14 November 2008

Wrong-Thinking, Ill-Feeling

On the Colombian magazine El Malpensante

When Mario Jursich and Andres Hoyos founded the literary-cultural magazine El Malpensante in 1996, Colombia’s president, Ernesto Samper, had recently emerged unscathed from a series of trials revealing financial ties between his campaign and one of Colombia’s most infamous and powerful drug cartels, the Cartel de Cali. The armed conflict between military, guerrilla, and paramilitary groups was reaching new violent heights and infiltrating nearly every level of urban and rural life. The country was enshrouded in an atmosphere of chaos and fear, so thorough and penetrating that a sinister new mantra soon emerged: todos los colombianos somos secuestrables—all Colombians are kidnappable. All of us: not just the wealthy and the powerful. (The world secuestrable, cumbersome in English, is succinct and correct in Spanish, and was ubiquitous at the time). This national state of fear left little space for intellectual pursuits. El Espectador, the country’s oldest newspaper, had recently cancelled its Sunday magazine, which until that point had served as a lonely bastion for Colombian literary writing. Print media, television, and radio, when they weren’t dedicated to covering massacres and unpunished political corruption, provided solace in distraction—beauty queens, telenovelas, soccer.

This is not to say there was no writing. The unrest and cynicism of the mid-90s saw the rise of a new generation of Colombian novelists who recoiled from the picturesque ruralism of García Márquez and the rest of their Boom predecessors, opting instead for a seamy urban realism directly influenced by the narco-violence surrounding them. (Fernando Vallejo’s novel La virgen de los sicarios [Our Lady of the Assassins] had been published in 1994 and is probably the most successful example.) Yet these writers lacked any sort of flagship institution, a publication that would reliably disseminate and discuss their work; a cohesive, public arena to foster a culture of criticism or a communal sense of aesthetic appreciation.

El Malpensante in many ways emerged directly from this hole in Colombian literary and intellectual culture. Hoyos and Jursich set out to assemble a cosmopolitan magazine, one that took ‘Literature’ as a lens through which to view the world. The first issue, which established the magazine’s subtitle as “Paradoxical Readings,” was unprecedented in Colombia for the quality, scope, and vitality of its content. Its cover—a black and white photograph of a nude woman covered neck-down in paint, seductively biting a cigarette—was provocative and elegant at once. The content consisted in roughly equal parts of original material and of work reprinted or translated (by either Hoyos or Jursich) from different sources. There were essays by Gabriel Zaid (a renowned Mexican writer) and Héctor Abad Faciolince (who has since become a prominent figure in Colombian letters, not least due to his work in El Malpensante); a short story from the young and then-unknown Colombian Antonio Caballero, and letters from the also young (though dead) Colombian Andrés Caicedo; an essay from 1746 by the Spanish Benedictine monk Benito Jerónimo Feijóo, inaugurating a feature that exhumed writings from the distant past; texts from older but underrepresented Latin American authors; and then translations of Mark Twain (“Advice to Youth”), H. L. Mencken (“Against Women”) and Salman Rushdie (“In Defense of the Novel, Yet Again.”) All this at a time when there was hardly a place in Bogotá to read book reviews.


Since then, El Malpensante has published every month and a half, each issue roughly 90 pages long. In physical appearance it lands somewhere between The Believer and Harper’s, though with more space devoted to illustration and design than either. Its pages are in color and only slightly glossy. While some journalistic pieces are adorned with relevant photographs, most are accompanied by prominent and original artwork, almost exclusively from Colombian and Latin American artists. (In fact, the magazine has directly contributed to a certain Colombian design aesthetic that is sleek, comic-inspired and Photoshop-heavy, as exemplified by the frequent contributions of Bogotá artist Camilo Mahecha; these, however, are usually offset by more subdued pen drawings or gouaches.) The ad space inside El Malpensante is largely dedicated to cultural endeavors—publishing imprints, university programs, book fairs—while the back page is reserved for cars, banks, watches, or whiskey.

The magazine’s written content can best be understood by the meanings and implications of its title. The word malpensante translates loosely to “ill-thinker.” As employed by the magazine (in reference to itself and, ideally, its readership), the word essentially denotes a perpetual critic or skeptic, one who is predisposed to think ill of things until they prove themselves worthy. Or, looking at the term a little differently, a “wrong-thinker,” one who opts to methodically think the wrong thoughts in the face of established and available ones. The term also recalls malpensado, a word common in Colombian parlance and a key player in my early adolescent formation in Bogotá: a malpensado is simply someone with a dirty mind, prone to finding obscene meanings behind any and all gestures, statements or events. (It is also often applied ironically to anyone who points out such salacious undertones when they are meant to be obvious.)

