The Colombian Political Novel 1951–1987

A Critical Contribution

by Alvaro Quiroga-Cifuentes (Author)
Monographs VIII, 275 Pages


This book explores the environment and cultural context of Colombian political novels published between 1951 and 1987. Challenging the label of «novelas de la violencia», the author analyses them as products of their own historical time and takes into account their broader implications, such as their representation of the society they narrate. These novels are shown to be the product of political and ideological issues: the real preoccupations of the writers were the balance of power, social dysfunctionality and the need for reform in a society transitioning from rural to urban. These issues are traced in a close reading of representative novels, in which feature letrados and intellectuals and their role in the evolution of society, culture, literature and power in twentieth-century Colombia. With its critical-theoretical approach, this book constitutes a significant and innovative contribution to the debate on Latin American culture and literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: The Context of Politics and Ideology of Bipartisanism and the Colombian Novel 1951–1987
  • Chapter Two: The Politics and Ideology of Bipartisanism, Populism and Anticommunism
  • Chapter Three: The Politics and Ideology of Local Networks, Landownership and Resistance
  • Chapter Four: The Politics and Ideology of Contradiction and Memory
  • Chapter Five: The Politics and Ideology of ‘Letrados’ and Utopia
  • Conclusions
  • General Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →Acknowledgements

This book has been put together after a PhD completed at University College London. I am indebted to every single author I read and consulted for it is their works that gave me the real support to illuminate the volume in all its length.

My thanks are due to Professor Stephen Hart from the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies at University College London for his supervision of the thesis during the years of research and writing and to Professor Christopher Abel from the Department of History at University College London for his guidance in the first year of research.

To Hilary Furey for her support and encouragement during these long years; without her love I would not have been able to carry it out.

This book was actually begun in the early 1990s, after the end of the project ‘Actores y Regiones’ carried out at IEPRI (Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Relaciones Internacionales / Universidad Nacional de Colombia) and Colciencias, in which I participated. I thank Gonzalo Sánchez for his encouragement and support then, which afterwards kept alive my interest in studying this literature. A profoundly missed friend during these years has been Darío Betancourt, whose relevant conversations on this literature in the past not only offered ideas but also encouraged me to pursue my study (in memoriam).

My thanks also to Rosa Emilia Gómez who kindly provided some information about her uncle, Ignacio Gómez Dávila.

I am grateful to Terry Eagleton for his kind permission to use extracts of his works from which I greatly benefited as they enlightened and helped me to understand the concepts that form the backbone of this work.

My thanks are in order to Alessandra Anzani, for her editorial advice, and to Jasmin Allousch for typesetting assistance. Any mistakes are only my responsibility.

← vii | viii →For critical purposes this work uses brief quotations whose sources, either printed or electronic, are all cited in the footnotes found along the chapters, as well as in the general bibliographical section.

Every reasonable effort has been made to contact copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologises for any errors or omissions and would be grateful for notification of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

← viii | 1 →Introduction

The study that follows examines the political and ideological environment, pressures and cultural contexts that shaped a number of Colombian novels published between 1951 and 1987. It asks to what extent and how the novels express the notions of politics and ideology, and its essential purpose is to move this set of novels away from the reductive focus prevalent in the criticism, into a defined and in a better contextualised scrutiny. While defining the nature of the novels’ political practices and ideological commitment, together with the multiple intricacies these issues entail, I seek to demonstrate how power relationships are articulated in specific cultural practices in what the novels predicate.

These connections are explored in nine representative novels, namely El 9 de abril (1951) by Pedro Gómez Corena, El día del odio (1952) by José Antonio Osorio Lizarazo, El Cristo de espaldas (1952) by Eduardo Caballero Calderón, Viernes 9 (1953) by Ignacio Gómez Dávila, Siervo sin tierra (1954) by Eduardo Caballero Calderón, La mala hora (1962) by Gabriel García Márquez, Años de fuga (1979) by Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Una y muchas guerras (1985) by Alonso Aristizábal and Bulevar de los héroes (1987) by Eduardo García Aguilar.

These works, with the exception of Años de fuga (1979) by Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza and Bulevar de los héroes (1987) by Eduardo García Aguilar, are often labelled as Novel of the Violence (‘novela de La Violencia’), a term employed to associate them with the disturbances which occurred in mid-twentieth-century Colombia called The Violence (La Violencia).1 However, I believe that these novels are more intricate than the term itself ← 1 | 2 →suggests. The novels articulate a complex vision of the political practices, ideological commitments and the pressures demanded of writers at the time the novels were written and published.

