What lies beyond the vortex

This essay focuses on the novel La vorágine1 (1924) by José Eustasio Rivera as a document from a chapter in Latin American history. It looks for connections between the effects that modernity was having over Amazonia one century ago, with those that are currently affecting the largest rainforest on the planet. In my work as a fiction writer, I have often explored the relation between the so-called civilised world and the tropical jungle. Approximately one decade ago, I wrote a stage play (which I later turned into a graphic novel)2 that occurs in a future where the possession, consumption and traffic of meat products have been declared illegal. One of the main events leading into this future is the establishment of supra-national reservations in ecosystems, like Amazonia, which have been considered necessary for the survival of the human species. Although the future foreseen in this story may be described as dystopian, it may also be considered optimistic, as it does not present a post-apocalyptic backdrop. This vision implies the survival of the Amazon jungle. For this to happen, Latin America needs to follow a socioeconomic and political development quite different to the one it has had in the previous two centuries of republican history.

I believe the figure of the nation-state: the political foundation of the modern world, is insufficient (and counterproductive) to face the challenges of the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, there is a current nationalistic impulse, evident in the rise of political leaders such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban or Narendra Modi; and the growing influence of extreme-right parties in countries like Spain, France, Germany or Denmark, which seem to disprove the notion of humanity moving beyond the age of the nation-state. Far from acting as a unifying and globalising force, the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak seems to be increasing this nationalistic divide (which in turn may also represent a final acceleration before the big crash).

Throughout history, most (if not all) major socioeconomic and political changes have been prompted by great crises. Unlike those that set the tone of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (which could be described as strictly human in both origin and end), the next major crisis is likely to be brought by the planet’s reaction to the destruction of necessary ecosystems like Amazonia. The current pandemic outbreak appears as the prologue of a series of environmental responses that are likely to set the tone for the twenty-first century. This forecast presents a series of questions of an existential nature: about how to prevent the destruction of these ecosystems and how to survive if we don’t.

Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan defined artists as society’s ‘early warning systems’. Following this notion, I have been studying La vorágine as a literary beacon, which directed the attention of his contemporary society towards the crimes suffered by thousands of men, women and children (most of them from indigenous communities) who were enslaved, tortured and murdered by unscrupulous rubber entrepreneurs like Julio Cesar Arana. My aim is to take some of the light Rivera once projected over the darkness of the rubber holocaust, and reflect it towards the present and future dramas that threaten the jungles that inspired his novel.

Despite dying young, Rivera lived through the years that set the course of what, in hindsight, can already be defined as an incomplete, violent and deeply flawed process of modernisation. Because of this (and because of the importance of La vorágine within the Latin American literary tradition), his life (and work) can be taken as a cultural molecule: ideal to analyse the collective memory of the Colombian nation at the turn of the twentieth century. This, of course, is a task that surpasses the scope of this essay. Hence, I shall only focus on three main features extracted from the aforementioned molecule, which in turn reflect many problems that continue to affect the Colombian society of the twenty-first century. They are: (a) the universe of violence portrayed in La vorágine (b) the Western impulse to explore and profit from the Amazon jungle and (c) the relation between Rivera’s biography and the story of La vorágine.

Life (and work) of José E Rivera as a molecule of the Colombian collective memory

A treatise on violence

La vorágine is narrated in the first person by its main character: the poet Arturo Cova. It is presented as the surviving diary from his journey into Amazonia, which ends with Arturo and his travelling companions ‘devoured’ by the jungle. In the beginning, he had escaped from the capital with a young woman named Alicia, who came from a privileged background and decided to escape with him, because her family had promised her hand in marriage to an old landowner. This landowner represents a common thread running across the colonial and national periods of Colombian history: the conflict between private agents (which depending on the historical context have been called conquistadors, caudillos, caciques or patrones) and centralising forces like the Spanish Crown, the Catholic Church, the British Empire, the American (in the forms of governments and corporations) and the given republican administrations, who rule over the country from the sanitised environment of Andean cities like Bogota.

This conflict has been a feature in Latin American history since the very early stages of the period of European domination. For example, conquistadors like Cristopher Columbus, Diego Velásquez de Cuellar, Hernán Cortés or Francisco Pizarro were, in theory, following orders from the Crown, but in practice, they were chasing their own interests: quenching their own thirst for gold, land and titles. In La vorágine, the figure of private agents who are the de facto holders of power in peripheral regions, is embodied in fictional characters like Narciso Barrera (who since his first appearance is presented as Arturo’s greatest nemesis), as well as in representations of historical characters like the infamous Colonel Tomás Funes and the aforementioned rubber baron Julio César Arana. After escaping from the capital, Arturo and Alicia travel to the province of Casanare, located in the Colombian Eastern Plains. This is a region of vast grasslands that extend far beyond the border with Venezuela. They arrive at a farm where they are hosted by a cattle farmer and his wife: Franco and Griselda. Soon after this, they meet Barrera, who has been employed by the nefarious Casa Arana: the Arana rubber-house, to travel north into the Colombian territory to recruit workers for their rubber plantations. Barrera is a fundamental element in the development of the plot, as his involvement is what leads the transition from the first part of the book, which takes place in the Eastern Plains, to the second and third parts, which occur in and around the Amazonian region of Putumayo. The first part ends when, after a series of violent confrontations with Barrera and his henchmen, Arturo and Franco return to the farm, to find out Alicia and Griselda have left with Barrera. In response, Franco burns down his shack and joins Arturo in a tragic and deranged journey into the jungle.

