poem of St Ignatius of Loyola
, 1666).

Post-Independence Literature

The first major Colombian writer after the declaration of independence in 1824 was
Juan José Nieto
(1804-1866). His
Ingermina, o la hija de Calamar
Ingermina, or the Child of Calamar
, 1844) is a historical novel about the conquest of the Calamar Indians in the 16th century. The mid-19th century saw the publication in Bogotá of
El Mosaico
, a review centred around a literary group of the same name, founded by
José María Vergara y Vergara
(1831-1872). The prevailing style in the capital was
, the depiction of local life and customs in realistic detail. Major
novels were
(1858) by
Eugenio Díaz
(1804- 1865) and
(1867), by
Jorge Isaacs
(1837-1895). Romantic poetry also defined the early years of independence, reflecting the strong influence Europe still had over Colombia. One of the exceptions was a poet from Mompós,
Candelario Obeso
(1849-1884), the first Colombian poet to use Afro-American colloquialisms in poetry. His
Cantos populares de mi tierrra
Popular Songs of my Land
, 1877) marked a progressive shift from the Romantic style, into a poetic language which reflected the true variety of Colombia's indigenous population.

Another important region in the development of Colombian literature was Antioquia, whose main city is Medellín. This region spawned the first crop of writers who were not of the upper-class elite which had dominated Colombian letters until the late 19th century.
Tomás Carrasquilla
(1858-1940) produced three major novels which reflected his humble middle-class background, and used a casual, spoken style to portray local customs and speech, and above all a love of the land. Another Antioquian of renown was
Samuel Velásquez
(1865-1941), whose novel
, 1897) gives a strong sense of the simple life of the countryside coupled with the religious passion of its inhabitants.

Early 20th Century Literature

The beginning of the avant-garde in Colombia is marked by the publication of
) in 1925 by
León de Greiff
(1895-1976), in which he experimented with new techniques to create a completely original poetic idiom. Another important Modernist poet was
Porfirio Barba Jacob
(the pseudonym of Miguel Angel Osorio, 1883-l942), who was influenced by the French Parnassian poets and published melancholic verse, typified by
Rosas negras
Black Roses
, 1935).

Other novelists of the same era were pursuing a much more social realist style than their avant-garde counterparts.
La voragine
The Vortex
, 1924) by
José Eustacio Rivera
(1888-1928) deals with the narrator's own struggle for literary expression against a backdrop of the Amazonian rubber workers' struggle for survival.
César Uribe Piedrahita
(1897-1951) also chronicled the plight of rubber workers, and in
Mancha de aceite
Oil Stain
, 1935) he looks at the effects of the oil industry on the land and people of his country. The problems facing indigenous people began to get more attention from these socially aware writers;
Bernardo Arías Trujillo
(1903-1928) examined the lives of Afro- Americans in Colombia in

La Violencia Literature

The late 1940s to the mid-1960s in Colombian society were dominated by La Violencia. Literary output during this intensely violent period reflected the political concerns which had led to the violence; among the novels to stand out from the many personal tales of anger and disbelief was
El jardín de las Hartmann
The Garden of the Hartmanns
, 1978) by
Jorge Eliécer Prado
(born 1945), which charts the history of La Violencia in Tolima, one of the most severely affected regions. What makes this book readable is the lack of historical facts and figures, typical of books set during La Violencia, and a more generalized view of the troubles.

Two important poetry movements to come out of La Violencia were the 'Mito' group and the 'Nadaistas'.
was a poetry magazine founded in 1955 by
Jorge Gaitán Durán
(1924-1962). It included
Eduardo Cote Lemus
Carlos Obregón
(1929-1965) and
Dora Castellanos
(born 1925). Their influences were contemporary French writers such as Genet and Sartre, and the Argentinean José Luis Borges.
came out during the dictatorship of Rojas Pinilla, and was one of the few outlets for free literary expression in the country. The Nadaista group were concerned with changing the elitist role of literature in the face of the violent conflict which affected everyone, and they felt should be addressed directly; they used avant-garde styles and techniques to achieve this.

Gabriel García Márquez and Magic Realism

By far the biggest influence on Colombian fiction was the publication, in 1967, of
Cien años de soledad
A Hundred Years of Solitude
) by
Gabriel García Márquez
(1927-2014). He had published many short stories and novels in the 1950s and early 1960s. Among the most significant were
La hojarasca
Leaf Storm
in 1955) and
El coronel no tiene quien le escriba
No-one Writes to the Colonel
, 1958), a portrayal of a colonel and his wife struggling to cope with the tropical heat, political oppression and economic deprivation in their final years. But it was with
Cien años de soledad
that he became recognized as the major exponent of a new style generic to Latin American writers. Events were chronicled in a deadpan style; historical facts were blended with pure fantasy, the latter written matter- of-factly as if it were the truth; characters were vividly portrayed through their actions and brief dialogues rather than internal monologues. The style came to be known as Magic Realism in English, a translation of the Spanish 'Lo real maravilloso'. In 1975 Márquez published
El otoño del patriarca
The Autumn of the Patriarch
), which was a return to a favourite theme of his, the loneliness that power can bring.
Crónica de una muerte anunciada
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
, 1981) was set in an unnamed coastal city, but no doubt not far from Márquez's birthplace of Aracataca. It captures the docility and traditional stubbornness of the people of Colombia's Caribbean seaboard, an area in which Márquez had worked as a journalist in the 1950s.
El amor en los tiempos de cólera
Love in the Time of Cholera
, 1985) is set at the turn of the century, and concerns the affair between a couple of septuagenarians against the backdrop of another fictional city; Márquez skillfully blends Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta into one coastal town. Márquez published 23 works in total, as well as articles, essays and an autobiography.

Postmodern Literature

Other important writers in the 1970s and 1980s include
Fanny Buitrago
Manuel Zapata Olivella
. In novels such as
Los Panamanes
(1979) and
Los amores de Afrodita
The Loves of Aphorodite
, 1983), Buitrago contrasts the legends and culture of the Caribbean coast with the needs of young people to move on, at the risk of being swallowed up by modern North American culture. Zapata Olivella has published a monumental novel,
El fusilamiento del diablo
The Shooting of the Devil
, 1986) covering the six centuries of African and Afro-American history.

Colombian postmodern literature has followed European theoretical trends, with many of Colombia's more avant-garde writers living and working in Europe. While retaining the Magic Realist tradition of dispensing with a subjective, authoritative narrator, the postmoderns have greatly distanced themselves from the Colombian tradition of orally based colloquial storytelling. But it is García Márquez who has done the most to capture the public imagination. By borrowing from Colombian traditions with a modernist approach, he created a style that made him an internationally renowned literary figure both in life and death.

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