Planet Caicedo

 

I’ve said this before, I’ve written it elsewhere: even a short time ago—well, now not so short—I didn’t know Andrés Caicedo. I didn’t know about his existence. Of course: I’m not Colombian, I’m not from Cali, I didn’t study there, nor was I young in Colombia. And here is where I want to stop myself before continuing: I didn’t read Andrés Caicedo in the moment, in the right moment, in that instant when “everything explodes,” when one is vulnerable and adrift, but at the same time curious and looking for allies and brothers and parents that you don’t want to kill.

I read Caicedo late.

I was no longer a nobody, I was already a writer. Sometimes I ask myself: if I had read Andrés (Caicedo is one of those authors that is difficult to call by his last name; one tends to, as a fan, call him Andrés), would I have become a writer? Would it have been worth it to make the effort? Could it happen, what sometimes happens to so many? That is the impression that a text can cause (the sum of Liveforever + Pay attention to film + the myth of Andrés in a tenacious combo), that can move a budding writer and leave him more on the sidewalk with fans than in the avenue of creators. Because the Caicedo hurricane, if it hits you unprepared, can change your life: for the better (you want to read all of it; it propels you to write following his example; you become an addict and even a groupie) or definitively for the worse (you decide to be a groupie and an addict; you dedicate yourself solely to reading more and to underlining passages; it reaffirms your insecurities and fears, and more than thinking about writing, you begin to think about how to kill yourself or, at least, how to live a Caicedian life).

But life is mysterious. Or it was before the Internet. It did not depend on you, what you were reading, because what was crucial was what was available in the bookstores, and that depend- ed in part on the canon. The authors that had already been blessed were the ones that formed the canon, and therefore, those were the ones that were stacked in the bookstores and the ones you had access to. You weren’t able to read what wasn’t there, not even in the used bookstores.

Andrés was not part of the mafia, and perhaps he didn’t even know where Barcelona was on the map. He was dreaming about film magazines, about Hollywood, he believed that young people could be his readers, and he felt that rock’n’roll was as powerful, or on the same level, as novels or cinema. Besides, he was dead. Young and dead.

What literary future could he have?

The day that the first copy of Liveforever arrived at his apartment in Cali, Andrés committed suicide at the age of twenty-five. A tragedy, no doubt, but also the greatest of his media acts.

The day that the first copy of Liveforever arrived at his apartment in Cali, Andrés committed suicide at the age of twenty-five. A tragedy, no doubt, but also the greatest of his media acts. Andrés was clear about what had happened with Jim Morrison, with Janis Joplin. He knew that James Dean was already dead by the time Rebel without a Cause premiered. It is impossible to analyze or try to understand a suicide. In part, I have tried to do so by delving into his personal papers and letters and assembling his autobiography: My Body Is a Cage. I don’t have an answer. The thing that, of course, increases mystery arouses morbid curiosity. But one thing is clear: beyond the tremendous pain, the immense sensation of solitude and feeling adrift, Caicedo was always certain that his fame and his connection with his readers would happen later. He wanted to leave behind his work. He tried to kill himself several times. He was not an author that wanted to make a career; he was a moody author, new, blossom- ing, one who did not desire to mature or grow or get old but did want to leave behind his work.

And he did.

He left behind a work full of life—imperfect, perhaps, but impressive, real, honest, open, and shameless. And, with time, this work began dividing itself in a natural way into works of fiction (books for youth) and of nonfiction col- ored by drugs, cinema, ambiguity, terror, family dysfunction, and periods of time in psychiatric wards. Liveforever is the pinnacle of an author at the outset of his career; My Body Is a Cage, his posthumous work, is the testimony of someone who wants to give up. 

 

The most fascinating thing about Liveforever is that it’s the sort of in-your-face manifesto of María del Carmen Huerta, a young, well-off girl who descends to the deep Cali of salsa and rumba. The novel is narrated in the first person and ends with a kind of bonus track where it provides the soundtrack of the novel we just finished reading. But just toward the end, when the journey and the book are coming to a close, something strange happens: the narrator begins changing her voice, and it becomes more masculine, as if the real author got bored or wasn’t capable of maintaining the impersonation in order to write with absolute certainty a type of manifesto that starts off youthful, with a vibe from the seventies and ultracontemporary (“We are living in the most significant moment in the history of humanity”), then, little by little, morphs into the credo of Caicedo himself. It is in this book where the famous phrase appears: “Leave something of yourself behind and die in peace, trusting a few close friends.” Many of these recommendations to his readers go a little too far. They have more to do with the author than the narrator and, if read line by line . . . are even contradictory since he wants anonymity as much as fame. He transforms his suicidal urges in commands to not grow up: “Let no one turn you into a grown-up, a respectable man. Never stop being a child. . . . For shyness: self-destruction.”

