For Easter weekend, I reflect on how translating a turn-of-the-century Catholic writer has only improved how I look at the world as a secular humanist.

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Outside my work here at OnlySky, I’m a writer of speculative and science fiction, and a translator. My science fiction usually focuses on alternative justices and social contract theory, so the overlap with my humanist essays is obvious. But my work as a translator? Well, that’s a labor of love, and an act of thanks. And since it’s Easter weekend… whether or not we secular types celebrate anything more than the Great Bunny, Deliverer of Chocolate Eggs, and Highly Suspect Marshmallow Treats? Well, why not talk about the strange subject position of being a secular humanist translating a religious writer for the English-speaking world?

Today I’m sharing a piece from a collection I launched this month, by a writer you’ve probably never heard of. The Rifle, and Other Stories collects eleven stories by Tomás Carrasquilla, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century writer from the department of Antioquia, home to the city of Medellín.

And whether you’re as Catholic as he was, or as secular as I am? Oh, you might be surprised by how much wit and insight exists in these tales from a century past.

Colombian Catholic realism, late-1800s style

Let’s get pronunciation out of the way first. In Colombian Spanish, the double “l” makes a sound like the “J” in “jeans” or “Jean-Luc Picard”, depending on surrounding letters. In Medellín? It’s closer to “Jean-Luc Picard”. In Carrasquilla? It’s closer to “jeans”. And that double “r”? Let it roll nice and soft if you can!

Toh-MAS Car-rah-SKEE-jah, from Meh-duh-JEEN.

Or, you know, your closest approximation. Phonetics are hard!

In Medellín, Tomás Carrasquilla is well known as the “first Colombian novelist”. He’s read in school, performed on stage, and in the department of Antioquia often viewed as more important than Gabriel García Márquez, the one Colombian writer Westerners reliably know. But he’s not a magical realist, which is part of why no one’s yet bothered to bring his and similar realist writings into the English-speaking world. Once we’ve locked into one way of viewing another culture, we in the West are highly resistant to work that doesn’t fit our initial notion of “authenticity”.

But if his work isn’t magical realist, then what the heck is it? Yes, Carrasquilla does have a few Colombian versions of Old World folktales in his repertoire. Mainly, though, he focuses on the domestic and communal life of a rural culture rapidly and unevenly urbanizing. He offers rich details of everyday, natural, and festive settings, as if anticipating the need to record everything about this culture undergoing transition for future generations.

He also presents nuanced psychological portraits. His stories are unflinching in their depiction of human failings, but also of the value of marginalized lives. And though fault abounds? He’s more than able to hold multiple perspectives in tension. Outside the folktales, there are no monsters in Carrasquilla: just humans in differently fallen states.

Reading a Catholic writer as a secular humanist

At first, I was surprised to learn that Carrasquilla was devoutly Catholic. After all, his stories, though rich with Catholic customs, do not lack for criticism of certain forms of faith-practice. In particular, a common theme in his writing is the danger of any fervent devotion that borders on vanity project. (A good lesson, I suspect, for us all.)

This could be devotion to a dream of power, such as in “Simon Magus”, about a child dangerously enchanted by his guardian’s witchy lore, with all its complex biblical tie-ins. Or idolization of a child, as in “Blanca”, about a little girl whose Marian devotion figures highly into how she unites a broken household. But it could also be a practice of faith more self-aggrandizing than sincerely industrious, as with the women in “Darling Saint Antonio”, who pin such hopes on a poor young man aspiring to join the clergy.

However, in stories like the one below, “The Shrub”, and also the titular “The Rifle” and “Dimitas Arias”, some forms of deep devotion are also treated with compassion. Whether or not they’re scripturally sound, they’re essential responses to an unjust world, which offers so little solace in any other form. One could also do far worse for fixations, too, as we see in “For Money!”, the story of a scheming husband whose wife is capable of far greater industry while he’s off at war.

And it’s in this view of human frailty that Carrasquilla becomes like an old friend, even if I don’t share all his views. I’m a scholar of 19th-century literature by training, after all. My favorite novel is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a highly Catholic text that also holds a range of flawed humans in empathetic tension. And I miss the popularity, in general, of omniscient third-person: a point-of-view that lets us hold different perspectives in tension. Other literary eras invited a great deal more messiness than we often find in fiction today: religious and secular alike.

And oh boy, does Carrasquilla get messy! Because, while he’s critical of vain devotion, there’s also an endorsement of ostentatious imperialist conquest in his rendering of an Old World Catholic fable, “The Solitary Soul”. (Not surprising for the era. This was mere decades before the Spanish Catholic Church reinforced Franco’s dictatorship in Spain.) Similarly, he advances a harsh view of damned souls in his Colombian version of a classic “clever Hans defeats Death, the Devil, and St. Peter” tale, “In the Right Hand of God the Father”. These are all folktales, though, along with “The Preface of Don Francisco Vera”. Are they interesting to see spun around Colombian culture? Yes. But they shouldn’t be read as serving the same ends as his more domestic works.

