Read a chapter from Colombia writer Alfredo Iriarte’s Tropical Bestiary: Dictator Chronicles, published in the current issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
Alfredo Iriarte’s Tropical Bestiary: Dictator Chronicles, a collection of biographies of nine Latin American dictators, is a text that refuses to be faithful to established institutions and ideologies. It resists and undermines mainstream historiography, and rebels against what Iriarte viewed as a whitewashing of barbarism and cruelty with glorious myths of national progress. Iriarte’s approach is both to emphasize horrific and grotesque moments in Latin American history, and to fictionalize history, abandoning strict historical accuracy and incorporating apocrypha and popular legends into the portraits, preferring literary qualities over stodgy factual precision.
By calling his text a “bestiary,” he not only emphasizes the brutality and inhumanity of his subjects, but also places it in the didactic tradition of the medieval bestiaries, which were typically written to transmit moral lessons. The satirical techniques that Iriarte employs, too, manage to link the book both with older historical texts such as Suetonius’s lives of the Caesars and the European chronicles of the Middle Ages, and with modern popular historiography and journalism, including the “dramatic reenactments” so common in television programs today. Latin America’s tradition of dictator novels—among them Augusto Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme (1974), Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), and, most influentially for Iriarte, Jorge Zalamea’s El gran Burundún-Burundá ha muerto (1951)—also shares important characteristics with Tropical Bestiary. Iriarte himself would eventually write his own dictator novel, El jinete de Bucentauro, published in 2000. He saw literature as a tool for resisting dominant ideologies—once commenting on Don Quixote that “great literature (never mediocre literature) has invariably been a robust force that goes against the grain of society”—but also saw the more subversive works of literature being disregarded by their own societies.
Tropical Bestiary is arguably a historical text, a work of nonfiction. And yet, quite self-consciously the author allies himself with fiction in the very title of the book, identifying the genre not as history but as “chronicle.” Although chronicles might be historiographical in form, they are narrative in nature, allowing fiction and nonfiction to coexist and to even become indistinguishable. History in its strict sense, then, is subverted, and Iriarte’s profound disgust and outrage at the cruelties and injustices inflicted on Latin America are quite apparent. In this way, Tropical Bestiary participates in a historiographical tradition reaching back to classical Greece and Rome, but also in one that has specifically described the exploitation of Latin America’s natural and human resources through the centuries, such as Bartolomé de las Casas’s A Very Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America.
Alfredo Iriarte, born in Bogotá in 1932, was an intellectual and journalist best known for his historical essays. He began and then abandoned studies in law at the Universidad del Rosario, one of the most prestigious universities in Colombia, and went into the insurance business, eventually becoming a successful executive at Seguros Bolívar. Iriarte was extremely well read and mostly an autodidact, with particular interest in the great names of Spanish literature such as Miguel de Cervantes and Francisco de Quevedo. The title of his first book, Lo que lengua mortal decir no pudo, is taken from a poem written by one of Colombia’s most esteemed nineteenth-century linguists and poets, Miguel Antonio Caro, but Iriarte also made use of his erudition in less refined contexts. In his collection Repertorio prohibido, Iriarte incorporated extensive citations from Cervantes, Quevedo, and other canonical writers into satirical discussions of excrement, garlic, and the word “puta” (“whore”).
Iriarte published columns in newspapers and in the 1970s quit the insurance business to write full time. Despite his exaggerated, baroque prose style, he became a popular columnist for a number of Colombian periodicals, with a focus on historical and linguistic topics, as well as occasional political commentary. His column “Rosary of Pearls” ran for more than 15 years in El Tiempo, Colombia’s principal newspaper, and served as a platform for Iriarte’s discussions of grammar and vocabulary and his impassioned defense of the Spanish language against the corrupting influences of incorrect usage, slang, and general ignorance. He published several collections of essays, some adapted from his newspaper columns, and late in his life also published two novels. Iriarte died in 2002.
Alfredo Iriarte was a close friend to a number of major Colombian writers. Jorge Zalamea was a mentor to the younger writer, and Iriarte wrote a long critical essay to accompany a 1966 reissue of Zalamea’s dictator novel, El gran Burundún-Burundá ha muerto. He was also close to Álvaro Mutis and Gabriel García Márquez; Alfredo’s brother Gabriel describes him as having been one of the first readers of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and an early defender of the novel before it achieved critical success.