The revision of the criticism on these novels shows that the emphasis on politics and ideology was alluded to as early as 1954 by Hernando Téllez in his article ‘Literatura y testimonio’; by Antonio Curcio Altamar in his pioneering and lengthy work, Evolución de la novela en Colombia; and also by Gabriel García Márquez in his article ‘Dos o tres cosas sobre “la novela de la violencia”’ in 1959, as one of the ‘two or three’ facts which defined the character of such novels.2 Téllez, opening a debate on what was happening in the literary landscape during the 1950s, suggested that novels such as El Cristo de espaldas by Eduardo Caballero Calderón and El día del odio by J.A. Osorio Lizarazo were novels whose style allowed them to transcend the reality they mirrored. Remarking on how a literary rebellion was occurring, he asserted that ‘el snobismo intelectual y los hábitos y costumbres de la clase social privilegiada […] provinciana en su actitud y en su concepto del mundo’ traditionally reflected in national literature were changing. The fact that a writer such as Eduardo Caballero Calderón, ‘heredero legítimo de las oligarquías’, had written El Cristo de espaldas and Siervo sin tierra, two novels inscribing social and political turbulence accusing his own class, Téllez maintained, was a symptom of a radical change. Reflecting their social and political character, these novels were part of a new movement depicting the people (‘el pueblo’) as the protagonist and not as a decorative element as it was in the past, Téllez asserted. In 1957 Antonio Curcio Altamar, in Evolución de la novela en Colombia, pointed to a few pivotal changes which had occurred in the novel of that time. ← 2 | 3 →Curcio Altamar announced the appearance of certain new tendencies in the novel-writing process and alluded to a number of novels included in this study. However his views skated over the surface as far as these works were concerned, for his work was an overview of the development of the novel from 1670 to 1953. Curcio Altamar showed awareness as to the impact on fiction that national politics had, the new direction the novel was taking, and the ideology perceived in some novels. He argued, for example, that the nuanced political tone evidenced in the novel was an unfortunate development. He warned that the novel was already mirroring the conditions entailed by the bipartisanism in that it was simply reproducing scenarios resembling the national reality and its conflicts.3 By creating conditions entailed by bipartisanism the novels were demonstrating a ‘commitment’ which simply reflected society and were not literary in a profound sense. Curcio Altamar’s observations about the influence of bipartisanism on the novels and the tendency to political commitment have been a cornerstone of subsequent criticism on the Colombian novel of this period.

García Márquez’s influential article hinted at what the real significance of these novels was.4 He identified two factors dominating the literary environment at that time: firstly, the pressure exerted by the political ambience upon writers to write political books, since writers at the time felt disqualified when their works seemed not to be ‘políticamente comprometidos de manera evidente’; and secondly, the consequent impact and effects produced by a confrontational bipartisanism. García Márquez argued that writers seemed to have buckled under the pressure to make their plots fit with what the public was expecting:

Las personas de temperamento político, y tanto más cuanto más a la izquierda se sientan situadas, consideran como un deber doctrinario presionar a los amigos escritores en el sentido de que escriban libros políticos. Algunos, tal vez no más sectarios pero sí menos comprensivos se sienten obligados a descalificar, más en privado que ← 3 | 4 →en público, a los escritores amigos cuyos trabajos no parecen estar políticamente comprometidos de manera evidente.5

This statement suggests how ideology filtered the cultural spectrum and exerted its ‘doctrinal duty’ on writers, pressurising them to write according to a pre-established political agenda. Indeed the reasons expounded for this situation related to both the political circumstances which the upper class and their power relations had created for the country and to its society.

The overwhelming approach to the Colombian novel of this period, describing it as ‘novela de La Violencia’ after García Márquez’s article in 1959, has led to two unfortunate consequences: firstly, it has ignored the fact that these novels are much more complex than the term suggests. Secondly, it has relegated the novels of this period to the level of documentary works or what García Márquez termed as ‘novelas equivocadas’.6 It is for this reason that a new approach is necessary given the variety of literary outputs during this period, not only in terms of story lines and style but also in terms of ideology.

