A few months ago, I found myself de sobremesa with a motley bunch of porteños and transplants from all corners, staring at the cheese rinds, empty bottles, and cracker shards scattered across the table as reminders of the pleasant meal we’d just shared and the less pleasant morning to come. In one of the sated silences that punctuated the evening’s political discussions, I asked the guest of honor, a playwright and novelist who left the country on the eve of the dictatorship and was back for a brief visit, if she’d happened to have heard of the book I’d just finished reading, a Colombian novel from the 80s called Sin Remedio. “Of course,” she said, “Antonio’s a dear friend of mine.” Another silence, this one uncomfortable. “But,” I finally said, because I couldn’t manage to dislodge the sentence from between my teeth any other way, “he’s a bit of a misogynist, isn’t he?” She laughed, and I’m pretty sure I caught a conspiratorial nod.
Antonio Caballero has called his picaresque Sin remedio, which translates roughly to A Lost Cause, a book about “how hard it is to write poetry.” It might also be described as a political and sentimental education, in spite of the fact that its protagonist seems to have learned little, if anything, by the novel’s close. It is, undeniably, a smart, scathing critique of the Colombia of the 1960s and early 70s, when the Left began to respond to the National Front, which maintained a tight grip on the nation from 1958 to 1974, with guerilla violence (one of the region’s most widely known militant organizations, the FARC, was founded during this period). First published in 1984, this expansive work was celebrated not only for its acerbic prose and incisive social commentary, but also for offering an alternative to the imitations of Márquez that had come to dominate the literary landscape.
Ignacio Escobar, the floundering-poet-turned-“radicalized petit bourgeois” at the heart of the novel, is caught between two worlds. As the black sheep of one of Bogotá’s ruling families, he divides his time between fine restaurants and country estates, and the underground circles of his best friend, Federico, an artist and activist involved in the revolutionary project of the Left. Little by little, Ignacio is swept up in the movement and eventually finds his voice—understood in both aesthetic and political terms—after being robbed of all his material possessions. Following a series of false starts, he writes a stunning anti-ode to the city of Bogotá in a single, multi-day sitting in his empty apartment. He takes the poem to the street, eager to share it with The People, only to feel it dissolve in a sea of political chants and slogans.
Yet despite his politico-poetic epiphany late in the novel, our protagonist is not a particularly sympathetic character. He’s been spending most of his time crafting bad verse in bed and living off the allowance he still collects from his mother, whom he avoids like the plague. He runs his girlfriend off with his self-righteous inertia and attacks on her aesthetic sensibility, then embarks on a series of liaisons that begins with her former ballet teacher but quickly branches out to include a prostitute, a young cousin, and both Federico’s housekeeper and sister-in-law, Angela. He skips his brother’s memorial service, and then his uncle’s. He compares himself to Rimbaud. He seems incapable of looking at a woman without imagining what it would be like to sleep with her and, in most cases, trying pretty actively to find out, no matter how abhorrent he finds her (and he usually finds her pretty abhorrent).
Ignacio’s almost cartoonish aversion to affective commitment dovetails neatly with the question of political commitment in art, which is discussed at length in the novel, and to commitment to a course of action, in general. Our protagonist, it comes as no surprise, tends to be a passive observer of his own life, often ignoring the issue at hand in the hope that the responsibility will fall to someone, anyone, else.
This is certainly the case in Sin remedio’s denouement. Having grown progressively radicalized over the course of the novel, Federico is eventually picked up by the police. Fearing he might be tortured, his wife asks Ignacio to get his influential uncle, Foción, to arrange his release (which Ignacio does, in good time, complaining all the while about what a hassle it is to have to get up, leave the house, etc). As soon as Federico is out of jail, however, he starts planning the political kidnapping of the very man who intervened on his behalf, and decides that Ignacio should be the one to negotiate his uncle’s ransom. But Ignacio doesn’t go the meeting; he gets distracted and ends up at the house of one of his cousin’s friends instead, where he drinks and does lines and sits in the sauna while word of Foción’s death breaks on the news.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the questionable character of its protagonist, there is much to recommend this book. Caballero, unlike Ignacio, clearly does not shy away from politically committed art; enriched by the author’s background in journalism, Sin remedio’s descriptions of the volatile streets and staid drawing rooms of Bogotá, and of the individuals who occupy each, are vivid and devastating. Of course, key to the story is the increasing political instability in Colombia, and Caballero evokes the energy of the moment and the constant threat of violence that hangs over it with remarkable skill. Immediately after Ignacio realizes that his revolutionary poem is worth little among the rabble, he stumbles upon an election-day protest:
The Maoists marched with long strides along the avenue, gleefully overturning tables and frightening voters as they went. The officer with the mustache, his face purple with anger, shouted into his two-way radio and his men, now on one knee, raised their rifles to their shoulders. Two army jeeps full of troops pulled up from a side street and the military police stormed down Nineteenth, clubbing onlookers and respectable citizens waiting in line at the voting tables with their batons as they went.
Caballero’s deft prose moves the novel along at a quick pace, though this might also be an effect of the humor that girds the critiques it levies against both sides of the political divide, adding texture to the work and serving as a counterpoint to the gravity of its political message. And sometimes it’s just that the language and imagery is, simply put, quite lovely, as in this description of the city in the small hours:
The faintly illuminated drizzle, the delicate odor of garbage fermenting in the night, a watchman making his rounds, snaking up the steep avenues of La Perseverancia on his bike. Signs for pharmacies and liquor stores glowing mint green, hot pink, cadmium orange.
Still, it’s hard to endorse this book without reservation. For one thing, Ignacio’s world is populated by some fairly detestable characters and can be a rampantly sexist, and occasionally homophobic, place. The men are juvenile and arrogant and the women fare worse still, being almost invariably hysterical, materialistic, vacuous, or all of the above. The Bogotá elite, young and old alike, is over-indulged and under-informed, while the Left so determined to unseat it is comprised of opportunists and hypocrites, and spends far more time talking about the revolution over lines of cocaine and bottles of rum than it does bringing it about. Even though, as a conceit, it is both artfully realized and absolutely central to the novel, this absence of a sympathetic anchor can be somewhat trying in a book of this length.
Ultimately, Sin remedio is a novel very much of its time and place, for better and for worse. It’s a vivid, accessible, and emotionally gripping portrait of a city and a political moment; at the same time, it presents things like gender and sexuality in a way that can be jarring for a reader today (even a fairly unflappable one). Still, some things never change: the questions Caballero raises about the place of art in politics and activism are no less relevant now than they were then, and the same can be said for the time-honored tradition of hashing out A Better Way in declarations as categorical as they are slurred. Or, at least, that’s what I remember of that night, a few months ago.