Jose Rivera— The Vortex (1924)

Setting: Early 20th century rural Colombia

What it’s about: Part magical realism, part adventure story tinted with expose on social injustice in the rubber trade. A hectic, nightmarish journey through plains and jungle that moves between frenetic pace and slow drawl like the fever that affects its characters.

Feverish narration takes the story along at a nice flowing pace, with the narrator challenging the reader with his fevered delusions, betrayals and distrust. He is frank in his own moments of abuse and indifference of his own that challenge the adventure narrative, such as when two companions die: “the disaster overwhelmed me with a sense of beauty”.

“The jungle protects itself against its opponents and at length it is man who’s defeated.”

Photo credit: flickr/Álvaro Ramírez

Why you should read it: Two-thirds through, what was a surreal adventure story in the spirit of Borges suddenly becomes a passionate exposé on the exploitation of rubber workers in the spirit of Roger Casement (like Casement, Rivera saw the abuses first hand and wanted to expose them. He also contracted a virus in the jungle and wrote the book while recovering, which might explain the feverish tenor of the book).

The original text

You could fault Rivera, who himself campaigned for their rights, for the side-part Indigenous characters play in the story, he at least documents their plight, such as when one sums up the indentured labour on a rubber plantation:

“Hard work. Bad people. Kill Indians.”

The strongest point of the book is when the plot stops in the middle of the jungle to introduce, over several chapters, a new character who gives an account of the indentured labourer forced into rubber tapping.

The best book from Colombia: Sorry to fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but this puts the “real” in magical realism.

Read this if you liked: The Invention of Morel by by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

The journey deep into the jungle and its horrifying secrets are reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This book has several Kurtz’s, although they are at the same time more familiar and more caricatured. But there are moments of fevered immobilism when the characters are trapped at river stations that also reflect the high tension of Conrad’s other classic, Victory. Rivera also takes a page out of Conrad’s book by presenting the story through different forms: letters, notebooks, stories told by characters, and reports from officials — lending the story a documentary realism that lends geopolitical immediacy to the story, just as Conrad’s did.

Rating: *** (and yet its quite hard to get, I’m lucky they had it in my local library! This should be a Penguin Twentieth Century Classic.)

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