Another feature that is constantly reappearing within the plot of La vorágine is gender-based violence. This type of violence is manifested from the start: with Alicia’s family deciding to marry her to the old landowner. She is also, from the very beginning, subjected to a form of psychological violence that Arturo inflicts upon her, as he is constantly demeaning and criticising her for being too delicate to face the conditions of the tropical wilderness. When Alicia and Griselda leave with Barrera, they face a far worse situation: enslaved by a cruel and lustful agent of the rubber industry. Another character that suffers from gender-based violence is Clarita, a Venezuelan prostitute who is Barrera’s mistress when Arturo meets her during the first part of the novel. Later on, during Arturo’s journey into the jungle, he meets the Madonna Zoraida Ayram, who at one point was also a victim of the rubber barons, but has found her way up the food chain. When Arturo meets her, she has managed to gain control over her own rubber station and struggles to defend it against the expansive efforts of the Arana rubber-house. This character can be framed under the archetype of the Latin American female warrior: which include historical and fictional figures such as Anacaona, La Gaitana, La Pola or Doña Barbara.3

La vorágine also portrays the violence that the tropical rainforest inflicts upon those who dare to enter its dominion. Hence, it may be related to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness or to what the Brazilian writer and engineer Alberto Rangel called the Inferno Verde: the Green Hell. As professor Conrado Zuluaga explains in his introduction to the 1988 edition of La vorágine,4 the villain in this story is not Barrera or the Arana rubber-house, but the ‘vegetable world,’ which was ‘more insatiable and cruel than man himself’.5

Life (and work) of José E Rivera within the context of violence in Colombia

Into the heart of darkness

The first Westerner ever to traverse the Amazon River was the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana in 1541. His presence in the Americas symbolises another common thread running across colonial and republican times (and closely tied to the conflict between private agents and centralising forces): the hereditary succession of power. As Ariel Avila6 explains, in Colombia, a country with a population of approximately 46 million people, the political power is shared by only 54 families. This trend began from the very early stages of the Spanish conquest and includes examples like Christopher Columbus’ sons or the family link between Hernán Cortés (conqueror of the Aztecs) and Francisco Pizarro (conqueror of the Incas). Pizarro’s brother Gonzalo also fought in the war against the Incas, as did Francisco de Orellana, who was also related to the Pizarro brothers.

Orellana’s journey was motivated by the legend of El Dorado: the tale of a city made of gold, which the indigenous populations used to drive the European conquerors away from their lands. Despite being later disregarded as fabulation, with an ultimate moral against the greed of the conquerors, the idea of advanced civilisations lost in the jungle has survived throughout the centuries, and it’s evident in the life and death of the British explorer Percy Fawcett.7 Hence, Orellana’s exploration is the starting point of a saga where the thirst for gold is combined with the ideals of scientific enlightenment and with the competition between Western powers to build their empires on the natural and mineral treasures extracted from the new world.

An important name in the long list of European explorers in Amazonia, is that of the French naturalist Charles Marie de La Condamine. La Condamine sailed to the Americas in 1735 as part of a commission, sponsored by the French Royal Academy of Sciences, to settle the debate about the shape of the planet. After conducting experiments between the cities of Quito and Cuenca (measuring the meridian arc at the Equator), La Condamine went on a journey to find out if (and where) the Orinoco River meets the Amazon. Although he failed on this quest, during his explorations he produced what, for almost two centuries, was the most detailed map of the Amazon basin. He also learned and took samples of two substances that would be fundamental in the development of the modern world: quinine8 and rubber.

Next in line comes Alexander von Humboldt. Apart from fulfilling La Condamine’s failed effort to find the mouth of the Orinoco, Humbodlt was (arguably) the first Westerner to understand that all living entities were interconnected as part of one, infinitely complex, macro-organism. Many years later, Austrian geologist Eduard Suess would call it the biosphere. Another event, which also took place during the age of liberal revolutions at the turn of the nineteenth century, is the Royal Botanical Expedition. This enterprise was commissioned by the Spanish Crown, partly as a response to France’s exploits of La Condamine’s findings. However, this effort to discover new and wonderful substances to strengthen the position of the Spanish Empire (whose glory days had already passed), backfired when the two main leaders of the expedition: Fráncisco José de Caldas and José Celestino Mutis, joined the cause for the independence of the colonies.

