Review of Magdalena: River of Dreams by Wade Davis (Knopf Canada 2020).
Reviewed by Nick Coghlan.
Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis had already written one best-seller, about the zombies of Haiti, when I came across his One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. Part travel adventure, part biography (of ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes), this is also an elegy to the indigenous people and the forest life of Colombian Amazonia. Nominated for the 1997 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction, One River was an inspiration to me when, as a diplomat at the Canadian Embassy in Bogotá, I ventured more timidly and much less knowledgeably onto the headwaters of the Putumayo, the Vaupés and the Caquetá.
A quarter of a century on, Davis returns to Colombia to write about another river in Magdalena – River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia (Knopf Canada 2020). The Magdalena rises in páramos (high moorlands) near the border with Ecuador and runs 1500 kilometres north to the Caribbean. This time, Davis does not have to rely on meagre academic grants to fund his travel: he has the sponsorship of a large Medellín-based investment company, Grupo Argos.
Flowing down past the coffee hills of Pereira and oil-rich Barrancabermeja, to the swampy lowlands where Gabriel García Márquez grew up, the Magdalena river is a handy pretext that allows Davis to tell many stories. For years in Puerto Berrío, the sight of dead bodies floating downriver – nameless victims of Colombia’s civil conflict that is only now winding down – was a common one; Davis spends a day in Puerto Berrío with Hugo, an animero, or keeper of souls. At Puerto Triunfo, Davis tells a moving story of forgiveness and redemption. Jenny Castañeda, as a child, received Christmas presents from Pablo Escobar; her mother was shot dead by right-wing paramilitaries, but she finds peace by confronting the man who pulled the trigger. A number of these personal encounters are captured in moody photographs: it is not for nothing that Wade Davis’ art is frequently featured in National Geographic.
Davis does not gloss over the horror of either La Violencia, the ten-year war between liberals and conservatives that ended in 1958, nor the decades-long subsequent conflict that pitted the narco-financed Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) against the US-backed government in Bogotá and right-wing paramilitaries. Here Davis apportions blame where it belongs. He rightly heaps praise on Nobel-winning President Juan Manuel Santos, who brought years of failed peace negotiations to fruition in September 2016 (irritatingly, the prize is spelled “Noble” on p. 367).
Davis is on much shakier ground in asserting that Santos’ predecessor as President, Alvaro Uribe, will eventually be seen as deserving of equal credit. Uribe is widely blamed for the practice of so-called “false positives,” whereby the military killed civilians and passed them off as guerrilla, so as to exaggerate their success in counter-insurgency; in August 2020, the ex-President was charged with a variety of offences ranging from witness-tampering to involvement with paramilitaries. More generally, it may be premature to suggest that with the 2016 peace agreement, Colombia’s problems are over. Current President Iván Duque, often portrayed in cartoons as a puppet of Uribe’s, has procrastinated over implementing many of the deal’s key provisions, and violence is once again on the rise. In the past four years, 400 community leaders have been killed, principally by powerful landowners in league with paramilitaries.
At times, the book’s explicit premise – that the story of the Magdalena is the story of Colombia – is strained. None of the country’s three largest cities – Bogotá, Medellín and Cali – lie on the river, and the only riverine city of any significance (Barranquilla) is at its very mouth. Only the lower third of the Magdalena is navigable, and river transport on a significant scale faded away in the 1950s.
There is a long excursion into the renaissance of Medellín, where Davis lived in the 1970s, but this has been reported by others before. To learn about Pablo Escobar, you would be better off with Mark Bowden’s Killing Pablo or the Netflix series “Narcos.” A few days in picturesque, quiet Mompox – of which Bolívar famously said “To Caracas I owe my life, but to Mompox I owe my glory” – lead into a long segment on the Liberator’s life, 25 pages told in the words of Enrique, a friend of Davis. The reader unfamiliar with Latin American history will find this segment interesting, but old hands may be tempted to skip it: there is little here that has not been already reported in dozens of biographies. And travellers who have been to Cartagena may sardonically recall the plaque on a statue of Bolívar in that city which reads (wait for it): “To Caracas I owe my life, but to Cartagena I owe my glory.”
Wade Davis loves Colombia; his admiration for the land and its people is palpable. Magdalena – River of Dreams is enjoyable and will no doubt inspire many to explore the country further, either through literature or in person. As, presumably, his sponsor Grupo Argos hoped.
In the Preface to Magdalena, in Chapter One, and in an appended Bibliographical Essay, Wade Davis touches tantalisingly on previous travels to the isolated massif of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Unique ethnographically and botanically, this spectacular range faces unprecedented challenges from cattle-ranchers, tourism and climate change. Davis draws briefly on the wisdom of the “Elder Brothers” (as the native Kogi, Wiwa and Arhuaco call themselves) and touches on their “cosmic scheme” and their growing horror as the modern world encroaches upon their traditional lands. These are themes that recall not just Davis’ earlier Colombia book One River, but also his entrancing books and essays on Haiti, Borneo, Brazilian Amazonia and northern Canada. Might we dare hope that, as and when Wade Davis returns again to Colombia, it is to a lesser-known – and less written-about – territory such as this?
Wade Davis – ethnobotanist, explorer, professor, photographer – is the author of 20 books that have been translated into 16 languages. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (2011) won the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize. CBC listeners may remember his 2009 Massey Lectures, published as The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Davis’ website lists his recent travels: East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, Mongolia and the high Arctic of Nunuvut and Greenland. He is currently Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. In 2018 he became an Honorary Citizen of Colombia.
Nick Coghlan has drawn on his sailing adventures and his years abroad as a diplomat to write four books. His most recent is Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat’s Memoir of South Sudan (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), preceded in 2005 by Far in the Waste Sudan: On Assignment in Africa (MQUP). More relevant to this review is his experience in Colombia, written about in The Saddest Country (MQUP 2004). His and his wife Jenny’s 30,000-mile voyage in the Bosun Bird is recounted in Winter in Fireland: A Patagonian Sailing Adventure (University of Alberta Press, 2011).
Colombia photo credits: Nick Coghlan