It was the most beat up, tattered wreck of a book that I had ever seen, but the sight of it filled me with an enormous upwelling of pleasure. The owner was initially reluctant to part with it as she was immensely fond of the book. Rummaging through my rucksack and pulling out the best of what there was to barter I laid them out like cards on the table before her. She was a fussy reader but there were some strong names there so I felt as though the exchange could happen. Taking her time she read the sleeves and back covers before selecting a Conrad and a Hemingway. My two best, she was driving a hard bargain, but I had to have that book so acquiesced with barely a murmur.
It felt heavy in my hands, the yellowing paper thickened by tropical humidity. Many pages were floating free from the binding but I had been assured that all were there. The cover was sellotaped to such an extent that it seemed as though it lay beneath a thick layer of varnish. On the inside front cover previous owners had written the dates and places that the book had been acquired and where it had been. It was a very well-travelled item having started in Australia before covering most of Asia, then crossing to America and from there back to Asia for another tour of duty in the tropics.
The timing for me was superb, island hopping through the Indonesian archipelago in the late 1980s, subject to bus and ferry schedules that knew no allegiance to man, nor beast, nor time, just the all-encompassing concept of ‘rubber time’ that most of Indonesia, indeed the developing world embraces. And so I will always remember glorious hours sitting on the decks of small boats or in dusty little towns and disappearing into the world of magical realism that is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.
I remember all this being currently in Marquez’s country of birth, Colombia, and within striking distance of Santa Cruz de Mompox – or more commonly Mompos – half-forgotten on an island without a bridge, surrounded by marshes, in the middle of the former great waterway of the Rio Magdalena. Marquez mentions the town in ‘The General in His Labyrinth’ saying “Mompox does not exist, sometimes we dream about her, but she doesn’t exist”. I felt compelled to go even though it is on the way to nowhere, drawn in part by the mystery of the place and also by a sentimental allegiance to ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and by another Marquez work, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, which had left a strong impression.
After a gruelling day negotiating taxis, collectivos, buses and a ferry we were standing in the main plaza of Mompos. A man pushed a wooden cart piled with freshly cut slabs of pork whilst a woman walked beside him crying “cerdo, cerdo, cerdo”. We went to sit beside the river and drank cool Limonada sweetened with panela, unrefined cane sugar. In the sweltering heat a fly crawled slowly across the face of the cafe clock and it sparked a memory of Macondo, the town in ‘One Hundred years of Solitude’ and which many have interpreted as being Mompos. More memories of the book proved elusive, it is a multi-layered, seven-generational tale and had been rendered fuzzy in the nearly 30-years since I had read it. The fly took off from the tip of the hour hand and flew out into the plaza where schoolgirls in plaid skirts were buying ice cream from a bicycle-cart vendor before retiring into the shade to eat them.
Mompos is 500-years old, one of many perfectly preserved colonial towns in Colombia and had flourished during the days when the Magdalena was the main thoroughfare linking Colombia’s coast with the Andes. A port for the transport of goods upriver, Mompos was also the site of a royal mint and a place where vast quantities of gold, silver and emeralds were stored, far from the reach of the Caribbean’s pirates. The spectacular decline set in later in the 19th century, when the Magdalena began to silt up and the larger boats were diverted down one of its branches.
There are no statues or plaques to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Mompos, but the area, and particularly the river, heavily informed his writing. I watched it slide past in the sweltering heat, thick with silt and carrying numerous rafts of weed. Small boys were jumping out of trees into its swirling, muddy embrace and then swam urgently back to the bank to escape the swift current. What is a river if not a metaphor for time slipping away, for its relentless eroding properties, life giving yet also a destroyer. A quote from the mystics in India came to mind ‘you can never swim in the same river twice’. Everything changes, without cessation, and that is the most natural order of things. The far bank seemed like a thick green carpet floating on the river. Herons flew over fields of yucca and howler monkeys slept in the trees.
That evening we sat in the Plaza de la Concepcion and watched bats swoop down to pick off flies congregating in the light from the antique street lamps. The drowsy rhythm of the day gave way to a slightly more energised atmosphere, music with a Caribbean lilt boomed from the open doorway of Cafe Tinto. Our beer drunk we left our rocking chairs and made our way to a restaurant run by an Austrian expat. He had converted the old, slave-built, Fort de San Anselmo with panache whilst retaining its rustic colonial feel. It was from here that Simon Bolivar had rallied 400 Momposinos prior to beginning his liberation of the country from the Spanish and Mompos had claimed independence in 1810, well before the rest of Colombia. Out of nostalgia for time in the Austrian Alps I had Goulash and a glass of red wine.
We ended the day in another former palace, belonging to the charming and recently ‘un-retired’ Mario and Clemencia from Medellin, who had taken on both the restoration and running of a small but delightful boutique hotel. Mario was a man who had a hammock strung in his study, and argued that Mompos was the best place in the world to spend a leisurely life dedicated mainly to reading. I was already in a mood to agree with him. Later, sitting in the courtyard as lightning flashed overhead I felt bathed in the seductive strangeness of the place and would have loved to be reunited with that beautifully battered and well-travelled copy of Garcia Marquez’s great work. The book would surely have disintegrated by now, surely no amount of sellotape could hold it together indefinitely, or could it? A book is indeed a portal to other lands, their peoples and the events that unfold there. And that they themselves travel is a good thing, a book should be out in the world, hopping from place to place and person to person. A book idle on a shelf is a sad thing, full of potential but dormant, sometimes never picked out and read again.
I made a silent promise to re-read ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ and congratulated ourselves on having sought out this off the beaten trail town and river in the Colombian interior, a place that is full of romantic illusions, yet remains unjustly neglected.