Érase una vez en el Chocó by Cristian Valencia

Érase una vez en el Chocó. Cristian Valencia. Bogotá: Planeta, 2019. 216 pages.

Érase una vez en el Chocó [Once upon a time in the Chocó] is a novel that contains two novels. Maybe three.

The first is the story of a man who searches for another man in the Chocó rainforest. John Soto, the protagonist and narrator, has a gunfighter’s name. That’s the first thing he says about himself. His father, a fan of western movies, named him after his idol: John Wayne. This initial act of naming will set the course of his destiny. Soto is the epitome of the gunslinger heeding the call of adventure. A man defeated in a long-past war, like Wayne’s character in The Searchers, the rescue film par excellence. The hero has no place in society and no house to call home. Just a cat. In this orphanhood, he accepts an invitation to delve into the heart of darkness. He does have a past. A prehistory. This is not his first journey into horror. Others came before it. His résumé includes experience as a professional soldier. He has traversed a country at war. He knows the topographies of blood and all their actors. He has looked Medusa in the eye, and the beast has looked back. This is not even his first trip to the Chocó. He went before on a military mission. This is the first time he’s going for himself, because he wants to, perhaps because he needs to meet a quota of danger in order to put down roots in life. To stay in Bogotá, to remain safe and central, is also to be mummified.

The motive behind his adventure is trivial, a mere excuse. The father of Lola, his neighbor—an unrepentant adventurer himself—has left for the jungle, chasing the dream of a gold mine. A long time has passed since his daughter heard from him. She asks John Soto to go looking for him. The hero accepts. He accepts because the search for the old man seems to provide a noble justification for his actions. And so he lands at Mandinga Airport in Condoto. He has to get to Istmina. He’ll never make it. His paths lead him astray. He holds within his will the desire to go where he should go, to find the old man. But his will is not greater than the telluric forces that, for centuries, have driven life in the woods. His journey is a true katabasis. For six days, he will move through a thicket of rivers, trees, and dangers he does not and cannot understand. In this sense, unlike the classic heroes who penetrate the rainforest—think of Marlow, or Arturo Cova—who are masters of themselves, captains of their fate, in Soto’s adventure there is no method except escape. From the first chapter, he becomes the prey in a game of many cats and a single mouse. The searcher becomes the most sought-after man in the Chocó. All actors, armed and civil, legal and illegal, want something from him. They need to trap him, to catch him in their net, to tangle him up in their affairs. The direction taken by the adventure depends not on the main actor; rather, he ends up dragged along by a crushing tide of events that slip out of his hands. In the end, he will understand that the best option in the Chocó is “not to make plans, but to let yourself go on that unending, unorganized flow of life” (179). 

Under this principle, the novel becomes a succession of misadventures whose ultimate meaning escapes the hero. He flees onward like an urban animal pursued by the wolves of the woods. Every day is an act of flight, a race for his life. To stop is to die. Death lurks behind every tree, in every whirlpool. In the shadows wait watchful eyes, atavistic forces armed to the teeth, hungry maws. And as he flees, when he pauses to take a breath, he comes to better understand this world, discovering some small truth. For example, he learns that the people of the Chocó love bright colors, that the word ending -dó means “river,” that everyone “has to take something from one side to the other, but that something can’t be shown, nor can they tell anyone what it might be” (144); that “the less you look, the less you know; and the less you know, the longer you live” (143); or that the Chocó “makes you pay for everything it gives, even if it doesn’t seem to” (188). In the end, the adventurer discovers that, in this wild world, no adventure, no tall tale is possible. Not even John Wayne could survive; before his revolver had even left its holster, “he would’ve died of typhus, of yellow fever, of gangrene, of cholera, of evil eye, of something” (147). Once the futility of his efforts is made clear and he is beaten by a higher order, the law of the jungle, John Soto is interested only in getting out alive. In ruins, but alive. This is how the novel ends: a defeated man, fleeing down a treacherous river in the hopes of making it nowhere in particular.

The second novel is about the people of the Chocó: those who were born in the region and those who came from far away and stayed there. The masters of the land, the rivers, the trees. Every one of them has a story to tell, a tradition, some betrayal or another. Every character who crosses the hero’s path, who butts heads with him or lends him a hand, is made up of this story and their circumstances. Watery paths led them to a margin of the world, but also its center. They are the ones who lend order to this world, which seems disordered from the outside. It is clear that “this is the perfect place for traffickers of all things illegal. A pirate’s paradise. Far from god, from the devil, and from the State” (127). But, and the word “but” is important, this is also a world-system with certain principles, certain laws unwritten in any code, words that organize life. Norms born of mere coexistence. Yes, this is a violent world,  but violence also instills within these beings certain ways of life, ways of being, ways of coexisting. The acts of violence that dot this green, liquid territory configure human landscapes, a language, a cosmovision. In this sense, John Soto cannot understand the people of the Chocó. He is a foreigner, a stranger, who cannot get to grips with their most intimate reality. He manages only to tell us how they dress, what they say, what they do, what they say of their own lives, the stories they wish to tell him and how they wish to tell them. Here, the first-person narrative holds tight to an extremely limited perspective on otherness. The world of the others is unknowable—a redoubt of shadow in which these men and women hide from the narrator’s gaze. Far from falling into a dichotomy of good and bad characters, of friends and enemies operating in relation to the protagonist, this novel makes clear that the inhabitants of the Chocó are ambiguous, that there is no universal Chocoano, that there is no way to homogenize them and claim they are all this way or the other; that each one has their own motives, their own agenda, and their own relationship with the land.

The third novel is about the Chocó itself: the story’s other protagonist. More than some exotic region, a forgotten department, a no-man’s land, the Chocó appears here as a sensorial chronotope, a world that seeps in through the senses and settles into bodies like a parasite. A universe with a life of its own, made up of diverse historical, cultural, and economic processes, that is also a time, a climate, a range of colors. A green hell where everything is turned to debris, where the houses’ surfaces “are peeled back as if they suffered some unsparing form of leprosy. But it is no sickness. It is the tropics, the jungle” (67). A space that grows inwards, where the rain is a vital constant that leads the narrator to say, “If I close my eyes and someone says the word ‘Quibdó’ into my ear, I start to hear the rain falling inside me, as if my skull were made of zinc” (100). This is also a place that does not officially exist, defined and made possible by secrecy (115). And so, it seems the Chocó of the novel, more than a geographic space, is a state of mind, a way of dwelling and being dwelt within, a paradox made territory. A place where poverty and wealth are synonymous, since as one character says, “beneath so much poverty, there is money by the ton. When the wood, the gold, and the coca go out, the bank notes come in to stay” (126). In short, the Chocó is also its stories, the many discourses that run through it, the way Cristian Valencia puts it into words.

Rodolfo Celis

Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon


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LALT No. 17
Number 17

In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Albalucía Ángel

Dossier: Octavio Paz

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters






Pandemic Postcards

Indigenous Literature

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Dossier: Eduardo Chirinos

Nota Bene