Carrasquilla is also marvelously clever in his realism, because he loathed Europe’s Modernist literature, but didn’t go in for easy miracles. Modernist stories explored uncertainty, the loss of faith, and the collapse of meaning: all aesthetics he despised. However, he also very much wanted to depict the world as it was, not as he wished it to be. And so, he threaded his needle carefully. Playfully, even!

In his most “miraculous” story, “Rogelio”, a boy from the wilderness visits a small town with an elaborate Holy Week parade that sparks a religious awakening. But how far does that awakening really go? Carrasquilla’s ending is so delicately written that a devout reader won’t hesitate to believe that the converted child succeeded in converting his parents, too. And yet, that interpretation is entirely on the reader. The text itself presents a much more pragmatic approach to subsequent events.

That’s how Carrasquilla threads the needle in his realism: by sharing the quotidian world as he saw it, and leaving open to the reader’s faith whatever happens next.

Okay, enough preamble

All right, all right. You get my point. Carrasquilla is an intelligent writer, and a lot of fun to read. Translating him was fun, too, but also a challenge. Carrasquilla’s rustic Antioqueño dialect is so thickly applied that even many locals struggle to parse key expressions in the text. (I now know many terms that many “kids these days” don’t, but that their grandparents light up to hear mentioned.) Carrasquilla isn’t just notorious for “antioqueñismos”, though. There are also terms that blend his distinctly well-read upbringing with deep exposure to local-rural cultures, and as such, only exist in his writing. He really is a world unto himself.

For this reason, my collection of his stories comes with an introduction to the author in his context, and a glossary of “antioqueñismos”, and of all the plant life he mentions. (So many plants!) Lots of old, specialized reference materials were studied to get to this point. The Rifle, and Other Stories has definitely been a labor of love, and an act of thanks to this place I call home. And the next? His most famous novel, The Marquesa of Yolombó, about a woman whose industriousness sustains and grows her community? It’s shaping up to be no less.

The piece below is the shortest and most straightforward of his stories. Really, it’s more of a character study than a full tale, and lacks all the chewy interpersonal conflicts of his longer pieces. But in it, you should still get a sense of the author’s attention to the plight of devalued humans, and his compassion for whatever path they find to make their difficult lives a little easier, if only for a spell.

I doubt that the traditionally Catholic Tomás Carrasquilla would ever have identified as a humanist. Still, this secular humanist—non-native to his land, his language, his faith, and his era—has learned a great deal from his approach to human affairs. It’s a privilege to bring his work, and a completely different side of Colombian literary history, to other English readers, too.

“The Shrub”, by Tomás Carrasquilla

Translator’s note:

Part of this story references a distinct geography, a church atop Mount Monserrate in Bogotá. Quite possibly the rest of the tale takes place in that city, too. The church’s current incarnation, Basilica Santuario del Señor Caído de Monserrate, was finished two years after this story’s publication, and has a series of statues on its grounds that are connected to its namesake iconography, the Fallen Lord, by depicting various Stations of the Cross. Pilgrimage to the top of the mountain, especially for Sunday mass, is a local tradition to this day.

She lived alone, completely alone, in a narrow and gloomy quarter of the barrio. Her social ties did not go beyond the purchase (and not always daily) of bread and fuel, in some nearby bodega; and interaction with her scant clientele; and encounters with the terrible landlord of her tiny apartment. This man relentlessly threatened to throw her to the street each time she was missing even an eighth of the weekly rent. As she rarely had the full sum, she lived ever in anticipation of his next ultimatum.

After trying her luck in various trades, she came to rest as a washing-woman for the poor: the kind whose skills would never gain the attention of the rich. She often lacked work, and passed over meals. Yet her hunger, in many forms, would not consign her to begging.

She was one of those beings for whom the wheel of life consisted of trying to push that wheel without going over a cliff. More than old, she was battered, damaged by misery and the depressions of youth. Of that sovereign past beauty, a garden which had once found many admirers, nary a cloud of sustenance now remained. Of her assets and trinkets from more prosperous times, she retained only the painful memory. In this shipwreck, nothing but a cargo of disappointments had been saved.

Her story was one of many unhappinesses: from whatever suburb she had come as a child to serve in the city, soon after that incomparable rose had opened herself to the morning sun and… as it always goes. Poor flower!

She had two children and they were her torment. The male left her and went far away, as soon as he felt grown enough. Her daughter, an angel from heaven, her father carried off at her first burbling, such that she never knew her mother.

Neither friend nor companion persisted in the twilight of her life, though she had had countless at her zenith; not a word of commiseration now, for she who had heard so much flattery in her youth. The rare few times she pleaded for aid, from some pocket that in other seasons had been hers, she received not even a response. The contempt of others, the ignorance of others, fell over her like a stone from Moses over the disloyal Hebrew. The poor butterfly, already blind, without gloss or iridescence, had gathered herself, in her fright, to die in the warm dust of the grotto.

