Speaking Volumes: Funny guys

Ricardo Rendón’s cartoons, famous in Colombia from roughly 1918 through the 1920s, feel familiar, as though they took a trans-decadal flight from his time to our own.

The vultures feasting on the remains of the republic; the politician’s juggling act with nothing more than glinting soap bubbles; the last rites administered to the skull and bones of once-great, now compromised, political parties; an army of Lilliputians swarming to bring down yet another Gulliver. Rendón checks all the boxes.

He speaks across time to any citizen of a country going through its version of the turmoils, the difficulties, the troubles, whatever euphemism you wish to give that stage in a nation’s life that arrives between the certain loss of many basic freedoms and rights, but before the age of true jackbooted dictatorship.

I am reading about Rendón only because of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s gripping, disturbing novel, Reputations (Bloomsbury). In the opening chapter, Rendón, long-dead, long-forgotten by most, makes an appearance to one of the few citizens who remembers him and reveres his legacy. The cartoonist is Javier Mallarino, “a moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half”, once feared by a political class who now drowns him in public homage, puts his face on a postage stamp.

Mallarino has been famous, and his cartoons held true power, for years, but for countries held in the grip of long-term turbulence, amnesia and oblivion are preferred over the acid bite of fact, the presentation of the past.

The city will forget him, he thinks, as they forgot Rendón, as layer upon layer of history is folded away, not to be aired for years. Or the “jackals” might tear him apart, if an old scandal based on the possible abuse of a young girl by a politician rises to the surface of events, like swamp gas bubbles. (This is a rare weak link in Reputations: the subplot uses an incident of child abuse chiefly as a plot point, and Gabriel Vasquez’s delineation of the adult Samanta Leal feels unconvincing and under-explored.)

Reputations draws its moral force from two sources. One is Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s obsession, over multiple novels, with the idea that fiction’s task is to remember history. The past must be wrested back from the forcible dismemberment it has been subjected to by warring political ideologies, or by disillusioned citizens whose initial terror at sinking into the morass is blunted by the fact that in a violent or corrupt state, everyone becomes either victim or complicit with the corrupt, the violent.

There is no way of avoiding contamination in a rogue nation scoured by regular viral outbreaks of mob violence, uprisings, righteousness, aggressive nationalism, and plagues of illiberality; everyone is infected, if times of trouble and difficulties go on for long enough. Or if not infected, then threatened.

Mallarino receives his first true threat via a poison-pen letter, similar to today’s trolls who deliver theirs on Twitter or WhatsApp: “On the last line, over to the right with no ‘Regards’, no ‘Sincerely’, no ‘Yours faithfully’, a single word that seemed to be shouting from the page: PATRIOTS.” An old friend passes on a message of congratulations through his former wife: “He says you’re nobody in this country until somebody wants to hurt you.”

I count the number of prominent Indians who would agree with this sentiment – writers, artists, film-stars, sports icons, journalists, lawyers, heads of NGOs, and yes, cartoonists – and give up after a while. When the numbers hit a certain point, most countries find that either the threats ease off, their force blunted, or the violence escalates, locked in goose-step with the manufacturers of outrage.

As a side-note, India rolled out the Central Monitoring System in two cities this May, the CMS conceived by the old regime, executed by the present. Indians threatened a comedian for a Snapchat video that had the temerity to insult National Icons.

Our writers face contempt of court cases or death threats for speaking their mind, but there has been pathetically little consistent, coherent liberal defence of the basic principles of free expression – only defences of individual cases – in decades. Lawyers and activists are evicted like over-staying tenants from a state where they worked with local tribals standing against a rogue form of development. Between surveillance, state violence and the privatization of political violence, we will find out where we stand soon enough. Back to Reputations.

The second question Juan Gabriel Vasquez raises runs uneasily through Reputations: how to be a writer, an artist, in times of trouble? Do you respond to the times – as journalists do, as a cartoonist does, as Mallarino does, brandishing Rendón’s motto, “a stinger dipped in honey” like a credo?

This invites an inevitable estrangement from family and friends. After decades when the violence does not change, the cartoonist may ask if speaking truth to power is of use, when power is deaf, or busy taking selfies and schmoozing. Is it better to be true to the art, then, to try to make work of lasting value, even if that means turning your back on the seductions, and the moral duty, of responding directly to your times?

In 1931, Ricardo Rendón went to La Gran Via bar in Bogotá, one of his favourite places in the city, and killed himself. He was 37. The cartoonist in Reputations chooses a different sort of response, once that is either destructive or clarifying, depending on your point of view.

The reader goes back to Rendón’s cartoons, and tries to imagine first the hope, then the cynicism, and then possibly the despair, or the pragmatism, that sent him into suicide. It is impossible to know whether art would have been more redemptive, more of a saving grace in times of trouble. There are enough examples of troubled artists, writers, poets, creators of all kinds who found refuge in art only up to a point, whose struggles against their demons were unsuccessful.

But when I think of Rendón, it is not his death that comes to mind so much as the power and the still-living force in his cartoons. That lasted.

(Published in the Business Standard, June 10, 2015)







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