Gabriel Angel: The voice of Colombian guerrillas and peasants
A former FARC-EP guerrilla, Gabriel Angel is a talented and much loved writer.
Gabriel Angel has been for thirty years a FARC-EP guerrilla. At the age of forty he decided that he had to start writing literature in addition to political texts.
His work offers guerrillas and peasants as well as military and paramilitary protagonists, and reflect stories taking place in the most rural Colombia, where the civil war had reached a special intensity. His literature provides us with an opportunity to see in another way and understand this phase of violence that the Colombian society is trying to end today.
Gabriel Angel spoke to ANF about his life in the guerrilla, his contribution to building peace in Colombia and the challenges of being a writer with many ‘personal literary critics’ among his guerrilla comrades.
How was your literary vocation born?
It’s difficult to say accurately. I believe as a result of my love for literature as a young man. My parents were of rural origin, humble. I did not inherit the love for letters from them. Even though I remember, and now I wonder why, my mother read a lot, often she stayed awaken till dawn reading in her bed. Maybe this has affected me. But it was friends of my family to initiate me to reading novels, and then high school. At some point, I would say when I was twenty, I thought I had to write. It was nice to read a lot, but from all these readings one also had to produce something, in a way. For many years I had this uneasiness, until I started to write with some seriousness when I was forty. I had been in the guerrilla for about a dozen years, I had many things to tell.
How and why did you join the FARC-EP?
I was a militant founder of the Union Patriotica political movement, born after the peace talks between the FARCs and the Belisario Betancur government in 1985. I remember the enthusiasm and the idealism with which we devoted ourselves to this task, we were a group of young people, already professionals (I was a lawyer and I was 26 years old). I cultivated the illusion that for the first time the left could arrived to the Presidency during the first elections our force contested in 1986. We did not, the Liberal Party got ten times more votes than we did. Nevertheless, the vote for the left reached the highest levels in its history. Immediately after, however, the avalanche of murders came on top of the leadership and the militancy of the Patriotic Union. We were trapped in a corner, there was no other way to go.
Were you writing before your militant engagement? What is the difference in your literature before and after the decision to enter the guerrilla war?
I had written some poems and articles that I published in the local newspaper of the city where I lived. In the FARC-EP I started writing articles for our newsletters and magazines. Then I was entrusted with the drafting of communiques, documents and political declarations. All very rational and realistic. The passage to proper literature, so to speak, was marked by the creation of stories about guerrilla life which in turn were a tribute to our dead. I have always believed that the first documents were a duty of the organization, while the second writings, those of fiction, were the personal expression of our experiences.
In your writing the political, social and human commitment is very clear. Do you believe that this may affect literary quality or instead gives it some added value?
Ever since I made the decision to write fiction, the first stories and the embryo of novels, I always made sure to avoid at all costs that they appeared as flyers, pamphlets, documents with a clear propaganda content. I wanted to do pure literature while at the same time telling our historical and human story. I think I’ve succeeded. It has always been said that good literature and politics are not exactly allied, that when a political cause turns into literary plot, is literature that lose out. I decided to accept this challenge, with the awareness that because of my content I would lose readers. I think ultimately it is about being as honest as possible. The rest, time will tell.
Tell us a little about the collection of stories just published and about A Quemarropa (In Cold Blood) and Los Mensajeros del Diablo (The Devil’s Messengers), your two novels…
The Moon of the Attorney short stories have as their plot the guerrilla experience in Magdalena Medio, one of the regions most affected by the violence in Colombia. In them you can breathe the nostalgia for my time in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Maria, where I spent the first five years of guerrilla life. That’s why I also published shortly after Los Mensajeros del Diablo, the recreation of a real event that occurred in the Sierra.
A Quemarropa, on the other hand, is part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the FARC in the Sierra, although I wrote it many years later when I was in the Eastern Bloc at the beginning of the so-called Patriot Plan in 2003. I already had an extensive vision of our struggle and for this reason the novel has a certain national breath, the integral war declaration by President Gaviria’s. One blends the facts and adds the fiction, but basically the story is born out of real people and situations.
Let’s enter into your work a bit deeper, how is your narrative born? Starting from the characters, from the concrete stories?
