Jorge Gaitán Durán: Notes on a premature death

These days marked a century since the birth of Jorge Gaitán Durán, who was not only one of the most notable intellectuals of his generation, but also left Colombian culture transformed forever. But where is Gaitán? Is there talk about his work? Riskier question: is his work read beyond a few devotees or academics? Luis Fernando Quiroz, who knows Gaitán’s life and work wonderfully, published a political profile in The viewer; but that swallow did not make a summer, and I continued with the uncertain impression that Gaitán does not have the place among us that perhaps he deserves. Although the idea of ​​desert in literature is arbitrary and idle: no one knows why time chooses what it chooses. No: perhaps what I want to ask myself today, one hundred years after Gaitán’s birth and almost 62 after his premature death, is how to remember him. It seems like an easy question, but it is not.

Gaitán was a contradictory character. He had many talents, and one of them – very appreciable – was the talent to confuse. I suspect that we remember him above all for having met with Hernando Valencia Goelkel, Eduardo Cote Lamus and Pedro Gómez Valderrama, among other conspirators, to found Myth: a subversive, scandalous, intelligent and daring magazine that was published for only seven years, between 1955 and 1962, but whose brief existence was enough to open the windows of Colombian literature, shake the national conversation about almost everything, say things that in the pacato country of the 50s could not be said and confronted the earthly powers – the dictatorship of Rojas Pinilla and the Catholic Church – like no one had done. Don’t worry, reader, if the first thing you remember when Gaitán’s name is mentioned is the fortuitous fact that he published, in May 1958, the short novel by a young man from the coast who was struggling in Paris: The colonel has no one to write to him. Yes: literary clairvoyance was one of Gaitán’s virtues, but it was not the only one.

He was a poet, film critic, art critic, literature critic, critic of criticism. He did politics without being a politician, and I believe that he could not have been one: he had the prohibitive habit of doubt. He could write with ease about the Marquis de Sade or the Government of Alberto Lleras, about The matchmaker or about communism in Colombia. Barely reaching the voting age, he had already published a volume of poetry with a good ear and fresh influences, and there are some verses in it that seem to me to be a declaration of intentions, the closest thing to a shortcut to understanding what his short life was going to be like. from Gaitán:

I am like this in the violent and desolate world

And my forehead rises to search for the sky.

Nothing redeems, nothing, my stupor, my fatigue,


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Nothing quenches my thirst, nothing fulfills my desire.

What distinguishes Gaitán – and what seduces me about his figure – is that enormous appetite. He was a young man from the provinces, from a rather privileged family, who simply wanted to read everything, travel everywhere and react to everything in writing. That is why he wrote in almost all genres: he left poetry, essays, short stories (few and mediocre) and a libretto for opera. But what interests me most is an unusual document in the panorama of Colombian literature: his travel diary. He started it in 1950, when, after years of political frustrations that included an attempt on his life, he decided to take advantage of his family’s resources to go see the world. Sometimes it occurs to me that there is no better gateway to the figure of Gaitán: there are his obsessions, his penetrating intelligence, his hunger for experiences, his intellectual evolution that goes from a somewhat laughable Byronism to an undeniable maturity. And there is also his good eye, his irreverence and his irrepressible tendency to understand everything through the prism of culture.

That’s how it has been since the first diary entry. Gaitán has boarded the Isigny, a cargo ship of the Transatlantic Company flying the French flag, and when he reaches the high seas he makes a list of the passengers. Among them are a priest residing in Colombia, a Peruvian novice, a black tenor from Paramaribo, a white merchant from Genoa, three Christian Brothers and a French prostitute. He writes that the company seemed to him straight out of Apollinaire; No, he corrects himself, it is fairer to see them as characters in some picaresque for children, various incarnations of Pedro Urdimalas. “For about a month,” he writes, “I will have to live among ten characters from an old-fashioned novel.” And he lives with them, he writes down in his diary their comments and his confidences, he gives an account of their brawls: he tells of the Genoese’s racism, the tenor’s resentment and the priest’s frivolity (but he doesn’t tell anything about the prostitute). And a month later the cargo ship Isigny arrives at the port of La Pallice, which we know today as La Rochelle, and Gaitán begins the three years of that journey that turned him into himself: into the image we have of him when we get to know him well.

The problem, of course, is that no one ever gets to know him well. Perhaps that is why his figure is not so present among us: because it is elusive, contradictory, multiform. When he published the notes he made during a trip through China and the Soviet Union, Gaitán said that he did it to respond to the reactionaries who accused him of being a communist and the communists who accused him of being a reactionary. But the notes, he said, “are hardly the testimony, probably ineffective, of a man who claims to be free.” And we already know that there is nothing more difficult, nor anything that arouses more the resentment and enmities of this country perpetually poisoned against itself, where it is unacceptable not to belong to a tribe.

In 1959, Jorge Gaitán published The invisible revolution, a long essay whose terrifying subtitle – “Notes on the crisis and development of Colombia” – should not scare anyone. It is a generous reflection on our Colombian destiny; There are lucid reflections and also half-baked intuitions, accurate diagnoses and completely wrong prophecies, but above all there is a serious effort to think about the country. But what I want to remember is not the essay itself, which was serialized in the magazine The streetbut a note that Gaitán published in the same magazine about the reactions that his essay produced.

“My case,” he wrote, “is basically nothing surprising: I don’t owe favors to anyone; I do not depend on any party, any sect; I do not accept bosses, nor Index of any kind; They cannot besiege me economically, they cannot annihilate me ethically, they cannot prevent me from writing, much less from thinking; I read what I want, I study, I observe and I stubbornly try to understand certain cultural themes, certain political and social panoramas, certain human passions. “I am not a professional non-conformist: I only believe that the strength of a position does not come from contempt, not even from talent or ideological adherence, but from independence and conscience.”

In June 1962, the plane in which Gaitán was returning from Paris to Bogotá crashed on the island of Guadalupe. It is impossible, reading the words I just quoted, not to feel that this premature death robbed us of something important. We will have to settle for what we have left.

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