The sky above Bogotá is lead-grey and alive in a furious tempest. Heavy clouds race across the sky and cloak the surrounding mountains in soft darkness. Vast highways cut the city into pieces and skyscrapers of blackened concrete loom, merciless, above. Huge, grim graffiti decorate the dirty walls. It´s raining, like it´s raining everyday. The businessmen walk over you, in their black trenchcoats, and the beggars limp after you up and down the mountain slopes, begging for una moneda.
Indeed, Bogotá is a hell - in the books of Mario Mendoza, that is. Mendoza is one of the most prominent young Latin American writers. Born in Bogotá in 1968, he studied literature, worked in Spain and Israel and published his first novel, La Ciudad de los Umbrellas, in 1992. Following novels, Scorpio City (1998) and Relato de un asesino (2001) kept buiding Mendoza´s fame and in 2002 the book Satanás brought him the Premio Biblioteca Breve de Seix Barral-award. Mendoza writes gloomy tales of survival in a hostile environment that is the capital of Colombia; violent tales of murderers, robbers, whores, police officers - and often, artists - all those walking on the shadier streets of life. In Mendoza´s Bogotá, the sky is always gray and rain is always falling.
Forgive me for for rushing into this somewhat exaggerated statement: what a huge positive impact García Márquez made in this country! Colombia seems to be full of exiting authors, both struggling to get out of the huge shadow of the nobelist and at the same time embracing his ideas. The young generation has developed an own voice, a dark realism that still carries a spark of something magical.
A collection of short stories Una Escalera al Cielo (Stairway to Heaven), published in 2004, is one of the Mendoza´s more recent works. It starts with a tale of a desperate young man committing his first robbery and failing miserably, a gloomy story with a mood of escalating terror that ends like a splash of sulphuric acid over the reader´s face. After the shocking start, the reader will learn about a coma-patient finding love (in a fashion disturbingly similar to Pedro Almodovar´s Hable Con Ella), a secret that destroys the possessor´s soul, a young man overcoming a lost love through facing the death and an old guerilla bombman´s long wait together with a man who believes in a revolution of mind - among others. The collection ends like it started, with a tale of robbery. But this time, rather than the end, the robbery is a start of a new life: a depressed dancer, after being dumped by a taxist in a deadly sidestreet, gets mugged, nearly killed, and suddendly learns the value of life.
Below is an extremely short story by Mendoza. I chose it obviously because it is only one page in length, but also because it sums up in a few paragraphs a number of Mendoza´s main themes and one of the most surprising aspects of his writing: The strange, bittersweetly optimistic undercurrent of Mendoza´s stories. Saying that as long as there is life there is hope might be exaggeration, but still, every day lived is better than nothing. And this in itself, to me, is an boldly optimistic claim. Despite the hellish environment of Mendoza´s tales, they are often also accounts of human warmth and empathy. Characters of the stories find tender caring exactly where there should be none, from murderers, prostitutes and drug addicts.
(Please note that I am far from a professional translator and neither Spanish nor English is my native language. Thus, this is a quick and somewhat free translation. Forgive me and go get the original.)
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from Una Escalera al Cielo (2004)
It is a few minutes before the midnight. The place could be an abandoned warehouse, a few shops out of service or an antique railway station, since from afar one can hear the characteristic noise of a cargo train. A man is tied to a chair. His face is broken in panic: his skin is yellow, eyes injected with blood, a days old beard covers his cheeks, dark rings under his eyes give him a bad look, a corner of his lips trembles nervously. To his side, a young man in loose pants and a wool cap has the role of a guardian, with a revolver in hand.
The door opens in the back and another young male enters. He says quickly, rushing the words:
- Ready, we gotta do it.
- They gave the order? - asks the first one.
- Yes, let´s get this over quickly.
The prisoner pleas, cries, begs, offers money to his murderers. The men throw a coin to choose the executioner, heads or tails. The guardian loses, he checks the bullets in the barrel of his revolver and brings the gun to the temple of the prisoner. When he is about to push the trigger they hear artificial blasts and the place is quickly illuminated with multicolored, phantasmagoric lights. The hitman turns to look and his eyes are lost afar, beyond the window. He lets the gun go down and says:
- We´ll do it tomorrow. Today is the chrismas.
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The sky above Bogotá is light grey with a slightest promise, but the sun is too weak to struggle through the clouds and rain drizzles down on the streets. Bogotá might not seem like a welcoming place, but give it a chance and it soon reveals itself as one of the more exciting cities in the South America. It is a highly cultural city, a thriving center of modern art with innumerable galleries and top-quality museums, and possibly the most well-read and book-loving place on the continent north of Buenos Aires (of course, there is no beating Bs.As. in this respect, with all the hundreds of labyrinthine bookstores lining the Corrientes). It is not as dangerous as you might think, as areas where a foreigner walks are heavily guarded by the police. And in the end, beneath their dark coats, people are hospitable and friendly - like in the stories of Mendoza.