By Dixon Acosta Medellín
June 26, 2015
What is it that The Farm, the latest novel by Héctor Abad Faciolince, conceals? Each reader will surely unearth different secrets from among the three voices that sustain the text, and so here I will only highlight something that need not be sought in the depths of the lake that resides on the grounds of the titular farm, something that, on the contrary, may be the most evident part: the Columbian presumption that happiness lies in possessing a piece of land.
For casual readers who are not Colombian, the action of the novel unfolds on a family farm, La Oculta, located in the vicinity of the Jericó municipality in the southwest of Antioquia, one of Colombia’s Departments, or Provinces, the capital of which is Medellín, the nation’s second city—some would say its first.
Héctor Abad’s novel, like the geography of Antioquia, abounds with biblical names that, despite being derived from the Old Testament, claim a Christian nature because it has become an obsession for some Antioquians to make it clear that they have no Jewish roots, nor were they forced to convert. Antioquian society tends to be conservative in its traditions and beliefs but liberal in its economics and intimacy, if you will, and that translates into no small number of paradoxes, which are reflected in this book.
Another central characteristic of the Antioquians is that they became the founders of towns and cities starting in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries when they went beyond their Department’s frontier, primarily into what is now known as the coffee-growing center and into regions where the mountains are overtaken by jungle. Antioquian colonists, the paisa mule drivers (paisa is the familiar name used to designate Antioquians and their descendants), are the foundational models for the families that made long journeys in order to establish themselves in new territories where they could reinvent themselves, making their names and fortunes. Unlike the foundations of the Spanish conquistadors, these were not the product of violence but of labor. Violence would return later, in this Middle Age that it seems we are still going through in Colombia.
The novel presents clear examples of how the notion of happiness is identified with the possibility of owning land, which is certainly part of the explanation for the conquests, frustrations, and human tragedies in our country, and particularly the inequality in the distribution of rural properties.
Of course, the notion of ownership is not something exclusive to Colombians, as is demonstrated by the recent 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, when, for the first time, a European monarch (incidentally called John Lackland) had to submit to his subordinates and accept a constitution that, among others, has been taken as the present notion of human rights. The reality in that moment was a reaction against the King by aristocrats and nobles who were trying to recover lost privileges such as the possession of lands.
Nevertheless, the meaning of property, possibly a product of inequality, has turned into an obsession, an aspiration, or a necessity for the inhabitants of Colombia. One of the harmful effects of the drug trade was that it catapulted a boundless greed for property that is now present in some privileged people called terratenientes, a term at once hated and yearned for, which designates the owners of many rural properties.
We all carry a place like La Oculta in our past or in our aspirations for the future; in my case, the founding myth of the Medellín family was a farm called El Mortiño in the municipality of Junín, Cundinamarca, which its owners had to abandon, being pursued by the regime that brought about the political violence in ’40s Colombia, which would evolve into the contemporary guerrilla warfare. Landowners who became displaced people, a tragic constant in our history.
In Colombian literature, houses appear in iconic works as both protagonists and settings. As Colombians, we are connected to literature through spaces limited by four walls. María cannot be understood without the estate of El Paraíso, but there are also La casa de las dos palmas and La mansión de Araucaima, and, not without reason, One Hundred Years of Solitude was originally titled The House. The Farm can be added to this list of Colombian property-literature, exemplifying the estates that Antioquian colonists staked out in the territories they settled, founding towns of free men whose future differences would be determined not by wealth but by labor, the ability and intelligence of each person.
This is a novel that speaks of good men in times of idle wickedness, who, like dogs, are the kind that bark but do not bite, as the author describes those benevolent four-legged creatures. The kind of people who are neither obedient nor domineering in a territory accustomed to laborers and foremen. A country wherein happiness (just as one character in the novel dislikes words that end in –ness) is understood as owning a piece of land.
Although the work is presented as a chorus of three voices, those of the siblings who narrate the events for us, this trio blends into one voice, that of the author, who becomes the ventriloquist for The Farm, the true protagonist, as it undergoes the series of changes forced upon it by human beings, through which it ceases to be a wild terrain and becomes a home. The domesticated land embodies the biblical promise of the promised land—the paradise lost—as the novel itself says.
In an era of overblown, elaborate titles that play at gimmicky lines, here appears a simple name, The Farm. Héctor Abad Faciolince invites readers to discover what this book conceals or reveals in its chorus of three siblings’ voices as they alternate like soloists, speaking of the true protagonist of the story, a rural farm that could liberate or imprison, unlock or lock, depending on the lens through which it is viewed. It would not be strange for the reader to agree with the majority of Colombians that happiness is a piece of land, or, on the contrary, to consider it only a tragedy in the long run, told in periodic installments. One might consider taking a look at the newspaper classifieds to buy a farm or sell one immediately.