Caicedo continues writing a few pages that could later be transformed into phrases on a poster or Twitter messages: “Sex is an act of the shadows and falling in love a union of torments.” He advocates forgetting about “attaining what people call ‘normal sexuality’” and recommends not waiting “for love to bring you peace.”

The novel celebrates music and salsa, but film is ultimately the best refuge: “The rhythms of solitude are best acquired in cinemas; learn to shun cinemas.” He exhorts children to not pay back their parents in kind since parents should support and feed their children always, no mat- ter what, for having had them. “Never save.”

It is not strange that Andrés Caicedo would have committed suicide after having written all of this: “Die before your parents to spare them the ghastly sight of your old age.” One wonders how many readers—although we'll never be able to know—tried to follow his example.

 

Caicedo is dissociated and border, on the edge and and high profile, retro and ahead of his time. Andrés sent emails— letters, strictly speaking—to people that he didn’t even know, telling them about the pain and sorrows that confused him.

Life has its turns, yes. It is mysterious. Justice, I am certain, doesn’t exist, but I do believe in artistic justice. In the long run, with time, things are put in order. The great best-seller of its moment disappears, and an author that no one even knew existed ends up influencing the rest. Liveforever, the novel condemned by its author, perhaps to death, not only survives him, but it rejuvenates him each time it is reprinted (as it is now by Alfaguara, just like Vargas Llosa, his literary idol) and—why not—every time it’s read for the first time.

That is what Andrés Caicedo has that so few have: he continues to be read, people keep reading him. Like a friend of his in Cali commented to me: “As long as young people are born in Colombia, there will be readers of Andrés.” Even more: as long as young men and young women are going through adolescence in any part of the world (because now Andrés is Latin American and global), there will be new readers of Andrés.

The popular boy from the seventies remains popular, proving he is not just a fad, that what he writes transcends languages, cities, groups, tendencies. What seems to be “so Cali-esque” actually ends up being urban and global. In the era of Twitter and iPhones, chat and Skype, WhatsApp and YouTube, Caicedo seems to be the natural author to narrate this new generation: people connected yet disconnected; with an overdose of information but with emotions they can’t control or understand completely. Caicedo is dissociated and border, on the edge and bisexual, pop and high profile, retro and ahead of his time. It is not strange to understand him perfectly in the twen- ty-first century. It is not strange that he became a fetish of those who can only express themselves using means that protect them. Andrés stuttered and used books, letters, and articles to connect himself with the world. Andrés blogged before blogs existed; Andrés sent emails—letters, strictly speaking—to people that he didn’t even know, tell- ing them about the pain and sorrows that confused him.

Caicedo has a niche, yes, and maybe that niche is his fans. Caicedo’s planet fuses what could be called emo sensibility and the rage of the fanboy (the die-hard film buffs and fetishists) with that of a literary author, a type of tropical Cesare Pavese. He triumphs in fiction and non- fiction alike. He knows about drugs, film, and music. He dresses vintage, understands the value of the character behind the author, he poses as a rocker, he gets naked in front of 16mm cameras, leaves everything behind, written down so that later someone will tell the tale so readers of the moral Instagram can connect with him as if he were a guy who lived in Finland or Seoul.

Caicedo is a kind of literary and film-buff Kurt Cobain capable of uniting the fans of André Bazin with those of Bob Dylan. While García Márquez, the same year, was amazed by yel- low butterflies, Caicedo was obsessing over Travis Bickle and Taxi Driver.

 

It is still hard to believe that I found out about Caicedo’s exis- tence such a short time ago, long after Andrés Caicedo had trans- formed into Andrés Caicedo the Colombian literary rock star, the Kurt Cobain of Cali, the filmmaker that didn’t make movies but ended up becoming the biggest film star Colombia has ever produced.