I would say that in a given moment, I feel the urge, the need of telling a certain interesting episode of guerrilla life, an experience that gathers in itself several facets of the human and political nature of our struggle. Something that really happened. So I let the idea mature a few months, or even years, until suddenly a light turns on in my head: you have to do so, you have to tell it this way, integrating this into that, contextualising it in this way… Then I start write the story and I will not stop until I consider it finished. It can be a work of months, years even. As I write the story, it is enriched, characters begin to demand greater presence, more space. But this happen while working, does not exactly match a predetermined plan. Let’s say I do not build characters or dilemmas, I tell the story of people I’ve met and the dilemmas in which they’ve been involved. They are people and facts I’ve known closely. It is always necessary to introduce fiction, to fill some voids. Unless you are writing a chronicle, something that seduces me greatly, almost an exact journalistic story of what you have known directly or that we have been told.
Unfortunately, in this struggle you come into contact with great narrators of stories, only that unfortunately they do not have enough ability to sit and write. If they did, we would have nothing to do. In a sense one is a parasite, feeding of what others have experienced and suffered. And you gets applause for that. Is it right?
What are your literary influences?
Surely there are many. But I have tried consciously to do what I feel, as I feel it, without letting the way others do things influence me. I would say that after spending twenty-five years reading novels and stories of the most diverse authors, something of all this helps creating a style and a way of telling things. I have always felt that great authors always do it much better, so it’s not worth imitating them. You will never be like them. I think that with a lot of humility and being receptive to criticisms and comments you can be able to create something that others did not do. Then one begins to recognize himself as a creator.
What about other non-literary elements that matter in your writing? Music, nature... Everything is literary, absolutely everything. What you write is a reflection of the real world that is the plan of events of all kinds. In my opinion what you can- not be, is being extremely ambitious and introducing too many things into a book. I have always tried hard to make sure that what I write is not boring, doesn’t make the reader fall asleep, or lazy to go ahead. So I try to tell only what I find necessary for the story, there are many things that remain in the air that might have been used, but it is necessary to avoid at all costs the saturation of the reader. There are many, too many books and events in the world, it is not about introducing them all into your own. The important thing is to say something new, or at least try to say it differently and pleasantly.
Your personal and narrative experience shows that reality is more imaginative than fiction… You can design and weave the most interesting plot in the world, but this will always be the product of your mind, of what you want to do with your story. Reality is different, incredibly surprising, most of the times unexpected. I remember once in the middle of a large military operation against a Front of the Magdalena Medio I was part of, the Commander of the Front commented on the incredible speed with which things change in war. You are safe and protected when suddenly there is an assault or a confrontation with the enemy and then your life is altered completely. Your great friend or partner is dead, we carry wounded people and the enemy is on your back, trying to destroy you. Five minutes earlier, no one imagined that all this was about to happen. The same way you cannot imagine how you will come alive out of what is happening. And once this is over, you see yourself there telling what happened with other comrades, maybe laughing about this episode. Definitely, yes, reality is amazingly varied and full of novelty.
I imagine that the “politically incorrect” content of your literature makes it difficult to publish… Indeed, so it is. No one wants his publishing house to stand out. As clandestinely as possible you may do it, publishing and distributing a forbidden book involve many people and not all can be trusted, politically speaking. The risk exists, no one wants to end up in jail or see his business vanish because of a bomb at midnight. Perhaps there is nothing more innocent than literature, but if the regime decides to persecute it, the issue becomes delicate. Colombia is curious: paramilitary leaders like Carlos Castaño and other criminals publish their memoir through third parties in a legal manner, and no one in power thinks they have to persecute authors or publishers for the spreading of perverse ideologies. However, treatment is not the same when it comes to revolutionary insurgents. With these they are usually relentless.
In your literature, apart from guerrillas, there is a very lively recreation of peasant reality and even of the “enemy”, paramilitary and military. How do you penetrate into this imagery?
The guerrillas and the companions are the living source of my narratives, it is about them that I write. But these guerrillas and peasants have an enemy on their back all the time, always attacking them. This allows them to know this enemy, in its permanent acting, it allows to know its values, criteria, motivations. The enemy soldiers speak with the peasants, tell of their anger, resentment, bitterness. That’s why you end up knowing how they think.