In her impending annihilation she thought neither on Heaven nor on Earth; she thought nothing could redeem her. Oh, the things this unhappy woman would think! She could feel only the hunger of the beast that could no longer seek out nourishment; only the cold of the sick bird that could not find its nest.

The material hunger… terrible! Frightening! But this other hunger, of the heart, this need for a being to love, someone with whom grim existence might be shared: this loneliness of old age she could not, was unable, to face.

She got a cat, a very handsome cat. But cats, like friends, abandoned houses where a real sense of home did not burn. Twice she had birds, and one then the other died of starvation. Her misfortune extended even to these poor animals. If she could have acquired a companion that did not eat… but how?

One day, there passed through her street a car laden with the belongings of a moving family, and by her door fell a flowerpot with a plant. As the flowerpot had shattered, the family abandoned it there. She took the root, sowed it in a discount pot, and put it in the corner by the entrance.

Before the end of the year, it was a plant that caught the attention of passersby. Watering it, removing its dead leaves, laying compost around it—this was now her joy: an immense and very strange happiness. So strange, that it reminded her of her little daughter, from the scant few times that she had been able to comb her hair and tend to her. Some offered to buy the plant from her at a good price. But sell her shrub? When it seemed to her that this shrub was a person like her; something all her own; a companion, even? Well, who knew what she was thinking! But her hovel no longer felt as sad or as ugly. And the poor woman, sustained by this idea, had already begun to put greater care into the arrangement of her room and appearance.

The plant was growing even in the shade, as if God had blessed it. And God had blessed this plant, because it had consoled a sad soul. One day there was an arm reaching up to the lintel, then another branch rose, and another curved into an arc. Its owner, therefore, nailed in two rods and tied down the stem, and its garland of bright foliage and purple bluebells expanded, ostentatious and exuberant, until it formed an archway. People stopped to study its graceful and gallant bearing. The poor woman, less self-conscious, invited the curious to enter and see all of it. Even a very luxurious lady entered one day.

This shrub was returning our poor flower to dealings with other people; it was giving her a name. No more did she feel so unappreciated or downcast. As even strangers could see, she was no longer careless in her manner of dress, and scrubbed the walls and spruced up the grounds with whatever beauty would fit in its misery. Day by day her home affairs improved. So much cleaning attracted more clients and made her celebrated in the barrio. The quarters of María Engracia were mentioned with admiration, like a silver cup.

One morning two women entered to contemplate the shrub. They admired the appearance of that squalid home, which through tidying had been made more agreeable, and were full of praise. That night our flower did what she had not done since her time in service as a child: she prayed the entire rosary to the Virgin. Another day, she retrieved from a trunk (where it had lingered moth-ravaged in obscurity) a little picture of the suffering Virgin. She hung it over her headboard and put up a bouquet, the first she had taken from her shrub. On Sunday she went to mass at dawn.

That spirit, which had appeared dead, was now revived. This is how she understood it: Everything was a miracle, a miracle that had been effected by Our Lord Jesus of Mount Monserrate through the medium of the shrub. Yes: It was He. She remembered then that one Sunday, in more turbulent times, while descending the mountain with other companions, she had been given a card at the last Station of the Cross. She was remembering everything now, point by point; how her friend Ana, who was very educated and very large, had taken a pen and written below her name like this: “Remember me, I’m a sad sinner.” And all this, which had been completely forgotten for so long: Why was she remembering it now, as if experiencing it anew? Well, it was a miracle…

The following Saturday, she prostrated herself before a confessor. There was no small astonishment among her neighbors when they saw her kneeling at communion to receive the sacrament. From that day forward began a life of inner and outer piety. The shrub, more lush and flowery every day, became for her a supernatural being, sent by Jesus of Monserrate for her edification and guidance.

Amid all of this, she began to feel sick and enfeebled. She had heart palpitations with greater frequency; with greater frequency, she withdrew from the world, and had more than one bout of vertigo in church. She sensed that her end was near, but without fear: rather, with a sweet serenity. If only she could have transplanted her shrub over her grave!

One day, the landlord arrived furiously. Only an evil witch like her would think to put up this scrub of a plant, which was destroying the room with humidity. If she didn’t get rid of it, he would throw her and all of her belongings into the street. She began to cry, for she would never dream of damaging the shrub. That afternoon, the man returned and lashed out with sticks at its structure, the flowers, the foliage. He threw all her personal items into the street and began to toss her furniture after. María Engracia collapsed in a dead faint. From there she was taken to the hospital. In her delirium, she saw the shrub in front of her bed, like a triumphal arch for entry into paradise. And one Sunday morning, she fell forever into the infinite trellis of that Mercy.

Tomás Carrasquilla, 1915

The Rifle, and Other Stories, by Tomás Carrasquilla, translated and with an introduction by M. L. Clark, is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon. A triumphant Easter to those who celebrate. A rewarding Ramadan and reflective Passover to those from other faith traditions marking the weekend, too. And happy egg-hunting, chocolate-nomming, and general resting-up to my fellow secular layabouts.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.