“There is no period so remote as the recent past.” —Alan Bennett, The History Boys
Colombia’s history over the last half a century is usually pretty hazy for Americans, whose knowledge of the region usually includes romanticized versions of Pablo Escobar’s life, some generalized anxiety about cocaine drug cartels, and perhaps a faint understanding of the rise of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the right-wing paramilitary groups who also violently clashed with the Colombian government. Some of us even heard about the recent peace accord signed this past year between the leaders of the FARC and the Colombian government, which is the first step to healing a decades-long specter of violence, terror, and fear among Colombian citizens.
Yet how do we understand Colombia’s recent past from our current vantage point, before history pins down the winners and losers, or designates heroes and villains?
Julianne Pachico tackles this difficult question in The Lucky Ones, painting the last twenty-five years of Colombia as an unsettling dreamscape where her characters tangle on a daily basis with very real threats to seemingly safe enclaves.
In the first story, “Lucky,” a teenage girl finds herself completely alone after she decides not to accompany her family to a weekend party in a country home in the mountains, and no one ever returns. After several days, a strange man knocks on the door, and though she refuses to let him in, he becomes a lurking fixture outside and her home a claustrophobic prison. As the days go on:
A frothy panic will start to rise in her stomach, making her hands shake, and when that happens, she can’t control herself; she dashes to her room and peeks out through the window, holding the curtain close to her face like a veil. He’s always there, still in the scratchy poncho, sitting on the grass by the bristly hedge. Leaning against the banana tree. Pacing, mouth moving as if talking to himself, arms swinging exaggeratedly as if mocking army marches… If she squints her eyes, he multiplies into blurry doubles, triples, quadruples. There are dozens of him, an army.
The Lucky Ones is not a historical novel—it does not seek to explain, frame, or even narrate the connections between characters through time and space. Rather, it is a web of intersecting snapshots that makes the contemporary lives of its characters feel incredibly immediate and also surreal. Its dream-like qualities maintain an engrossing tension as the characters’ lives crisscross like a cat’s cradle.
In one of the strongest vignettes in the book, “Honey Bunny,” a character sent away to school in America searches for photos of Cali on Google Earth, and her longing for her hometown is palpable. She wants so badly to remember every detail and yet can’t quite face the reality that many of her friends and family members were abducted and never heard from again:
Charred kernels of grilled corn, burnt black and stiff. Squishy papaya seeds, moist and fresh. The time she told her grandmother, ‘The fish are all assassinated,’ assuming it was synonymous with dead, thanks to the newspapers and TV. The cracked sidewalks. The men puckering their lips and making wet kissing sounds. The accordion music blasting from the maids’ rooms at the back of the house… It makes her think of fables the maids used to tell her: the paisa farmer who went to heaven, la patasola and la llorona. Ghosts who would come knocking on your door, ringing your bell, long dead souls with scarred faces, wandering the country with no name and no past. If you unlocked the door for them, they would wrap their hands around your wrist and lead you away, make you vanish into thin air, disappear without a trace. If you were unlucky, no one would even remember your name: your real one, the one that everyone called you.
Each new perspective refracts the fragility of any seemingly stable situation during a time when attacks could come out of nowhere from a host of equally plausible attackers. In “Armadillo Man,” a character suggests an encounter with the cartels, and when the other asks, “Don’t you mean the guerrillas?” he responds, “Maybe… Or I could mean the army. Or the paramilitaries. Does it make a difference?”
In addressing the question of how to most authentically render this recent moment in history—when we consider that the peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government was just signed this past year, and the rebels are currently disarming in transitional zones as we speak—Pachico’s intersecting web of perspectives is extremely appropriate, offering little closure and evoking the destabilized echo of lives upended.
Yet I hesitate to call The Lucky Ones a novel, even though that is the label slapped onto it by its sales-minded publisher. In my mind, as a reader and a writer, a novel implies that even when narration shifts between character perspectives, there is an omniscient, God-like narrator governing the tone and arc of the story, guiding us towards its inexorable conclusion. While there are novels that break all of these rules, in The Lucky Ones, there is no God. Pressing too hard on the label “novel” threatens to short-change this wonderful kaleidoscopic short story collection, which leaves as many gaps between characters as linkages, and asks as many questions as it answers. Instead of framing the history of Colombia and packaging it or explaining it to us, what Pachico offers is an anthropological view of small, beautifully evoked human experiences—an ethnography of survival, memory, and nostalgia.
Pachico calls her collection The Lucky Ones, and while a few of her characters are lucky in the sense that they made it out alive, others are lucky only in that their names and stories are remembered by others. To be lucky is to be missed, to be noted, and to have your existence catalogued. With the disappearance and murder of so many thousands of Colombians over the last several decades—and now, as the next generations try to heal their country’s gaping wounds and move on—Pachico reminds us of our own privilege and asks us, Who are the lucky ones, really?