Review: Sarah Chayes on Wade Davis (Part Two)

(Read Part One of this post here)
For all the beauty and overwhelming profusion rendered in the soaring prose of Wade Davis’s book, readers are not spared Colombia’s dark side, which is worked into his tapestry from the very start. The book begins on a jetty at the mouth of the Magdalena inhabited by night-fishermen. On one side is the sea, on the other the river: “brown with silt, too toxic to drink, contaminated by human and industrial waste.”

Again and again, the long-suffering Magdalena has sluiced away the detritus of Colombia’s bloodlettings. Davis’s interlocutors have watched as “corpses floated by facedown in the water, with vultures perched on top, feeding on the flesh of the dead.” Through the unimaginable life stories of his friends and guides, as well as the scars still visible on the landscape, Davis plunges readers into the decades of violence perpetrated by the army and allied militias and FARC guerillas, by Pablo Escobar and his narcotics empire, which grew so rich that rats ate through bales of hundred dollar bills stacked in warehouses, by blue Conservatives and red Liberals. And, of course, during Colombia’s most protracted martyrdom, at the hands of the conquering Spanish.

Davis helps readers imagine the cultural treasures snuffed out over the centuries of massacre and exploitation that followed the invasion. He evokes the Zenu, for example, for whom “the land was the weft of the imagination. The designs woven into fishing nets and textiles … echo the pattern inscribed on the landscape by the web of irrigation ditches and canals.” Or the Quimbaya, who “for more than a thousand years worked with gold as wizards work with the wind.”

Davis contrasts the pre-Columbian appreciation of that precious substance “as the conduit of the divine, drawing the sun’s energy to the [artistic] object, from which it radiates to all dimensions” with the invaders’ blind pecuniary lust. The dichotomy offers insight into today’s deepest crises. The obsession with amassing riches—by way of fossil-fuel extraction or burning, or deforestation for lumber or cattle ranching, or dehumanizing labor conditions, or extortionate housing practices, or financial speculation on all of these activities—continues to lay waste to human communities and natural ecosystems, at home and in the developing world. With the same blindness the Spanish displayed hundreds of years ago, today’s mega-rich (and the rest of us too) fail to grasp that the Midas Touch—which reduces irreplaceable values to lifeless metal—is no gift, but a deadly curse.

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And yet, somehow Davis emerges from his unflinching examinations infused with an authentic hope for the future now open to Colombia. That hope is conveyed in the trajectories of people he meets, such as Jenny Castaneda, a woman whose childhood was rent by savage paramilitary kidnappings and killings, her mother assassinated for mobilizing peasant land activists, who, in remission from cancer, accepted the killer’s request for a meeting in prison and forgave him, and now works to help other survivors build grief into collective grace.

The hope is conveyed perhaps most convincingly in the story of the rebirth of the city of Medellin, once infamous as the “murder capital of the Americas.” Davis charts its reinvention at the hands of young urban planners and architects who conceived a new kind of socially conscious urbanism. Elegant infrastructure aimed at reducing the arduousness of residents’ everyday lives was designed both for visual style and to span the divides between rival gang territories. Access to beauty was as valued as access to healthcare. If Medellin can rise from the dead, Davis seems to be saying, so can Colombia. And, perhaps, so can we.

Magdalena ends where it began, at the river’s mouth, in an interview with of one of those night-fishermen. Asked what he most needs from the government, he keeps revising his wish—moving it upstream. It’s not just better houses on the jetty. It’s not dredging and cleaning the sinuous channels that add fresh water in with the salt to revive the life-giving wetlands. The only way to improve the lives of the fishermen is to regenerate the whole of the Rio Magdalena. This book is a plea to Colombia to save itself by saving its great river—and in the process, to chart a course for the rest of us.


A former reporter for National Public Radio, Sarah Chayes spent a decade living and working in Afghanistan after 9/11, and has written extensively about corruption and its impacts.  Her books include Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security and On Corruption in America—And What Is at StakeShe is at work on a book bout the Potomac River.


