The Vortex, by José Eustasio Rivera, is one of those bona fide Latin-American classics which no one in the English-speaking world has read because a) it was written before One Hundred Years of Solitude, and b) it remains largely unobtainable.
It fits into a group of novels referred to as “regionalist” – written in the first few decades of the twentieth-century – whose other most “well-known” examples are Güiraldes’ Don Segundo Sombra (which I read last year) and Gallegos’ Doña Bárbara (which I shall be reading this year).
It’s split into three parts. The first is very reminiscent of Don Segundo Sombra – it’s set in the plains, mostly on horseback, in a man’s world, where women have to content themselves with merely staying at home and using their unfaithfulness to instill in men a sense of disillusion about the world. If there’s a difference, it’s in the motivation of our hero: in Don Segundo Sombra, he wants to become a gaucho, he idealises the life; in The Vortex, our hero, a native of Bogotá, leaves the city (with his girlfriend) and simply goes out into the plains to “drop out”. In fact, there’s something very sixties about this whole novel: it’s one long journey, which is in reality an exploration into the self.
The part set in the plains is so-so, on a par with Don Segundo Sombra, but the novel really comes alive in the second part, where our hero, having seen his girl run off with a man who is essentially a bandit and being himself framed for murder, leaves the plains and plunges with a gang of followers into the jungle, vowing revenge. This trip through the jungle and into the world of the Indian tribes who live there is even more sixties; it’s reminiscent in its aimless madness of Aguirre, Wrath of God or – perhaps even more – Barbet Schoeder’s The Valley. People get killed or drift off into insanity, are stricken by disease and start suffering from hallucinations. It becomes increasingly unclear what they’re looking for, and whether any of it is worth such trauma.
But then, in the third part, the novel becomes much more of a social and political critique of the rubber-tapping economy of the jungles and the people-trafficking and slavery which have resulted – a world, I admit, I was unaware of, but which is much the same as the Belgian Congo of a few years earlier. Of course, all this travelling up rivers and cruel exploitation of the country and its people, this picture of a world where the leaders are beyond the control of the state, one might be inclined to think of Heart of Darkness – and maybe I would, if I’d read it more recently (there is even a crazed Colonel who’s become the legendary ruler of the area after engaging in some sort of massacre) – but it reminded me a lot more of Hochschild’s non-fiction account of the Congo exploitation, King Leopold’s Ghost. There is something, unfortunately, terribly didactic about these passages – large witness statements are levered into the narrativeand break up its rhythm. But there remain still some interesting passages: the horde of ants who destroy everything in their path, for instance, (a theme which reappears into Latin American literature); and at the end there are quite a lot of needlessly gruesome deaths.
I read this book as part of my Latin-American Readalong. I was intending to read 12 books from 12 different countries: unfortunately, I had this marked down as Argentinian, when it’s clearly Colombian; but, since I’ve read a few Argentinian novels anyway this year, I can’t see it matters.