Colombia's bicentennial celebrations of 2010, marking two centuries of independence from Spain, provided a perfect opportunity to promote the country's spectacular transformation under the then outgoing president Álvaro Uribe. Uribe might not have been the most likeable of Colombia's presidents, but his cold intransigence made him exactly the strong leader necessary to bring stability to a country that had suffered near continual internal strife throughout most of its history.
An article in Newsweek, praising the bicentennial Colombia as a safe and dynamic place ripe for foreign investment, prompted the journalist Tom Feiling to return to a country he had known well during more troubled times. He rightly saw the need for an informed book on what is likely soon to become one of South America's most popular destinations.
Foreign ignorance about Colombia remains enormous, with the country's image abroad still heavily based on tales of death squads, guerrillas, kidnappings and drug traffickers. Feiling himself has had much contact with this darker side to the country, having made a documentary set in its slums, campaigned for human rights, and written an excellent book about all aspects of the world's cocaine business.
Short Walks from Bogotá, though promising to chronicle a more positive and optimistic Colombia, rarely strays far away from the recent past, and the underlying problems, such as the persistent skirmishes with guerrillas, the lingering menace of the now-disbanded paramilitaries, and the dangers still faced by trade unionists, 48 of whom were killed in 2010 alone. Structured as a series of forays into rural and urban areas that were once a byword for violence, the book is unlikely to change general preconceptions of the country. But it creates a portrait of Colombia that is perceptive, unsensational, and full of humanity.
Feiling is a brilliant reporter, lucid, unflinching, morally engaged, and with an occasional deadpan sense of humour. He is understandably wary of the rosy, official view of Colombia, though unlike other liberal commentators, he does not in any way romanticise the government's guerrilla opponents. Indeed, his account of the roots of Colombia's violence, of the country's labyrinthine history of in-fighting, and of the growing distance between the guerrillas and the rural poor whose cause they supposedly espouse, could not be bettered for objectivity.
Whereas other journalists might have been drawn into the world of Colombia's political and intellectual elite, or even tried to interview Uribe's enlightened successor Juan Manuel Santos (a proponent of the legalisation of drugs), Feiling generally steers clear of those with power and money. After confessing that Colombia's land-owning class always gives him "the creeps", he goes on to have a telling encounter with a wealthy mayoral candidate who professes concern for the environment while turning out to have been found guilty of selling off national-park property to cattle ranchers. Towards the end, Feiling also manages a blackly amusing meeting with the "emerald cowboy" Eishi Hayata, a villain of Hollywood proportions who expresses regret that Colombia is on the road to "normality", and no longer the lawless country where he had made his millions.
But the bulk of Feiling's narrative is devoted to Colombia's victims, from South America's last nomads (a tribe caught between the cocaine traffickers and the FARC guerrillas) to such ordinary citizens as Pastor Mira García, a woman from the once devastated and now slowly-recovering Antioquia town of San Carlos. The brave and outspoken Mira is happy to point out that the peace the town enjoys today is due not to anything local politicians have done but rather to the example of those inhabitants whose commitment to non-violence has extended, as hers has, even to helping the man who killed her father.
Colombians, so ready to forget the worst parts of their history, and so anxious to shake off their country's troubled image of old, might well be critical of Feiling for not having written a very different book – one that celebrates Colombia's exceptional natural diversity, and outstanding cultural achievements.
Feiling does touch briefly on subjects other than politics, for instance food and vallenato music. Above all, he dwells on Colombian literature, which he studies for what it tells of modern Colombia. Perversely, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude "wasn't doing it for me", so he draws the reader's attention instead to such as-yet untranslated works as Hector Abad Faciolince's Angosta, a dystopian vision of the modern urban world. Dutifully Feiling goes to most of Colombia's main tourist zones, from the coffee-growing areas of Antioquia to the Amazonian town of Leticia, and manages to bring these together in a single paragraph in which he concludes that he "got my fill of Colombia's bounty and met with nothing more worrying than idle curiosity". Hitting the well-trodden gringo trail at the "adventure sports capital" of San Gil, he is also dismissive of the international crowd of backpackers. He is dismayed by their lack of real interest in Colombia, and their treatment of South America as a giant adventure playground.
Yet Feiling's own curiosity in Colombia has its surprising gaps, notably the country's miraculously well-preserved colonial towns, such as Mompós, whose haunting beauty he makes no attempt to evoke. He goes there largely to interview a couple of former guerrillas. This is a shame for, underlying Feiling's talents as a journalist, is a great travel-writer in the making, as is revealed in such memorable passages as the one in which he sets off with a stoned and moody Colombian writer into a dusty canyon. He has also written a book that, for all the inevitable limitations in its scope, is one of the most consistently intelligent and compelling to have appeared on any South American country in recent years.
Michael Jacobs's 'The Robber of Memories: a river journey through Colombia' is published by Granta in NovemberReuse content