At its best, El Malpensante exhibits not only the critical rigor that is expected of a publication of its sort, but also a touch of youthful perversity and mischief, now adult in its methods and motivations. Brief pieces are ironic and droll but relentlessly critical, ruminating on any number of things, from the indelible craters in Bogotá‘s roads, say, or Paris Hilton’s unintentional aphorisms, to the perennial “death of poetry.” Fiction usually comes from young, emerging Colombian writers, and is often violent, sexual, or at least unnerving. As Jursich said to me, “it is a declared purpose of the magazine to irritate the reader.” One issue opens with a letter from three women renouncing their support for the magazine based on a story by the young Colombian writer Luis Miguel Rivas, outraged by its insensitivity toward the rape of a female character.


Politically, El Malpensante studiously avoids opening itself to charges of leftism—understandably so, perhaps, given that they exist in a country where decades of violence from Marxist guerrilla groups have ensured that the notion of an orthodox Left seems both grim and absurd, and where legitimate leftist parties habitually fail to resist being associated—or, in the most disappointing cases, actually associating—with FARC and its drug-funded infrastructure of violence.

So El Malpensante is frequently critical of the Latin American Left—in a number of articles, for instance, questioning or openly disparaging the politics of Hugo Chávez and his allies. Jursich insists that El Malpensante is a “non-ideological” publication (one generally ought to be skeptical of such claims); what he really means, I think, is that its ideology is leftist but reticently so, profoundly dissatisfied with the state of the Left as it exists concretely. Thus, it pretends to renounce ideology altogether in order to better remain true to its ethos, to ill-think and wrong-think through the problems of the Left, and in so doing to combat the obsolete dogmatism that has led so many Colombian and Latin American political movements down the paths of corruption, cruelty, and failure. El Malpensante removed itself from politics in order to build a sanctuary for art and culture; its non-ideology represented, politically, a commitment more than a withdrawal: when it touched on politics, it would do so with the knowledge that liberals and conservatives alike were culpable for the same failures and as such deserved equal criticism.

The magazine’s unwillingness to be pegged as a leftist publication (verging on fear, almost) has led it on a few occasions to the tactic of publishing articles advancing neoliberal or even blatantly conservative doctrines—most notably when the magazine published a translation of prominent U.S. neocon Edward Luttwak’s essay “Give War a Chance.” In such cases El Malpensante might seem dedicated to the easy principle of provocation; to “irritate the reader” runs the risk of becoming an end in itself rather than a means to foster introspective analysis, criticism, and debate. When I visited El Malpensante to talk with Mario Jursich, he cited “Give War a Chance” as the prime example of the magazine’s non-ideological character: he did so eagerly and automatically, and yet he couldn’t quite remember Luttwak’s name.


In the twelve years since El Malpensante first came to life, Colombia’s political and social climate has changed, and most would be hard pressed to argue that it hasn’t improved. State power, once hopelessly corrupt and ineffective, is not nearly as much those things as it used to be: Colombians are no longer indiscriminately kidnappable, and even in the last few months FARC has suffered enough serious blows to bring up the possibility, however complicated or distant, of a foreseeable defeat. Since January, three of FARC’s top commanders have died or been killed; a significant number of valuable hostages have escaped or been rescued (including Íngrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician who was captive for over six years and provided the rebels with a great deal of leverage in negotiation); the military has obtained crucial information on FARC’s inner workings, and guerrilla numbers and military strength have severely declined. All this has come to pass under the leadership of President Álvaro Uribe, variously described as center- or far-right, but nevertheless an unabashed militarist who was George W. Bush’s strongest ally in Latin America and has thus counted on billions’ worth of US money and weapons under Plan Colombia. For having reduced and contained a violence that used to be immense and impervious, Uribe is popular even amongst otherwise stubbornly liberal Colombians. And rightly so, perhaps; no one can reasonably argue against rescuing innocent hostages, or eradicating the fear of bombs in shopping malls and on major urban streets.


Yet the methods behind the government’s recent successes have been called into question. Significant ties have emerged between military and government officials and the AUC, Colombia’s largest right-wing paramilitary group, which is as infamous as the guerrillas it seeks to eradicate for the cruelty and scale of its human rights violations. More recently, the commander of Colombia’s army resigned after a series of investigations uncovered the military’s widespread practice of murdering innocent, often destitute civilians in order to falsely count them as insurgents killed in combat. One is left to wonder, then, about the true nature of the Uribe administration’s progress: while much of the countryside remains deeply vulnerable to the ongoing violence, the peace and prosperity that have resurged in recent years in cities like Bogotá and Medellín seem to be the product of a severely questionable politics. Is Colombia better, then, because there is social justice and political accountability? Or is Colombia better because the moneyed urban elite can once again visit their nearby country estates without the fear of roadblocks?

