When the animal is humanity’s grounding pole, interview with Santiago Wills for ‘Jaguar’

Santiago Wills, journalist, writer and professor at the Center for Journalism Studies at the Universidad de los Andes.

Photo: Sebastian Jaramillo Matiz.

Write as if it were ballet dancing. With the rigor it deserves, with the self-criticism that, for a good reader, inevitably entails. A simile that Susan Sontag had already made in an article, and to which Santiago Wills refers me: “Behind the scenes she had spoken with directors and with all kinds of artists, and all, in one way or another, happily accepted her praise. . Instead the ballet dancers, and she included Mikhail Baryshnikov among them, were in absolute depression. They knew they had missed a step, they knew they had not extended an arm far enough. And maybe nobody in the audience would have realized that, but they knew it, because they had in their heads what that perfect dance was like, which is unattainable. And well, I feel that a good writer is the same. Every book is a failure, as George Orwell said.

Wills talks to me about writing and the frustration that emerges from it. Of the distance that he marks himself with respect to the great writers, despite the affection, dedication and insomnia, and of the utopia that is trying to reach them. However, for him writing has also been a respite and a great illusion. Of this he realizes Jaguar, his first novel, in which he tells the story of Martín Pardo, a paramilitary commander who disappeared an entire town and who is never abandoned by his pet, a jaguar named Ronco. “Transiting to fiction was a delight, because in journalism we are very restricted all the time. The facts are there and we have to stick to them. With fiction, it was, finally, that moment to turn around all those stories that, when I had been covering them, ended, narratively, in a way that seemed pathetic to me. Here I could give them the ending they deserved. I could formally experiment, play with language, I could, to some extent, have fun while writing.

The permission of the game was granted Ulises, because it showed him ways that he did not think were possible in a book and, as a result of this, he decided to pay homage to the work, as well as to so many others. “Sontag also said: ‘I don’t write because there is an audience, I write because there is literature.’ When the book touches one, it is an absolute joy, and to be able to give that joy also moved me. Being able to produce that experience that made me so happy as a child was a great illusion when making that transition to fiction”.

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Jaguar is full of constant winks: in the prologue, Wills receives the novel from a journalist friend, an idea that is inspired, in turn, by the prologue of the Quixote; the voice of Arturo, Martín’s brother, is born from The death of Carlos Gardelby António Lobo Antunes, and some of Ronco’s experiences can be found in the pages of The house of the sleeping beautiesby Yasunari Kawabata.

Choosing the figure of the jaguar and the context of the jungle for the book was not gratuitous. “Of tiny, the call of the jungle, by Jack London, touched me deeply. There were a couple of months that I carried the book everywhere thinking that if I died, I wanted to be found with that book next to me, I don’t know why. The theme of animals also started from London, that fascination”, says Wills through the computer camera. In the background I see a sculpture on its wall: the head of a jaguar showing its fangs.

“Snoring, in the first versions of the book, was an tigrillo”, assures the author, who started, in turn, from his father, who had raised a tigrilla rescued by the National University as a pet, where he worked as a zootechnics professor. . “He thought it was impossible for someone to have a pet jaguar. It seemed to me part of the myths that the paramilitaries had used to scare people, as a show of power. Ronco turned from a tigrillo into a jaguar when I found the photo of Jesús Abad Colorado de Pecoso, this jaguar who belonged to a paramilitary called Salomón Feris, alias 08”.

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Wills affirms that for paramilitaries and many other figures throughout history, these animals have been symbols of power, of the ability to dominate the most powerful predator on earth. But for Martín Pardo -the protagonist of his story-, the relationship with this feline is different: “Ronco is the grounding pole of Martín’s humanity. He loses that when he loses it. The jaguar is what remains. It is like a rope that he lives by, that he is fraying, but that he holds on to so as not to lose himself completely. He starts out as an ordinary person, and what allows Martín to cling to avoid that unleashed and random violence is his love for Ronco and his love for Amalia, and when that is lost, chaos begins ”.

Other symbolic elements throughout the novel reveal how Pardo, alias Jaguar, it moves further and further away from what it once was. One of them is the cards, a deck of blue cards with which, initially, the protagonist and his brother Arturo play in the middle of the jungle. “When Martín is an adult, he arrives shack, who is a psychopath, and begins to determine the fate of the people of a town with letters and Martín lends himself to that, and that is what destroys Arturo. War becomes a macabre game and the cards were something that they shared and that reflected brotherly love, so losing it implies a certain betrayal, ”says Wills, who has a collection of more than 100 decks. “That chance always seemed to me the cruelest thing that can be done in war. Whether you like it or not, there are certain rules in war, and the most degraded forms of war in Colombia have occurred when those rules are broken. The scene occurred to the author when he was reading about Braulio Herrera, who determined, with a pendulum, who was a CIA infiltrator. “He wanted a symbol that would be representative of that moment when everything was already lost, and that is why I close with that phrase ‘Shuffle the cards’. That’s where the violence broke out.”

The story is told from different voices, at different times. The final chapter is the sum of many of them, which tell, or perhaps shout, what happens from different points of view and is entitled “Chorus”. “I wanted, in part, to reflect this chaos that comes with the absolute degradation of war. Joseph Brodsky said: ‘In a true tragedy, it is not the hero who dies; is the choir’, and the book more or less tells that. I feel like the violence is choral, there are a million voices screaming for it to stop, and the choir carries all those voices.” The polyphony in the text is a reflection of the multiplicity of truths that the Colombian conflict has. Stories that, in the words of the author, it would be naive and simple to judge.