Book notes
Bertelsmann, the German company that owns the US publishing giant Penguin Random House (formerly Viking, Penguin, Random House, Knopf, Pantheon, Schocken, Putnam, Doubleday, Dutton, Ballantine, Bantam, Crown, and a bunch more), largest publisher in the US by far, announced yesterday that it will buy Simon & Schuster, currently the third largest (formerly Simon & Schuster, Atheneum, Scribner, Free Press, etc.). The purchase price was $2.175 billion, well north of the high end of original estimates. The Times reports that the merger will “create the first megapublisher,” continuing, “the sale of the company will profoundly reshape the publishing industry, increasingly a winner-take-all business in which the largest companies compete for brand-name authors and guaranteed best-sellers.”

The trade division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (formerly Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, now owned by the French giant Hachette) is also up for sale, a much less costly and potentially profitable purchase than Simon & Schuster but still seen as a tasty morsel for a company interested in expanding its presence in the book market. HMH’s possible sale to another of the “Big Five” (now Four) major publishers presents the possibility that we will soon be down to a Big Three (the remaining two being Macmillan, which is owned by the German giant Holtzbrinck and itself swallowed up Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Holt, and St. Martin’s) and HarperCollins (formerly Harper & Row, the UK’s William Collins & Sons, Ecco Press, etc. etc. etc., now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp). Simon & Schuster’s youngish CEO, Jonathan Karp, who carved out his reputation by creating a boutique imprint called Twelve that published only one book a month, tried to soothe apprehensions by invoking the collegial environment of yore and remembering that Random House founder Bennet Cerf met S&S’s Max Schuster at Columbia Journalism School.

We’ve said a lot in our Notebooks and the Book Notes of our book review posts about the consequences of consolidation for diversity in ideas and the health of writing and reading. Earlier this month we considered how PRH’s dominance was already bending book publishing toward blockbusters. Antitrust scholar Stacy Mitchell pointed to the depressing effect the merger will have on most author earnings. Many observers are already calling on the Department of Justice to block the merger on anti-trust grounds (as Murdoch’s NewsCorp, a rival in the Simon & Schuster sale, suggested they might). According to Publishers Weekly, PRH CEO Markus Dohle “does not expect any antitrust issues to arise” because in his view “the US book market remains highly fragmented.”

In less ominous if relatively liliputian merger news, the staunchly eccentric fifty-plus-year-old Illinoian-Irish publisher Dalkey Archive Press, beloved by readers of a very literary bent, has, in a moment of editorial torch-passing, been joined with the Young Turks over at Deep Vellum in Dallas. Dalkey’s redoubtable founder John O’Brien died at seventy-five earlier this week. Deep Vellum will keep Dalkey’s august backlist intact and will maintain the line in Dalkey’s spirit, with the help of O’Brien’s son and Dalkey alumnus Chad Post of Open Letter. Both Dalkey and Deep Vellum have been intrepid supporters of books in translation and the more experimental end of the literary spectrum. Two choice bits of Dalkey Archive lore. Dalkey was the publisher of David Markson’s cult classic (beloved by yours truly), Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which was known to generations of otherwise unconnected enthusiasts because of a well-placed pile in the Strand Bookstore in New York. O’Brien also caused a minor literary sensation in 2012 when he posted an only partially tongue-in-cheek job announcement seeking applicants who do not “have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.).”

We first found our own Alvaro Enrigue in his marvelous Dalkey book Hypothermia, and many of the publishing people we most admire had exhausting stints there. A few years ago the critic Dustin Illingworth asked on Twitter what were followers’ favorite Dalkey books, and the answers, by many of those very publishing people as well as a trail of admirable writers, produced a list to which I plan to devote my retirement. Mazel tov, Deep Vellum.

In a final salute to the inky-fingered editors of yore: Literacy Partners is sponsoring a marathon Thanksgiving reading of erstwhile “little Random” editor Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, from November 27th to 29th, with a dazzling cast of writers. Take a look.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Your subscription allows us to support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture across a fractured media landscape. Coming soon: Allen Callahan on Reading While Black; Anthony Domestico on Marilynne Robinson.

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Image: Magdalena River (1910–1915?), by Colombian painter Jesus Maria Zamora (1875–1949)