The South American nation of Colombia is home to a wealth of natural resources and influences ranging from Spanish to African to the country’s own indigenous people shaping its varied culture. It is the fourth largest country in South America and home to substantial oil reserves and is a major producer of platinum, gold, silver, emeralds, and coal. On paper, Colombia has all the elements of a prosperous nation. Unfortunately, throughout its long history, Colombia has been plagued by extensive periods of intense violence and unrest. Since the 1960s the country has been ravaged by brutal conflicts between the Colombian government and a guerilla movement known as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army (also known as FARC, an acronym for the name of the group in Spanish) and these conflicts have led to an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Compounding these issues are the rise in violence and crime resulting from the operation of drug cartels within Colombia. In November 2016, a Peace Accord between the Colombian government and FARC was reached, though that peace remains tenuous.
Despite – or perhaps in spite of – the rolling periods of violence that have defined much of Colombian history, the country is home to an exuberant and vibrant culture that has fostered a powerful literary tradition. The books below, most by Colombian authors, are a collection of fiction and nonfiction that will hopefully help you to better understand Colombia, its people, and the tensions that continue to pull within the country.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Any conversation concerning Colombian literature – or Latin and South American literature – cannot be had without mention of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez is a Nobel Laureate and broadly considered one of the most significant authors of the twentieth century. You could not go wrong with any of his published works, whether it be his short story collections or more famous novels like Love in the Time of Cholera. We recommend starting with One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a defining work of magical realism and a distillation of Marquez’s considerable talent. It is essentially the chronicle of a Colombian family in an imaginary village that is both haunting and beautiful.
Another of Colombia’s most revered writers, Evelio Rosero’s work mines the tumultuous political history as the pervasive violence and fear that can be so endemic to Colombia. With The Armies, Rosero presents a searing portrait of the violence roiling between Colombia’s government, drug traffickers, and guerilla forces juxtaposed against the seemingly idyllic rural Colombia. The novel centers on Ishmael, a retired teacher, living a quiet life in a lush village who slowly sees his world upended by the violence raging through his country, and it’s all told through a disquieting nightmare prose.
In her novel Delirium, Laura Restrepo examines the impact of the drug trade and Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel on Colombia’s capital city of Bogota in the 1980s. She employs a shifting narrative structure that alternates between four main characters: a young, upper-class woman succumbing to madness; her husband; her former lover who is now a drug trafficker, and her grandfather. It is a searing and brutally effective portrait eroded through violence and corruption all told in Restrepo’s elegiac style.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez
In this bestselling novel, Juan Gabriel Vasquez traces the ways the rise of drug trafficking in Colombia, particularly the ascent of Pablo Escobar, have shaped the lives of contemporary Colombians. The Sound of Things Falling centers on Antonio Yammara, a man whose memories of a friend’s murder continue to haunt him. Through his investigations and recollections, Antonio discovers the myriad ways his life and the lives of those he loves have been shaped by the drug trafficking and attendant violence that defined an entire generation of Colombians.
Pablo Escobar remains one of the most influential and infamous figures in Colombian history. At its zenith, Escobar’s Medellin Cartel supplied roughly eighty percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States and Escobar’s own net worth was upward of $30 billion. His influence – largely through what amounted to acts of terrorism, extortion, and kidnapping – on the Colombian government was staggering and such that he was able to negotiate his own prison sentence of five years in a lush private “prison” that included a waterfall, bar, and jacuzzi. In Killing Pablo: The Hunt For the World’s Greatest Outlaw, Mark Bowden presents the well-researched account of Escobar’s rise and eventual fall detailing the efforts to locate and kill Escobar.
Hector Abad Faciolince’s powerful memoir is a heartbreaking memorial to Faciolince’s father, whose criticism of the Colombian regime led to his murder by paramilitary forces in 1987. Oblivion is the compelling portrait of a family devastated by the brutal death of its partriarch and, in many ways, a view into the ways the Medellin Cartel created a nightmare culture of fear and devastation throughout the 1980s.
Despite the violence and political turmoil of Colombia, it is a nation of natural wonders situated within the heart of the Amazon. Wade Davis’s book, One River, unfolds initially as a biography of his mentor Richard Evans Schultes – one of the twentieth century’s most prominent botanists – and eventually segues into Davis’s own experiences investigating his mentor’s life and traveling throughout the region.
With Walking Ghosts, journalist Steven Dudley takes a deep dive into the conflicts between FARC, the Colombian government, and the drug cartels – including a look at the rise and eventual decline of Union Patriotica, a political party founded by FARC. It is essential reading for anyone seeking a better understanding of the tensions between paramilitaries, guerilla forces, and drug barons that have contributed to so much of the violence in Colombia in recent decades. It also is vital reading for anyone curious about the issues surrounding the current peace process.