Do your comrades read your works? Do they criticise you, make suggestions, comments? Nothing gives me more joy than meeting with guerrillas of far-reaching places, as it happened in September 2016 during the X Guerrilla Conference in the Yara’s Savannah, and listen to them telling me that they read my novels, stories, chronicles and articles. There are those who have downloaded them from the internet, those who have printed them in the fields and made booklets, those who read them in cultural or other meetings. The guerrillas are excited to know that someone tells their lives, especially when he does it from a guerrilla perspective, which is really scarce. All those who write about guerrillas, even with the best intentions, make it out, without sufficient knowledge of the reality of a struggle of so many years with its characteristics. The guerrilla always finds some- thing they don’t like, which is not well reported, which they find incorrect. When the writer is from the inside, the reader thinks he is actually looking into a mirror. That is why they are grateful and applaud these efforts. Few or none criticizes me, in fact, they stimulate me to continue writing and to write more.
In guerrilla one asks for food, first aid equipment... Did you also ask for books?
War is tough and difficult. There is a FARC-EP disposition that tell each guerrilla to bring a book into their backpack so that each unit has a small mobile library with it. There are political and educational secretaries who are tasked with checking that this provision is respected and who control personal readings.
But sometimes times are hard and heavy, bitter, in the midst of a fight and it happens that with so much weight to carry on the shoulder books actually turn into an extra weight, and it is preferable to leave them somewhere to make room for explosives, or other things. As much as irrational it may seem, the time comes when one cannot criticize this behaviour. There were times when one went from unit to unit begging for a book and didn’t find a single one. Also a book is read in a few days and then becomes a burden. If nobody wants to carry it, it ends up being abandoned.
All this is lived in a war. There are times when talking about books is not appropriate. Lessons are learned from all this. Then it is best to observe with the purpose of writing afterwards. I believe that it is also in this way that one becomes a writer. In the desperation of having nothing to read.
Media groups underestimate left- wing literature by accusing it of being marked by a certain intentionality...
I would say that contempt rather than underestimation is not so much because it is a committed literature but rather because it is committed to a cause that is openly against the class interests of the people in power. The big media of communication, in general large monopolistic corporations, are today the main bodies delivering the dominant ideology and culture. When the media judges that this is good and that is bad, when they back or condemn a work, they are motivated by the closed defense of a system that incredibly favours their masters. Being revolutionary is not something that deserves applause. It’s something to ridicule and detest. They want people to think that way, for this they exist. They are part of the reality we have to face. But one day this will change.
You recently presented your work at the Book Fair in Bogotá, how was the experience?
Well, during the last stage of my stay in Havana, in the last sections of the peace talks with Gabriel Santos’ government, I was offered the edition of several of my books in order to launch them in the International Book Fair of Bogotá, in its 2018 edition. I mean to say that the publication was an idea of the movement itself, and that it was made through a publishing house, Teoría y Praxis, close to the Colombian Communist Party. I believe therefore that profit was not necessarily the spirit that animated the presentation of my works. The experience was completely new, of course. To be seen in such a scenario, surrounded by an audience that asks and praises the writings themselves, does not stop being stimulating. Especially when you are back after thirty years of guerrilla struggle in the mountains of your country. A fair is that, a gigantic commercial effort that is made in this case with intellectual productions. Of course, the big publishing houses have a better part, as in all businesses in today's society, where the person who earns the most is the person who invests the most. But they are important scenarios, and it cannot be denied that there is the possibility of offering and positioning different currents of thought. I think that in its own dimension, each author gets an adequate space.
Can you tell us what are you currently working on? And given that we are, in Colombia, in the phase of the construction of peace, which themes and characters would you like to explore in the future?
I have a project for a novel that is in its final stage. I am slowly maturing the last chapter. In addition to that I write for the FARC-EP, for the cause of peace, articles, chronicles and many other texts in which my name does not even appear! As for what I would like to explore, let’s say that, in times of peace, I think there are a lot of things to tell about our struggle. Peace will be an incredible opportunity.