The friendship began in the year 2000. Andrés had already been dead for more than twenty years, and his books had been on Colom- bian bookshelves for a quite a while.

Where was I?

Where were his books?

Strictly speaking: where was he when I needed him the most? I found him in one of my favor- ite bookstores: La Casa Verde (now closed) in Lima, in front of El Olivar park, in the middle of San Isidro. There I was, passing time, waiting for an airplane. I had turned in the key to my room at El Olivar hotel, and I was waiting for a taxi to head out to the Jorge Chávez airport. So I began to look at books, not a bad way to kill time. Suddenly, the word film registered on my radar. Among the thousands of books that covered the shelves of that house, painted in green, I noticed a thick, dark-blue volume titled Pay Attention to Film.

I set aside the other texts that I was holding to pick up this unknown volume. I exaggerate if I say that my hands were shaking, but not quite. At least I wish they were (close-up to hands picking up a book). I sensed that more than encountering a book, I was facing a person. The person that years later would transform into a part of me and, for better or for worse, I suppose, into part of my family.

Why is a suicidal author so attractive?

Why did a suicidal film buff make such an impact on me?

Was Caicedo, then, a Pavese for film fanatics? Or could cinema actually kill? Was the love of cinema a dangerous addiction? And not only a refuge for cowards?

I bought the book immediately, and I didn’t stop reading it: in the taxi, in the terminal, on the plane. It wasn’t a novel but a script of his life, a screening of the thousands of movies he had seen.

Again: how had I not known about him before? Caicedo, I quickly realized, was the most fanatic cinemapath of all cinemapaths, although he never used that word. I thought that he did, and (by mis- take, but thinking about him) a few months later I founded my audiovisual production company, naming it Cinépata, in tribute to him. Caicedo actu- ally considered himself to be a cinemaphage and a victim of what he called cinemaphilia. His method was clear: devour everything and, later, write about all that he saw. That way, in the act of writing, he would resee what he had already seen. His passion and his lack of restraint spurred him to accumulate all possible information until converting him, in time, into an unconditional cinemaphage.

Sometimes I think that perhaps technology would have saved Caicedo. The Internet Movie Data- base would have been an ideal place to pour out his trivia. Chat rooms would have connected him with other freaks, digital cameras would have helped him record his tapes of terror, and a collection of pirated DVDs would have let him sleep peacefully: there, on a shelf, in alphabetical order, he would have kept all those images that no longer fit in his head.

 

Caicedo was always more creator than critic. His writings bordered the limits of fiction, and when he set out to invent short stories and novels and theater, everything came out tinged with the big screen. We will never know how Caicedo’s films would have turned out. The most important thing in Caicedo is Caicedo himself. Always. He was narcissistic, insecure, and young, a fatal combination. The story of my life, my life as a novel, a life in three acts. Me, me, me.

I like to imagine him embodying the idea of the movie buff as a martyr, the postadolescent Latin American crazed for Hollywood. He was the solitary person who committed himself to the big screen while others were supporting the cause, the older brother of McOndo, the missing link to the twenty-first century. He was the fan writing scripts for westerns and horror movies and devouring Rosen and Truffaut’s films in the movie theaters of central Cali.

Andrés was a pioneer, yes, but also a guy out of focus, out of sync, on the border. Caicedo didn’t dance salsa; he wanted to, but he couldn’t. Caicedo didn’t speak, he wrote. All day: and like people today who cannot imagine their day with- out posting, Caicedo would write to himself.

Liveforever is the rumba he tried to dance, the youthful novel with a title that celebrated life but ended with a command to kill yourself, to not believe, and to not grow up, that preached not trusting anyone older and blessed the idea of self-destruction.

It is, without a doubt, an intensely Cali- esque novel, flavored deeply by the rumba but, above all, youth. And the terminal.

That’s why it is Andrés’s final novel.

The final novel, the seminal novel, the novel that in some way began it all.

The myth, the work, the planet.

Here it goes, here it is. Written against time, before turning twenty-five in March 1977.

Translated from the Spanish by Christina Miller

This essay first appeared in English in World Literature Today 88, nos. 3-4 (May/August 2014).

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LALT Vol. 1 No. 1
Number 1

The first issue of Latin American Literature Today features a dossier of Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia, who passed away in January of 2017, and short stories by the outstanding young Mexican author Nadia Villafuerte.

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