This study is different in that it interprets these works as bearers of a broader agenda, including topics such as political practices for power reproduction, ideological commitments and the pressures exerted on writers at the time the works were written. This procedure draws upon Jane Tompkins’s notion of the novel as the ‘product of historical contingencies’. Jane Tompkins, in Sensational Designs, argues that literary works are the ‘product of historical contingencies’ considering the ‘complex circumstances’ on which they are built and for being bearers of a set of ‘national, social, economic, institutional […] interests’.7 Tompkins understands fictional works ‘as providing men and women with a means of ordering the world they inhabited’ to, in that way, grasp the ‘cultural realities that made ← 4 | 5 →the novels meaningful’ at the time of their emergence.8 I believe that the fictional works examined in this book were written more to respond to the convoluted particularities of the time and environment within which they were produced, than simply to resonate the unpleasant images of atrocity.

By adopting this approach I view the novels beyond the blanket term ‘novela de La Violencia’ that has masked the individual resonance of a number of novels of the period 1951–1987, thereby preventing them from being examined within the broad circumstances that linked them to their complex, historical environment. Thus, once the novels are considered from the perspective provided by Tompkins’s idea of ‘historical contingencies’ they can be seen as works that attempted to define their social order and are distinguished by a preoccupation with contemporary social, economic, political and cultural issues, particularly those engendered by inequality in a politicised and transitional society. In this way, I distance my analysis from any pre-existing position and analyse these works as the ‘product of historical contingencies’. Obviously, beyond any label, these works are clearly bonded with an emphatic response to their troubled, historical conditions.

My objective is to establish how, within the works selected, there is a code of political significance mediated by an ideological discourse lodged in the fictional plots, considering its preoccupations with contemporary social and economic issues, and observing specifically the matters generated by inequality and stagnation. Other aspects need to be considered: many of these novels refer to the events or the aftermath of 9 April 1948 in modern Colombian society, and in related but different ways they express the variables of a changing genre within an endogenously changing society which preserves the past as a constant touchstone of cultural memory. My discussion focuses in particular on the portrayal of political power, bipartisanism and alternative ideologies together with the tensions of class struggle entrenched in the works.

The interdisciplinary application of theoretical perspectives, which will consider conceptual aspects of Colombian politics, is important, ← 5 | 6 →particularly if the novels’ long period of production – over three decades – as well as its articulation of the core themes of social justice, institutional venality, social debasement, etc, as connected to the political machine, is taken into account.

A new and distinctive topic included in this book is the exploration of how Colombian politics was linked to ‘letrados’ (men of letters) who were also politicians, and vice versa, throughout the first half of the twentieth century and beyond, which is the most noticeable gap in the studies of the criticism on these novels. The notion of ‘letrados’, in itself an example of cultural contingency, is a key issue that requires to be integrated into the study of these novels, specifically because of its close link to politics. The topic is a vital part of the political and ideological questions, such as the intellectual and his role in the historical contingencies, studied in these works.9 I also follow an interdisciplinary method built on a combination of theoretical views to support the structural positions suggested in the notion of historical contingencies.

I use Jane Tompkins’s definition of the novel as the ‘product of historical contingencies’, because of its breadth.10 Tompkins’s notion allows us to perceive multiple articulations lodged in a novel while focusing on the complexity that a work, plot-wise, might entail, i.e. social, economic, institutional aspects. In her claim, ‘novels […] should be studied […] because they offer powerful examples of the way a culture thinks about itself, articulating and proposing solutions for the problems that shape a particular historical moment’.11 In this way this study observes the ideological circumstantial interconnections in the novels: ‘the continuities rather than ruptures […] the strands that connected a novel to another similar text, rather than for ← 6 | 7 →the way in which the text might have been unique’.12 These interconnected aspects become apparent as the different factors within one and the same process, which is, in the case of these novels, their political expression.13

The notions of politics and ideology are linked but they are not identical. For this matters I follow Terry Eagleton’s definitions in that politics is ‘the way people organise social life together, and the power-relations this involves’, whereas ideology refers to

The largely concealed structure of values which informs and underlies our factual statements […] the ways in which what we say and believe connects with the power structure and power relations of the society we live in […] more particularly those modes of feeling, valuing, perceiving and believing which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power.14

