José Luis Díaz-Granados*, Prensa Latina collaborator
With this monumental book, in which poetic utterances by Eskimos, Huitotos, Navajos, Algonquins, Pygmies, Tibetans, Samoyeds, Malays and Easter are rescued from oblivion, among others, Zalamea wanted to demonstrate simply and clearly that “in poetry there are none peoples underdeveloped”.
He was born in Bogotá on March 8, 1905, the son and grandson of wealthy merchants, printers and lawyers. His double first cousin, Eduardo Zalamea Borda (1907-1963), wrote one of the cardinal novels of Colombia: Four Years Aboard Myself in 1930, and later, as director of the Sunday magazine El Espectador, he was the discoverer of the talent book of an unknown young man named Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The recent Nobel memoirs are full of quotations, allusions and demonstrations of affection and gratitude towards Eduardo and immense admiration towards Jorge.
The latter conducted chaotic and inconclusive studies in the fields of military, agronomy and economics. He was 20 years old and obsessed with poetry, theatre, surrealism, psychoanalysis and Buster Keaton’s cinema. After publishing a dramatic farce entitled El regreso de Eva in 1927, he traveled through Central America and then settled in Spain, where he became associated with the poets of the “Generation of 27”, particularly Federico García Lorca, Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernandez. . . The former dedicated his “Poema de la soleá” to Zalamea in his book Poema del cante jondo (1931).
Under the progressive government of the liberal Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934-1938), Zalamea held the Ministry of Education and in this capacity led the most daring educational reform after half a century of conservative rule and clerical inquisition in Colombia. He founded the Village Culture Library and disseminated his country’s literature and fine arts. He later directed cultural programs at Radio Nacional and co-founded the Colombo-Soviet Cultural Institute with León de Greiff, Baldomero Sanín Cano and Gerardo Molina. In 1944 he was appointed ambassador to Mexico and two years later ambassador to Italy.
On April 9, 1948, after the assassination of popular leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, Zalamea, along with other left-wing intellectuals, took over Radio Nacional and with his energetic voice called on the people to march on the palace and overthrow President Ospina Pérez. The army bloodily suppresses the popular uprising and hundreds of thousands of Colombians are massacred, persecuted and imprisoned. Zalamea writes a satirical story entitled “The Metamorphosis of His Excellency”, which he publishes in his magazine “Crítica”, bypassing official censorship. Months later he was exiled to Argentina.
In Buenos Aires he devoted himself to literature and the translation of works by Saint-John Perse, Sartre and Faulkner, among others. He wrote his satirical poem against Laureano Gómez – who heads a bloody and repressive government in Colombia – entitled El gran Burundún-Burundá has died (1952), which made him famous in more than twenty languages. During this decade he traveled to the USSR, People’s China and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. Then he works as secretary of the World Peace Council under the leadership of the wise Federico Joliot-Curie. He traveled to India and there, amidst the misery and hopelessness of the pilgrims on the Benares River, composed the evocative poem The Dream of the Stairs, in which he denounced and condemned all satrapies and forms of oppression, culminating in a beautiful poem of love and hope in man. This text is read by its author many times in front of large audiences, and its vinyl recording sold out in Bogotá a few days after its release.
In the 1960s he held onto the beginning of the Cuban Revolution with all his creative energy. He traveled to Cuba several times and in 1966 he was a member of the jury for the “Casa de las Américas” poetry prize. During these years he wrote an astute and documented book: Cuba Oppressed and Liberated and reunited with close friends such as Alejo Carpentier, Nicolás Guillén, Juan Marinello and Roberto Fernández Retamar.
His adherence to the just and noble causes of humanity earned him official contempt from his country’s ruling classes, where they instituted a strange two-party system that excluded left-wing movements. Zalamea is being removed from state events and anthologies, and his books in support of socialist Cuba and heroic Vietnam are ignored by mainstream media reviewers. In 1967, under the government of Carlos Lleras Restrepo, his house was raided by the army and the writer was imprisoned for several weeks.
To compensate, his books are published by subscription, and his lectures and poetry recitals are filled with students and young poets who listen to him with fervent devotion. “The audience grows, grows,” he exclaimed in his great poem. And so we thought his friends and readers. In 1968 he received the International Lenin Peace Prize. Zalamea was undermined by severe liver disease. However, he gave a courageous speech against the ruling government and against prevailing social injustices. For the first time, the elegant Teatro Colón in Bogotá was filled with workers, laborers, students and common people. As the victor spoke against the system, President Lleras Restrepo listened with expectant respect in the Presidential Stand, the tricolor crossed on his chest. It was the poet’s apotheosis. Zalamea had finally managed to overcome institutional contempt.
Before his death in May 1969, in a voice already broken by illness, he had declared: “I know that my life and my work have not been in vain.”
* Colombian poet, writer and journalist.
(Taken from selected companies)