Juan Gabriel Vasquez's Retrospective is a novel about guerilla wars, revolutions, dictatorships, communism and ideological fanaticism with many heroes and villains in three continents. It starts with the Spanish civil war and goes on to cover the Trujillo dictatorship in Dominican Republic, Colombian guerilla wars, the Soviet communist outreach, the Chinese cultural revolution and the 1968 student protests in Paris.
The Columbian guerilla war is the centre-piece and Sergio Cabrera is the protagonist. The wars, struggles and movements are woven into the story of the family of Sergio Cabrera, whose grandfather is a Spaniard who fights against the Fascism of Franco. He escapes to Dominican Republic but the Trujillo dictatorship is as bad as Franco’s. He moves on to Colombia where he settles down. The violence unleashed by the deadly conflict between the Colombian liberals and conservatives is as deadly as the Spanish civil war. Sergio’s father is attracted to communism and jumps at the opportunity to teach Spanish in China.
After some years, he returns to Colombia and joins the EPL (Popular Liberation Army) the Maoist guerilla group. His wife from a rich and respected family helps the guerilla group secretly. Cabrera leaves his teenage son Sergio and daughter Marianella in China to continue their education in Beijing. They take fancy to Maoism and volunteer to work with peasants and factory workers and eventually undergo even military training with the Red Army. They are caught up in the cultural revolution but they are not discouraged by the atrocities committed during the cultural revolution. They return to Colombia and join as fighters in the Colombian jungles for the EPL guerilla group. Their day to day life in the jungles is marked by hardship, diseases and dangers. This is aggravated by the petty rivalries, jealousies and dictatorial decisions of the EPL commanders who mistreat and punish the cadres according to their whims.
Ultimately, the two leave the guerilla group disappointed and disillusioned. Marianella gets married to a fellow guerrillero and settles down to a normal life. During his return to Bogota from Beijing, Sergio stops for some days in Paris and witnesses the student protests against the Vietnam war among other issues. After leaving his guerrillero career, he studies film making in London and becomes a celebrated director of films in Colombia. He goes to Barcelona for a retrospective show of his films when he gets the news of death of his father in Colombia. During this time, Sergio looks back on the adventures, misadventures, sufferings and idealism of his family members.
In Beijing, Marianella, the teenager falls in love with Carl Crook, the son of David Crook a British communist. He joins the fight for the International Brigade against Fascism in Spain. There the Soviets recruit him as spy to report on the Trotskyites, which included George Orwell. Later they send him to Beijing on a spying mission. He settles in China as an English teacher and marries Isabel, the daughter of Canadian missionaries. Isabel is born and brought up in China. During the cultural revolution Crook is arrested and jailed for some years and eventually released. While the Chinese Communists welcome and encourage foreigners to learn and spread the Chinese model, they also cultivate a strong anti-foreigner sentiment among their people and cadres. The families of Cabrera and Crook are caught in this contradiction and the Crook family becomes victims despite their fluency in Chinese, adaptation to Chinese culture and unswerving loyalty to Mao.
The author Vasquez has based his novel on the real life stories of the families of Sergio Cabrera and Peter Crook. He has interviewed Sergio Cabrera himself besides members of both families. He has quoted from their biographies and archives. While fictionalising the actual stories, Vasquez has given vivid details and political and social comments on the resistance against Fascist Franco in Spain, the Colombian guerilla wars and the upheaval in China during the cultural revolution. He has brought out the emotional struggles and personal feelings of the guerrilleros and fanatic party cadres who are manipulated and controlled by ruthless guerilla commanders and communist leaders.
Here are some examples of Vasquez’s vivid narration..
-The Red Guards consider the red colour as their symbol and that of the Cultural Revolution. For them, red is the colour of progress. They argue,“the red of our flag symbolizes the blood of our heroes, don’t you? The blood of millions of comrades who gave their lives for the Republic. Think about what a revolutionary feels when he sees that someone else, in another country, has decided on a whim that the colour red, the colour for which we are ready to give our lives, should become an order to stop. And if we accept it, if we accept that red should be the signal for cars to stop, we would also have to accept that pedestrians should stop at red . . . at pedestrian crossing lights. And we are not just pedestrians, we are revolutionary combatants! And we cannot accept foreign interference in the Revolution!”. So they change the traffic lights to red for ‘go’ and green for ‘stop’.
-Marianella writes in her diary, “ Oh, great Chairman Mao! Your ideology has thrown a brilliant light on my heart. Oh, beloved Chairman Mao! You really are the reddest red sun of my heart!!!! I am determined to always obey your words! To take your great ideology to Colombia. To propagate it, because it is the greatest truth, our Colombian people will never turn away from it!!! Chairman Mao, I love you most! I can do without my father and mother, but I cannot do without your great ideology!”.
-Colombia was sinking in a sea of blood. The guerrillas were killing, the paramilitaries were killing and the army was killing. When the 1992 peace negotiations in Mexico failed, a guerrilla leader stood up from the table and said, “We’ll see you after another ten thousand deaths.”
The real life Sergio Cabrera is a successful filmmaker after quitting from EPL. He was also an elected member of the Colombian Congress. He has made some remarkable films on the guerilla wars and social issues of Colombia. I enjoyed seeing one of his films Golpe de Estadio in which the guerilleros and the police forces agree to a few hours of ceasefire in order to watch a football game between Argentina and Colombia.
Sergio is now the Colombian ambassador to China since 2022, appointed by President Gustavo Petro, another ex-guerrillero.
The author is an expert in Latin American affairs