The distinction is that politics ‘refers to the power processes by which social orders are sustained or challenged’, and the ideology ‘denotes the ways in which these power processes get caught up in the realm of signification’.15 While politics is more a matter related to ‘technical management and manipulation’, or a functional machine more associated with ‘form’, ideology is distinctive in that it is ‘content’, i.e. ‘preaching and indoctrination’.16 Thus, ‘ideology is a matter of “discourse”’, and this discourse is one where, indeed, power is involved.17 An ideological unity therefore is shaped in the political solidarity and comradely feeling that brings the success of ‘oppositional movements as it is part of the armoury of dominant groups’.18 A way of explaining this is in Marx and Engels’s comment in The German Ideology that the ruling ideas of each epoch are the ideas of the ruling ← 7 | 8 →class.19 That is to say that such ideas are the ones conveyed by the ruling class regardless where they derive from. But the ideas in question may be true or false, thus ideologies exist in relation to other ideologies. This condition implies also recognition of the ‘other’ and such an ‘otherness’ may become a potentially disruptive force within the ruling order. As a consequence a dominant ideology has continually to negotiate with the ideologies of its subordinates creating an open-endedness which prevents it from achieving pure self-identity. A case in point during the second half of the twentieth century was the ‘socialist ideology’, which shared beliefs and inspired a group or class in the pursuit of political interests judged to be desirable.20 This thought became synonymous with ‘class consciousness’, i.e. ideas ‘shaped by an underlying motivation, and functional in achieving certain goals’ that is common goals and motivations as ‘they were not in the case of a class regarded as unjustly oppressive’.21

This approach offers a notion of how ideas grow in a society and the role they play in the formation of cultural values and beliefs and also the way certain social groups ‘exercise and maintain power over others’.22 In this sense ideology comprehends the idea of literature understood as a vehicle to convey ideas. Yet literature does more than embody certain social values. It also becomes an instrument for wider dissemination. Ideology has been interpreted in different ways in literary theory. Whereas, for example, Lucien Goldmann sees ideology as displaying a high degree of internal unity, Pierre Macherey considers it ‘so amorphous’ that ‘it can hardly be spoken of as having a significant structure at all’.23 The speaking silence is a structure that articulates social practices reproduced in the literary text, ← 8 | 9 →providing an ‘imaginary solution’ or a ‘mise en scène’ of ‘contradictions which are […] political, religious, etc’.24 This is a productive view from which to analyse the novels studied in this book since the ideology of the literary work is often more elusive than at first envisaged.

On this basis I argue that the novels produced during the period 1951–1987 in Colombia offer a minutely sensitive barometer which is able to detect the eddies and flows of a ‘structure of feeling’, to use Raymond Williams’s suggestive term.25 The term ‘structure of feeling’ expresses the idea of the sense of community and the way that intimate knowledge is communicated within society itself. It communicates the sense of ‘a way of life [people] know intimately […] the culture of a period’.26 It may be described, in other words, as the zeitgeist of the time or the way life in the fictional work has been captured either in a character or in the society it mirrors. These notions are pointers to the ways in which the ‘political machine’ operates in the novels studied in this book particularly when addressing cultural issues that accompanied the political process.27

The role of politicians, their connection to matters of power and its direct link with the role of ‘letrados’ in Colombia is important in this study. The political role of the ‘letrado’ has been questioned by Juan Pablo Dabove in relation to La mala hora by García Márquez, which is interpreted as a means to disclose a glimpse of the Colombian reality through a metaphor represented in the novel by the pasquinades, as we shall see later.28


VIII, 275
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (November)
Latin American Literature and Culture Colombian novel culture and society Colombia cultural pressures Postcolonialism commitment and novel history criticism and novel Colombian novel twentieth century Gabriel García Márquez
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 275 pp.

Biographical notes

Alvaro Quiroga-Cifuentes (Author)

Alvaro Quiroga-Cifuentes holds a PhD in Latin American Studies from University College London, a master’s degree in the Analysis of Politics, Economics and International Relations and a Licenciado in Philosophy and Literature. For his work as a cultural journalist for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, where he maintained a book review column for its Magazín Dominical, he received the Colombian Book Chamber award in 1987. As a researcher, he took part in a project on Colombian literature at IEPRI/UN/Colciencias (Colombia). He has worked as a lecturer in literature, culture and sociology in Latin America and in the UK, where he currently works as an independent researcher and consultant on Latin American topics.


Title: The Colombian Political Novel 1951–1987