While the Colombian intellectual elite has recently enjoyed significant improvements in its quality of life, parts of the intelligentsia have not been entirely willing to come to terms with the fact that it owes these improvements to a very concrete ideology, and one which—certainly in the case of the editors of El Malpensante—is not its own: the ideology of President Álvaro Uribe and, by extension, that of the Bush administration. These new circumstances cast the magazine’s commitment to ideological slipperiness in a different light: where it once reflected the Colombian intelligentsia’s justified disdain for politics in general, it now reflects its discomfort at the fact that, after the miserable failure of a series of peace talks organized by Andrés Pastrana, the previous president, the current one’s predilection for American-funded gunfire seems to be working.

Some of El Malpensante‘s readers have tried to address this problem by urging the magazine to maintain a more solid political perspective. A letter from a reader published in 2007 characterizes the decision to publish Luttwak’s article and others as the magazine “opening itself up to propaganda,” and goes on to criticize El Malpensante for straying from its vigorous origins and starting to pander to the self-satisfied, narcissistic and shamelessly elitist Bogotá bourgeois—“conservative and chauvinistic, sure, but cultured and with good taste.” The letter’s arguments are poignant and piercing, and one wonders if perhaps this is why it was published as the only letter in that issue.

The danger with ill-thinking is that it can devolve into the diet of the intellectual in his parlor, his high-rise, looking out over a chaotic landscape that he need not touch with anything but the wheels of his big American car. When it lands shrink-wrapped on coffee tables every six weeks, El Malpensante provides a singular comfort to the educated, successful Colombian: the comfort that comes with thinking that, despite the mess, despite the ignominy, Colombia is a cultured country, a civilized country. And not in a García Márquez, finding-beauty-in-provincial-chaos kind of way, not anymore: we, the magazine reassuringly says, are sophisticated and cosmopolitan, just as much as the Americans and the Europeans are, even though their roads and schools and governments may be better than ours.

This is a particularly cynical way of looking at El Malpensante, and it has its virtues. But it discards culture too quickly. In 2003, the exiled Colombian journalist Silvana Paternostro wrote: “The government believes that, first and foremost, Colombia needs to vanquish the rebel army, and that only when this happens will the Colombians be free. El Malpensante exists to remind the government that the free flow of art and ideas, of opinions and of beauty, is also essential.”

In less exalted terms: culture is valuable in and of itself. In El Malpensante‘s 10th anniversary issue, in November of 2006, Hoyos outlined some of the ways in which this can be the case for Colombia: “I wouldn’t say that culture and the arts here are in a desperate state, but more than a luxury they are a necessity, an indispensable instrument when it comes to discovering who we are, who we could be, where we are going, and where we could be going.…The calamities of our country have submerged us Colombians in a certain fatalism: things are the way they are, and it is almost impossible for them to be otherwise, says a common mental murmur… [But] to ill-think before an expectant audience is an activity that transmits an unmistakable electricity when one knows that this audience’s decisions can torpedo established ideas, atmospheric laziness, and accepted bad taste, as well as plant disquietudes in the minds of people who did not have them before.”


El Malpensante owes its success and visibility in large part to business savvy and an unabashed respect for capital: Hoyos sank a good chunk of his substantial wealth into the magazine’s beginnings to ensure it would run for at least three years, and since then El Malpensante has made a point of following a business model that is not only sustainable but relatively profitable (that it is profitable at all is remarkable for a literary magazine in Latin America). This thoroughly cements its status as a magazine of and for the rich, educated, urban elite—and, ultimately, it has no pretensions of being anything else. Hector Abad Faciolince (who has contributed to the magazine from its first issue) once referred to Hoyos as “one of the few rich Colombians with a taste for patronage,” and in a sense this affectionate but slightly barbed description applies to El Malpensante‘s entire project: they contribute to the arts as benefactors, and every six weeks they donate a generous 90 sheets of paper reproduced 30,000 times.

El Malpensante has a few kindred spirits in other Latin American countries: Peru’s Etiqueta Negra, Argentina’s La Mujer de mi Vida, and Mexico’s Reverso, to name a few, evince the same affinity for literary cosmopolitanism as a means to interpret culture at large. Most of these countries are, like Colombia, plagued by instability—in Mexico, an escalating, grisly war between drug traffickers and the military; in Peru, a tenuous state of peace achieved by an ex-president who is now undergoing trials for corruption and human rights abuses. In such contexts, magazines like El Malpensante and Etiqueta Negra act as bunkers for literary culture; they protect our enjoyment of the more refined pleasures from the hostility of the elements.

I once spent a fruitless morning trying to contact Jursich at the Malpensante office by phone. He later emailed to tell me that several telephone cables in the neighborhood had been stolen. The entire block was incommunicado. When I finally spoke to him (by cell phone), he referred to the event as “Macondiano,” a reference to the fictional, quaintly backward village of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was a joke, but there was the slightest hint of desperation to his tone: we may have built the sanctuary, but outside the wind keeps blowing.

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