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From Bogota with Literature: The Life of a Famous Colombian Writer

By Kimberly Reyes (@CommDuCoeur) On Friday, Briana announced that she and I would flying down to Bogota in a few weeks.  Even though we’ll be there on business, I couldn’t help but write up a dream itinerary of historical sites, restaurants, and other landmarks I want to hit up on my first–but surely not last–trip Read more

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By Kimberly Reyes (@CommDuCoeur)

On Friday, Briana announced that she and I would flying down to Bogota in a few weeks.  Even though we’ll be there on business, I couldn’t help but write up a dream itinerary of historical sites, restaurants, and other landmarks I want to hit up on my first–but surely not last–trip to Latin America.  Naturally, this self-proclaimed bookworm has the Poetry House on Calle 13 at the top of her list, the infamous site where writer José Asunción Silva ended his young life.

José Asunción Silva is arguably one of Colombia’s most important poets, often credited as one of the founders of Latin modernist poetry.  Drawing inspiration from Edgar Allen Poe, Silva exchanged traditional poetic structure for a more chaotic approach, an approach that echoed his tormented life.Silva was born in 1865 in Bogota to doña Vicenta Gómez and don Ricardo, a prosperous importer.  Although he enjoyed a wealthy and privileged childhood, Silva’s academic excellence and aristocratic nature made him a target for schoolyard bullying, and earned him the nickname ‘José Presunción’ (José Presumption).

In addition to being tormented at school, Silva’s family life was filled with tragedy: an uncle committed suicide, his grandfather was murdered, and by ten years old, Silva had witnessed the deaths of three of his five siblings.

As a young man, Silva travelled to Paris with his great uncle, where he was exposed to the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and the philosophical writings of Auguste Comte and Arthur Schopenhauer.  Silva even met symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé and symbolist painter Gustave Moreau while in Paris. However, his immersion in European literature came to a halt when Silva’s father passed away, leaving him in charge of a failing business devastated by the Colombian Civil War.

Not more than four years after his father’s death, Silva lost his beloved sister Elvira and spiraled into a deep depression.  The emotional burden of facing a war torn country and his inheritance of severe debt and numerous lawsuits forced Silva to abandon his responsibilities in Bogota and accept a position as secretary of the Colombian embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.

While in Caracas, Silva was able to devote much of his time to writing, and produced his major work of prose, semi-autobiographical novel De Sobremesa, or After-Dinner Conversation.  However, Silva’s fortunes again took a turn for the worse when most of his major works, including the original manuscript of De Sobremesa, were lost in a shipwreck of the French steamer that was transporting Silva back to Bogota.

Back in Bogota, Silva attempted to recover from the devastation.  When he was not feverishly rewriting De Sobremesa from memory, Silva focused much of his energy on a new business venture: managing a tile factory that applied his patented hemical formula.

However, Silva failed to see the fruits of his labor, and after a mysterious consultation with his private doctor to determine the anatomical location of his heart, Silva shot himself in the chest on the evening of May 23, 1896 at the young age of 30.

Casual readers of Silva’s published works will immediately notice how the author’s adversities influence the language and themes of his writing.  Haunting night imagery, shadow, death, silence, and solitude emerge as dominant motifs throughout his poetry, demonstrated by the following passage loosely translated from his poem, One Night:

And my shadow
Projected by the rays of the moon
Walked alone
Walked alone
Walked alone along the lonely steppe!
And your shadow, lean and agile
Thin and languid
As in that warm night of the dead spring
As in that night full of perfumes,
Murmurs and music of wings
Came and went with her
Came and went with her
Came and went with her
Oh the shadows entwined!
Oh the shadows that look and join in the nights of blackness and tears!

The passage also contains references to wings, flight, chanting, and whispering; found throughout Silva’s work, these images give his pieces a solemn religious tone.  Combined with fantastic, magical scenery, the author is almost in prayer, begging for divine release from his earthly troubles.

A Poe-inspired theme can be found not only in Silva’s poetry, but in his novel De Sobremesa: that of the beautiful, young, and deceased woman, which is perhaps drawn from Silva’s fixation on his sister Elvira.

After discovering this iconic Colombian poet, I will no doubt spend the next few weeks leading up to my trip to Bogota researching more about José Asunción Silva’s tormented life and reading and analyzing his body of work.  I gladly welcome comments and suggestions from anyone familiar with Silva’s writings, or anyone who wants to contribute to my Bogota trip itinerary!

For additional information, check out the following links:

Jose Asuncion Silva’s Facebook Page
Preview of DeSobremesa on Google Books
José Asunción Silva on Poetry International Web

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