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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Rum:  Dictador20 years

www.dictador.com

The Books:  The Informers and The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Columbia is seen by some as a country of uneasy alliances. A rum with the name Dictador and the politically charged novels of Juan Gabriel Vásquez could be another. It is wise to let each speak for itself.

THE RUM

A dark copper red in the glass. A warm aromatic charge of coffee, baking spices, and caramel, steeped in oak. Definitely invites lingering. When it does reach the mouth, there’s a spirited semi-sweet blend of those same flavours. Smooth, but with an alcoholic burst adding interest. Everything good must fade, if in this case a little too quickly. (40% abv)

So why the name Dictador? The story goes that one Severo Arango y Ferro arrived in the Columbian coastal town of Cartagena de Indies in1751, with the task of increasing commerce between his Spanish homeland and the New World colony. “Dictador”, as he was called by the locals (presumably for his dictatorial ways), fell in love with the rums on this stretch of Carribean coast. They became a major focus of his business. Two centuries later, in 1913, a descendent, Don Julio Arango y Parra, built Destileria Colombiana, and in honour of his forebearer, named his rum Dictador.

The opaque black bottle and the velvety coating on the box make a sexy presentation, as do the mysterious catgirls lurking about the website. Perhaps some rum drinkers are wide-eyed at the notion that the distillation uses fermented “virgin sugar cane honey”, if they don’t realize it is merely pressed sugar cane juice that is poured into the copper pot and stainless steel column stills. Aging using the “solera” method adds to the sense of the exotic. It means that rums of different ages are transferred between barrels at regular intervals, so that the final product is a multi-year blend, in this case with some rum as old as 20 years.

When all is said and done, and what you have is rum poured in a glass, the drinker become the judge, slick adornments aside. The rum is very good. A bit too coffee-sweet for some tastes, peaks a bit early for others. But certainly outside the ordinary, memorable, amorous.

THE BOOKS

Looming over the landscape for any young writer in Columbia must be the figure of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. The impact of his “magic realism” is so strong that to openly defy it required a substantial measure of literary courage. And, if such courage were to be taken seriously, it needed to be backed up by books of substantial merit. Of one of his recent novels, Juan Gabriel Vásquez has said “I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvellous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics.” All three of his mature novels have been broadly acclaimed. His most recent carried off the Impac Dublin Award.

His focus then are incidents of violent injustice. In The Informers we are taken back to the Second World War and its impact on Germans who had immigrated to Columbia some years earlier and who now find themselves blacklisted as Nazi sympathizers, detained and their livelihoods taken from them.

At the centre of The Informers is a writer, Gabriel Santoro, and his aging father, a highly respected university professor, also named Gabriel. (Interesting enough, as is Vásquez himself, and, of course, Márquez). In rawly intelligent prose that circles about the story from several angles, it is revealed that the father had falsely informed on a friend, with devastating consequences for the accused man and his family. And ultimately for the relationship between the writer and his father.

The novel is shaped by a society of distrust, scarred by violence, where dissent invites retribution. Columbia’s reputation as a country dominated by drug cartels and corruption has only recently diminished. There has been much for Vásquez to draw upon in his fiction. The results to date have been exceptional. And he is still only 41.

The Sound of Things Falling is set in a more recent Columbia. While the novel’s central character, a young law professor, is not a drug user, his life is thrown into turmoil by his country’s violent drug culture of the last quarter of the 20th century. In a Bogotá billiards hall, Antonio Yammara befriends an intriguing loner, Ricardo Laverde, who apparently has just spent two decades in jail. The pair hardly get to know each other before Laverde is killed in a drive-by motorcycle shooting. Yammara also takes a bullet but escapes with his life, although he is never again the same man.

The exemplary novel leads us deeper and deeper into the lives of Laverde, his wife and daughter, revealing how the culture of drugs (as epitomized by drug baron Pablo Escobar), violence and political corruption impacted the whole of Columbian society. There is no escape from history, Vásquez is saying. And a nation’s best writers can never ignore it.

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