Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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"The Spanish view is correct, of course," purred the smartly linen-jacketed David Starkey, with a far more diplomatic air than most followers of the abrasive prime-time historian will have seen. "Drake was a pirate." He was speaking in the Claustro Santo Domingo, one of many elegantly revamped convents and mansions that line the balconied streets of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia - the most bewitchingly handsome of the colonial ports around the former "Spanish Main". Francis Drake, as Starkey recalled in a lecture on the divergent Spanish and British empires, raided this jewel of the Caribbean in 1586. He wrecked the cathedral, demanded money with menaces, and promptly sailed off.

If anyone ever wishes to recreate this episode of the city's history for another locally-shot movie (its squares, palaces and bastions have hosted films from Romancing the Stone to The Mission), I'd recommend another star of the second Hay Festival in Cartagena. DBC Pierre, a favourite with the audience, swaggered piratically into a cocktail party thrown by the British ambassador in the Palace of the Inquisition. The Booker-snatcher looked as if he had just tied up a barque flying the skull-and-crossbones in the harbour. Watch out, Johnny Depp: you have competition.

For such an infant festival, Hay's Colombian offshoot already makes a very healthy media din. Among the Anglo heavyweights, Starkey and Pierre were joined by Christopher Hitchens (in a fiery anti-religious mood, but revealing that he did once pray - for an erection), Bob Geldof (both speaking, and playing a gig for 5,000 in the Plaza de la Aduana) and David Mitchell. International stars ran from Spain's Manuel Rivas to Norway's Asne Seierstad. Colombia's own literary leaders arrived in force, from novelists Oscar Collazos and Santiago Gamboa to poets Jaime Manrique and Juan Manuel Roca. And if the city's most famous author stayed away (perhaps gathering strength for his 80th birthday party next month), nosey literati could peer at the squat orange pile owned by Gabriel García Márquez. It's virtually the only ugly house within the Spanish ramparts.

Traditionally, both Anglophone and Hispanic writers peek over each other's imperial walls and see 500 years of turpitude. Yet both sides proved greedily eager slavers in these parts; hence the rich Afro-Colombian heritage around Cartagena, from the vibrant customs of Palenque (a town of freed slaves founded in 1603) to the ragga-like beats of champeta. And hence, too, the fervent hero's welcome that greeted Wole Soyinka.

Not only did the Nigerian Nobel laureate pack the sumptuous Heredia theatre full to bursting. He wandered flower-filled streets like a visiting king - or, for the youngsters confused by his halo of white curls, like boxing boss Don King. Then he visited a children's cultural project in El Pozón, one of Cartagena's poorest barrios, where he played, talked and boogied with the kids ("they forced me to dance!"). Literary festivals, especially in a picturesque corner of a divided society, can feel like islands of ease in an ocean of toil. To watch Soyinka in Cartagena was to grasp that they can help to heal as well as distract.

The Hay writers' fiesta belongs to a wider healing venture. It has a place in the Colombian government's ambitious plan to promote tourism in a country that's much safer than before, but still plagued in some provinces by the banditry of paramilitaries, guerrillas - and the narco-traffickers allied to both. The politics of this campaign remains a matter of debate or dissent; not so the astonishing beauty of the place, and the immense warmth of its people. And the scene of a Nobel-winning giant mobbed by barrio kids seems, in its own way, as inspiring as the sunset vista of the Caribbean across the glinting domes.