Andrés Caicedo, a Columbian novelist born in 1951, wrote Liveforever (his only novel) in the early 1970s. Liveforever was first published in Spanish in 1977, and on the day of publication, Caicedo received the first printed copy of the book. Shortly afterwards on the same day, he took his own life by way of an overdose of Seconal tablets. Caicedo was twenty-five years old at the time. In the years since his death, Caicedo’s reputation has grown, and he is now considered one of the most original writers in Latin American literature. In his excellent introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition of Liveforever (translated into English for the first time), Juan Gabriel Vásquez describes the book as a genuine example of a cult novel – a book passed from person to person, at first through Columbia and later throughout Latin America.
Liveforever is narrated by María del Carmen Huerta as she looks back over two years of her life as an adolescent living in Cali, Columbia in the mid-seventies. At the beginning of María’s story, we see her living with her middle-class parents in the respectable area of Cali, all set to study architecture at University. One day, María skips her study group and as the night descends she gets drawn into the frenetic world of rumba. From here, we follow the magnetic Mariá – a blondissima with a lustrous mane of blonde hair – as she enters an underworld fuelled by drugs, sex, and most importantly, dance. Here we see a young woman who comes alive at night. She longs for the clock to strike 6pm so she can go in search of music and lose herself to the magic of rumba. There is a sense that María is an unstoppable force, a blondissima possessed by the rhythm and sheer energy of the rumba:
I would forever be the centre and the reason for the rumba, not its victim. I would be the spirit of harmony and endless pleasure. I was the soul that gives rise to the rumba, its lover, the one who’d always win out, always in control, always in demand, overwhelmed by healthy exhaustion, sleeping the few short hours of the just, lulling myself with plans for the next rumba, the one tonight, the one where I’ll perfect my system. I wasn’t going to fritter away the rumba: I planned to wreathe it with crowns, with kingdoms of recklessness, my skin flushed with the red glow of night, my hair a wild enchanted flower, a weed that dazzles, confuses, bewilders and brings sleep to the unwary. My hair would grow free and strong, and with every step take on a dazzling lustre that came from the very roots of my soul. My soul would grow like a field of daisies on the scorched lawn of the wild rumba, forbidden territory: anyone who picked one of my flowers to fill himself with energy for the bomba would certainly face the consequences. (pg. 116, Penguin Classics)
Alongside the pulsating rhythms of the dance, María encounters scenes of violence, extended parties and the seedy side of Cali culture. Caicedo’s prose is especially vivid when it comes to describing the effects of drugs on his characters, and there are a couple of occasions when he blurs the margins between reality and what appears to be a hallucination. The inhabitants of this world trip out on marijuana, LSD, magic mushrooms, cocaine, anything available, and we see how drugs accentuate María’s senses on the dance floor:
Leopoldo Brook offered me a hit and I happily accepted. Get hooked on snorting blow and you’ll find yourself with a bad taxi habit. Feet and buses are no good any more for dealing with distances and emergencies. But you’ll also find yourself twisting on the dance floor and not caring what anyone says, surefooted, head high, an air of sophistication filling your chest, your every sense heightened; you’ll feel a devouring passion, a serenity as instantaneous as it is illusory, your heart hammering like a horse that’s bolted, and all-consuming anguish that — you believe – is worthy only of the great and the unforgettable. Suffering dignifies us, so let’s have another hit. And another and another till we explode. (pg. 68)
Liveforever captures a certain time, place and culture through its depiction of the suburbs of Cali. It’s a tough, disturbing environment, and we follow María as she continues to descend into ever-darkening territory. There’s something elusive about this young girl as she flits from place to place, from one man to another. The narrative, too, shares the same quality – whenever we feel we’re getting a fix on where María’s story might be heading, she darts off in a different direction sweeping us along to another part of town. And occasionally the story itself spins off, giving us brief digressions on topics such as the internal politics of the Rolling Stones. But, let’s not get too sidetracked…
Caicedo’s writing pulsates with intensity, reflecting Maria’s frantic search to find herself in this maelstrom. The prose is threaded with snatches of song lyrics, and this accentuates the rhythm in Caicedo’s use of language – there are sections where the prose soars and dances to its own beat. And Frank Wynne has done a terrific job with the translation here, skilfully navigating the slang of the city at the time and maintaining some Spanish words (e.g. pelada meaning ‘little girl’) for authenticity.
It’s a pretty extraordinary novel; one that will divide readers I suspect as Liveforever is, at times, explicit in its portrayal of a disconnected, vulnerable and sometimes violent section of society. Towards the end of the novel, there’s a very striking passage which, in light of Caceido’s suicide, seems terribly prescient, and we can only imagine what was going on inside the author’s mind as his words tumbled onto the page:
Hey you, make your childhood more intense by loading up on adult experiences. Couple corruption to the freshness of your youth. Rappel down the possibilities of precocity. You’ll pay the price: by nineteen all you’ll be left with are tired eyes, emotions spent, strength sapped. By then, a gentle pre-planned death will seem welcome. Get in ahead of death, make a date with it. No one loves an ageing teenager. You alone know you’ve confused the squandered years and the thoughtful years in a furious whirlwind of activity. Living simultaneously forwards and in reverse. (pg. 152)
I read this novel to link in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit month, which is running throughout July. Stu at Winstonsdad’s and Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List have also reviewed this novel – just click on the link if you’d like to read their reviews.
Liveforever is published in the UK by Penguin Books (Penguin Modern Classics). Source: personal copy.