Antonio Pigafetta, a Florentine navigator who travelled with Magellan on the first voyage around the world, wrote on his passing through our southern America, a strictly factual account that nonetheless seems like a work of fantasy. In it he tells of seeing hogs with navels on their haunches, birds without legs whose hens laid eggs on the backs of their mates, and other birds still who, resembling tongueless pelicans, had beaks that looked like spoons. He tells of seeing a creature born with the head and ears of a mule, the body of a camel, the legs of a deer and the whinny of a horse. He tells of how they, on encountering their first native in Patagonia, confronted him with a mirror, whereupon the impassioned giant lost his senses to the terror of his own image.
Pigafetta’s short and fascinating book, which even then contained the seeds of our present-day novels, is by no means the most staggering account of our reality in that age. The chroniclers of the Indies left us countless others. Eldorado, our so avidly sought and illusory land, figures on a number of maps for many, many years, shifting its place and form to suit the fantasy of cartographers. In his search for the fountain of eternal youth, the mythical Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca explored the north of Mexico for eight years, on a deluded expedition whose members devoured each other and from which, of the six hundred who had undertaken it, only five returned. Another of the many mysteries which have still not been explained is that of the eleven thousand mules, each loaded with one hundred pounds of gold, that left Cuzco one day bearing the ransom of Atahualpa but never reached their destination. Later the hens, that had been raised on alluvial land and were sold in Cartagena de Indias, were discovered to have gizzards containing tiny lumps of gold. This golden delirium of our founders has persecuted us until very recently. As late as the last century, a German mission appointed to study the possibilities of constructing an interoceanic railroad across the Isthmus of Panama concluded that the project was feasible on one condition: that the rails be made not of iron, which was scarce in the region, but of gold.
Our independence from Spanish domination did not put us beyond the reach of madness. General Antonio López de Santana, three times dictator of Mexico, held a magnificent funeral for the right leg he had lost in the so-called Pastry War. General Gabriel García Moreno ruled Ecuador for sixteen years as an absolute monarch; his corpse, dressed in full military uniform and covered with medals, attended its own wake, seated on the presidential chair. General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the theosophical despot of El Salvador who had thirty thousand peasants slaughtered in a savage massacre, invented a pendulum to detect poison in his food, and had streetlamps draped in red paper to combat an epidemic of scarlet fever. The statue of General Francisco Morazán erected in the main square of Tegucigalpa is actually a statue of Marshal Ney, purchased in Paris at a warehouse of second-hand sculptures.
Eleven years ago, the Chilean Pablo Neruda, one of the outstanding poets of our time, made his visit to Stockholm. Since then, Europeans of good will–and sometimes of bad as well– have been struck, with ever greater force, by strange unearthly tidings from Latin America: that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend. We have not had a moment’s rest. A Promethean president, entrenched, alone, in his burning palace, died fighting an entire army; and two suspicious airplane accidents, still to be explained, took the lives of another great-hearted president and of a democratic soldier who had restored the dignity of his people. Since Pablo Neruda made his visit, there have been five wars and seventeen military coups; a diabolic dictator has emerged who is now carrying out, in God’s name, the first Latin American ethnocide of our time. In the meanwhile, twenty million Latin-American children have died before the age of one–more than the children born in Europe during the same period. Los desaparecidos, those missing because of repression, number nearly one hundred and twenty thousand–it is as if suddenly no one were able to account for all the inhabitants of the city of Uppsala. Numerous women arrested while pregnant have given birth in Argentinian prisons; but nobody knows the whereabouts and identity of their children, who were furtively adopted or sent to orphanages by order of the military authorities. Nearly two hundred thousand men and women have died throughout the continent, because they, fighting, wanted not to see their world continue, unchanged. And over one hundred thousand have lost their lives in three small and ill-fated countries of Central America: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. If this had happened in the United States, the proportional figure would be one million six hundred thousand violent deaths in four years.
From Chile, a country with a tradition of hospitality, one million people have fled: ten per cent of its population. In Uruguay, a tiny nation of two and a half million inhabitants who consider themselves the most civilized population on the continent, one out of every five citizens is in exile. Since 1979, the civil war in El Salvador has produced one refugee almost every twenty minutes. The country that could be formed of all the exiles and forced emigrants of Latin America would have a population larger than that of Norway.
I dare to think that it is this monstrous reality, and not just its expression in literature, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and that determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that sustains the source of the insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask very little of the imagination, as our greatest problem has been the inadequacy of a convention or a means by which to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.