Somos luces abismales by Carolina Sanín

Somos luces abismales. Carolina Sanín. Random House. 2018. 203 pages.

A friend tells me the essay is a poetic genre. Essay, autobiography, or travel narrative? I cannot say with certainty what kind of book Somos luces abismales is. What I can say is that this latest book by Carolina Sanín (Colombia, 1973) flirts with poetry—poetry understood as the mystery of language, as a “flight in metaphor, that persecution of the soul,” which seeks the reverse of words to know what is said when one attempts to name the world. “El sosiego (The Calm),” the first of the six texts, already reveals a certain perspective, a way of thinking the author warns us about: “I should stop thinking that one thing is another and that each is a house and that they’re all my house.” As in poetry, where the cadence of words dictates the rhythm with which sounds and images are added, Sanín’s texts grow. They grow as a careful collection of pebbles would do because of similarities in shape or tone. They grow with the naturalness with which a tree trunk spreads and turns into a branch and a leaf.

“In that mystery of the place I live without rest,” writes Sanín in the first of her texts, a phrase that could be a declaration of principles. To find the place, a house that shelters her, the author remembers trips, readings, deaths, anecdotes, and childhood scars. Her dog’s imaginary escapes prompt her to ramble on about love. When she remembers some goats, she ends up writing a treatise on viruses. Sanín creates the place and the loss of the place in her writing. “To put in the text is to be located,” she writes. In the following paragraph, without correcting herself, she adds, “To put in the text is to relocate.” Writing is a place of confession where the creating self (Sanín or any other) is invented. There, in the most real place, it is not either, because one gets lost while searching. Loss, uncertainty, is a definitive place. As in poetry, Sanín assumes these contradictions without qualms. Her texts know that in order for the light to shine, the darkness must be present, and in Somos luces abismales, darkness often takes the form of a question: “What does it mean to be abandoned?” “What does ‘happy’ mean? Some colors? All colors?” “Is the opposite of power weakness? Subjugation?” “What happens to us throughout life?”

In this book, which is not a novel or a collection of stories, but perhaps a book of essays or a long poem with seasons, Sanín seeks to link the umbilical cord—cords—that binds her to the universe. Since it is not here, it could be anywhere—inside her dog, in the kid offered to her in a sheepfold, or in the flea that stung her the night before. The whole universe could also be in it. In “Las alturas (The Heights),” the geographical features she describes during a walk on the moor become places she traces in her own body: “On a bend in the size of my hand, grass stalks grew along the length of my eyelashes: a juncal. There was a beach in the size of my chest covered with pebbles like beans, like hummingbird eggs.” It is also the game of bonds that gives the book a unique fixation with death: “In life, each body has darkness inside. It takes its darkness and covers it.” To exist, we are not.

So far, Somos Luces abismales seems like a book that summarizes abstractions, mental games, and scholarship, and it is. The author makes herself a tradition and traces the map of her readings and obsessions. She cites passages from the Bible and the Koran, from Calila e Dimna and Madame Bovary, and translates sections from Whitman and Petrarch. But it is also a book of everyday life, of the daily life of a woman who lives in a gray, hard city, Bogotá. Sanín is not an abstract author, nor does she try to be. She is a woman, Colombian, a bourgeois heiress, someone who knows the names and titles of her ancestors since colonial times. As a woman and Colombian and bourgeois, in that book of her that could be many things, she names the fears of the bourgeoisie, the ridiculousness of the bourgeoisie, the privileges of the bourgeoisie, the country of the bourgeoisie, and the racisms of the bourgeoisie. Recurring silence about this political aspect of her work says a lot about what a female author in Colombia considers or not, about what she should say or should shut up. One then is grateful for the frankness and humor, the wink, with which Sanín is able to make fun of herself and those who are like her.

The search for the place, the follow-up of the links, “from one thing that looks like something else and that could be my home” dictates the form of writing. For this same reason, sometimes the text becomes infinite, an excessive tree, and one wonders if pruning would have been necessary. But the search of the place supposes, in any case, the loss and the attempt. Through the trail of losses, of the imaginations grouped in Somos luces abismales, Carolina Sanín shows other ways, other possibilities, for writing on the map of contemporary Colombian literature: “To imagine is to be attentive to what exists, to look for the link between things, recognize and clear the paths that lead from one to another and open different paths, which lead from another to another.” And another.     

Nohora Arrieta Fernandez
Georgetown University

Translated by Toshiya Kamei


Nohora Arrieta Fernandez is a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University.

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Echo of the Park


Ida Vitale in LALT
Number 12

In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Ida Vitale

Dossier: Julio Ramón Ribeyro





Brazilian Literature


Indigenous Literature

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene