Fernando Vallejo’s novel, set in Medellín in the 1990s, during the height of the drug war in Colombia, is not for the faint-hearted. Reading Vallejo’s description of a city drawn into a seemingly endless spiral of violence, chaos, and lawlessness, it seems hard to believe that Medellín has nowadays made giant steps towards recovering from this period.
The novel’s protagonist, Fernando – the novel has autobiographical streaks – is a well-to-do, gay writer who has been witnessing his home city’s decline from a distance for years. Now he returns, and what he finds leaves him disillusioned and cynical: he doesn’t trust anyone, seems to hate everyone, especially “los pobres” (the poor), and analyses the downfall of Medellín and the entire country from the vantage point of an observer who pretends to still be distant, even though he is now physically there, in the midst of all the chaos. Fernando passes cynical and truthful judgement on politics and politicians, the press, law enforcement, and his fellow Colombians:
El “presunto” asesino, como diría la prensa hablada y escrita, muy respetuosa ella con los derechos humanos. Con eso de que aquí, en este país de leyes y constituciones, democrático, no es culpable nadie hasta que no lo condenen, y no lo condenan si no lo juzgan, y no lo juzgan si no lo agarran, y si lo agarran lo sueltan… La ley de Colombia es la impunidad y nuestro primer delincuente impune es el presidente.
The “presumed” killer, as the written and spoken press would say, very respectful of human rights. Because here, in this democratic country of laws and constitutions, nobody is guilty until he has been condemned, and he isn’t condemned if he isn’t tried, and he isn’t tried if he isn’t caught, and if he is caught, he’s let go… impunity is the law in Colombia and our first unpunished delinquent is the President.*
However, it’s clear that deep down, he loves his country and his people and his cynicism is just a defence mechanism. Fernando is capable of loving and needs love, which, however, he’s not ashamed to buy by showering his lovers with presents.
He falls for Alexis, a young man, whom he lavishes with any material luxury Alexis asks for to make him stay. Alexis becomes Fernando’s “guardian angel”, all his happiness depends on him. Like seemingly everyone in the city, Alexis is involved in the drugs trade, he’s a sicario, a mercenary, of one of the cartels. Among the toys Fernando buys him is a revolver, which Alexis uses to kill anyone that even remotely inconveniences him and his lover. This seems to be perfectly normal, nobody even takes notice. When you’ve shot someone, you just leave and pretend nothing happened. Then the police sweep in and comply perfectly with their bureaucratic duty, although everyone knows this is futile and won’t do anything to find the killer or change the situation. The law is completely helpless in the face of corruption, complicit with crime, and just pretends the circumstances are normal rather than absolute chaos and impunity.
When Alexis is killed, Fernando is devastated. He finds solace in a new lover, whom he treats as if he were Alexis. Things turn out to be much more sinister, however, a suspicion I had while reading, and yet it hit me hard when it was confirmed.
La virgen de los sicarios is raw and violent, just like it should be. Nothing is hidden from view, and the novel fakes the same kind of normalcy the citizens of Medellín and Colombia are faking: as if it were normal to shoot someone for looking at you the wrong way and to get away with it, as if being “employed” by a drugs cartel were nothing, as if corruption were just an ordinary way of earning a little extra – and as if there was nothing wrong with any of that.
Fernando’s narration is insightful; behind his cynicism shows a deep understanding of the societal circumstances that made absolute chaos possible, for instance:
El tiempo barre con todo y las costumbres. Así, de cambio en cambio, paso a paso, van perdiendo las sociedades la cohesión, la identidad, y quedan hechas unas colchas deshilachadas de retazos.
Time does away with everything and customs. That way, change by change, step by step, societies lose their cohesion, their identity, and become a frayed rug of fragments.
And so people make up a kind of normal situation where evidently there is none, look the other way, and convince themselves that everything is somehow in order and their loved ones are good people, when really they have succumbed to the call of organised crime just like everyone else.
La humanidad necesita para vivir mitos y mentiras. Si uno ve la verdad escueta se pega un tiro.
Humanity needs myths and lies to live. If you see the plain truth, you’ll shoot yourself.
There’s no beating about the bush in La virgen de los sicarios, which makes it a very immediate reading experience, and a great insight into Colombia’s darkest years.
English title: Our Lady of the Assassins
German title: Die Madonna der Mörder
*All translations by myself