Iriarte’s first book, Lo que lengua mortal decir no pudo (What Mortal Tongue Could Not Speak), was a collection of essays on Latin American history that had first appeared in El Tiempo. (Some of the essays in this first collection were later reworked to become part of Tropical Bestiary, which was published in 1986.) The allusion to the Caro poem in the title is ironic: the original sonnet is deeply patriotic, while Iriarte’s book tells a version of history that conflicts with the highly polished account, containing chapters with titles like “Nation for Sale,” “Vietnam in Central America,” and “The Atrocious War.” So while Caro’s verse runs
Patria! te adoro en mi silencio mudo,
y temo profanar tu nombre santo.
Por ti he gozado y padecido tanto
cuanto lengua mortal decir no pudo.
O my country! I adore you in mute silence,
afraid of profaning your sacred name.
I have savored and suffered so much because of you
that mortal tongue could not speak of it.
and evokes the poet’s profound affection for the nation, Iriarte, in titling his book after that line, suggests that the mortal tongue would instead be too horrified, outraged, or ashamed to speak of the series of atrocities and barbarisms that make up, as he saw it, the bulk of Latin American history.
Gabriel Iriarte describes his brother as having been emphatically leftist—in the 1970s Alfredo even appeared on a Colombian Point/Counterpoint-style television program, El Juicio, hosted by César Simmonds Pardo, to argue in favor of Castro and the Cuban Revolution—but Gabriel is careful to note that Alfredo was never extremist or militant in his views. Jorge Mario Eastman Robledo, in a review of Tropical Bestiary published in Consigna in 1986, described him as “one of the few members of my generation . . . who miraculously escaped falling by contagion into the trap of political militancy.” Instead, Iriarte remained at an ironic, almost cynical, remove.
In fact, Iriarte reserved a great deal of his ire for historians, calling official histories “the great makeup artists of history. Living in the country they present,” he said, “is like being in heaven.” This is not to say that Iriarte did not take sides in his own writings, but that he didn’t hide his ideology behind the seemingly neutral language of objectivity. Because of his continual resistance to institutional ideologies, says his brother Gabriel, Iriarte’s writing has been especially popular among the younger generations in Colombia. He even dedicated Historias en contravía “To the youth of Colombia, who now more than ever must look back at the true history of their nation.”
Iriarte saw Colombia’s history, as written by mainstream historiographers, as a series of meticulous lies:
The history of Colombia, narrated and interpreted by clownish aides whose barracks and headquarters are found above all in the academy, is an endless string of impostures and falsehoods, ably guided with astuteness and bad faith toward the ultimate aim of offering its followers eyeglasses that will present the world with the beautiful colors and happy perspective of Voltaire’s unforgettable Candide.
Scholarly history, he also said, “abdicates any critical role in order to dedicate itself with frenetic prudishness to the task of beatifying, absolving, and canonizing.” Iriarte’s own studied irreverence is apparent throughout his work, and he clearly took great pleasure in portraying those portions of Latin American history, which, being less flattering to the fondly held illusions of her citizens, have been left behind in favor of myths of nobility and grandeur. In an article published in Consigna in 1987, Iriarte described Latin America as “the empire of amnesia,” an amnesia reinforced by the interests of powers-that-be, both within the region and outside its borders.
Tropical Bestiary, like most of Iriarte’s work, is an attempt at an antidote to that lamentable amnesia. As Leonel Giraldo wrote in his prologue to the first edition, “We suffer from poor memory and from the deadly inheritance of a fate that marks us still.” It would be simplistic to say that Iriarte rescues only facts from the cutting-room floor, when, in fact, he gathers together a variety of materials, not all of which can be said to be strictly accurate, and adds to them his own imaginative embellishments. For Iriarte, popular historiography serves as a counterbalance to official accounts, and legends and rumors find their way into his versions, undifferentiated from verifiable events. The chronological arrangement of the text starts the reader off in the mists of the nineteenth century and brings her gradually, inexorably into the present (especially at the time of publication, when the last dictator in the book, Anastasio Somoza, had only been out of power seven years). The forgotten atrocities seem distant and comparatively harmless, belonging to the cruelty of another, less civilized era—only to become suddenly, disconcertingly contemporary. Tropical Bestiary insists that we confront that barbarity, however much history would like to look away.
Andrea Rosenberg translates from the Spanish and Portuguese. She can be reached at andrea.rosenberg AT gmail.com.
image credit: invisible consequential
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