The following episode, which would forever change the destiny of Amazonia, happened thousands of kilometers away. It was in 1839, when Charles Goodyear patented the process of vulcanisation (which increases the resilience, elasticity and weather resistance of natural rubber). Combined with inventions like the bicycle and the automobile; and with the process of industrial militarisation that led to the First World War, this process created a highly profitable industry. This industry sprouted in patches that emerged all across Amazonia (through the nations of Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Perú and Bolivia). The most remarkable sample of the obscene wealth brought by the so-called white-gold rush,9 is found in the Brazilian city of Manaus. Such was the extravagance during those days, that some members of the higher classes used to send their laundry all the way to Lisbon, to be washed on the other side of the Atlantic, because they didn’t want their precious garments to be tarnished by the murky waters of the Amazon River. Perhaps the most striking symbol from these times of opulence is the Manaus Opera House: a lavish palace of Renaissance architecture erected in the middle of the jungle (which many compare to the 300 million dollar stadium built for the 2014 World Cup). The magnificence of this building is portrayed in the opening scene of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982): with the image of the great Caruso singing in front of a very elegant (and very white) audience. Meanwhile, their Indigenous house-servants stood by the foyer, dressed in a bizarre combination of loincloths and black ties.

La vorágine’s publication in 1924 happened when the white-gold rush in Amazonia was coming to an end. The decay of this industry was prompted by two main causes: (a) the smuggling of rubber seeds by the British explorer (and so-called bio-pirate) Henry Wickham;10 and (b) the development of synthetic rubber (between 1909 and 1915) by the German company Bayer. While this was happening, the Arana rubber-house suffered a major blow, due to the damaging stories released by American engineer Walter Hardenburg: who published a series of articles in Truth magazine, exposing the crimes of the rubber barons. Hardenburg’s accusations were complemented by an in depth report presented by Sir Roger Casement, which eventually led to the demise of the Peruvian Amazon Company.11

Casement and Joseph Conrad became friends in 1890, as evident in the letters they exchanged, and their friendship was a major influence in the writing of Heart of Darkness. Casement was serving as British consul in the former Belgian colony, when he was commissioned to investigate the atrocities that the colonial authorities, under the command of King Leopold II, were committing in their rubber plantations against the native population. Because of this, years later (when he was serving as consul in Manaus), Casement was sent to investigate the veracity of Hardenburg’s reports. In 1912, he published the results in what is known as the Blue Book on Putumayo. Besides confirming Hardenburg’s original denouncement, Casement complemented it with an account of what he had witnessed; and with the surviving documents left by the French naturalist Eugene Robuchon (who had been hired by Arana to write a report of his own, to counteract the stories that foreign reporters like Hardenburg and Casement were starting to release).

Robuchon, like Julio Cesar Arana or the Colonel Tomás Funes, is a character that crosses into the realm of fiction to enter the world of La vorágine. When Arturo and his travelling companions arrive to Putumayo, they hear about a French naturalist who had disappeared. The rumour was that he’d been murdered because he was gathering testimonies and taking photos of some of the Indigenous communities affected by the rubber industry.

Within the narrative of La vorágine, the drama of the rubber collectors is most vividly portrayed in the story of Clemente Silva. He is the only other character, apart from Arturo, who takes on the role of the narrator. In this section of the book, Silva explains how he ended up enslaved by the rubber barons while looking for his long lost son. At first, he aims to rescue him by paying the debt he owed to his employers.12 In the end, he just wants to recover his bones in order to give them Christian burial.

La vorágine within the timeline of Western explorers in Amazonia

In the saga of stories that have survived from the days of the rubber holocaust, one may also mention the case of Fordlandia. This is the tale of the utopian city that Henry Ford built in the middle of the jungle, which today is being devoured by the dense vegetation, in a poetic display of biological violence. The fate of Fordlandia is the same suffered by Arturo Cova and his travelling companions. Seymour Menton described La vorágine as a ‘kind of rebuttal of Dante’s Divine Comedy’, where the poet descends from the heavenly lands of the cordillera to the green hell of the tropical jungle. In this case, the descent is prompted not by greed or scientific curiosity nor by glorious projections of fame and fortune, but because of a woman. It is also fueled by the most primal impulses: by lust more than by love and, above all, by vengeance.

Such a complex combination of romanticism and social realism, of emotional viscerality and metrical rigour, could only be achieved by an author who lived in the middle of conflicting opposites. By a lyricist obsessed with Parnassian poetry, stranded in the deepest confines of the heart of darkness.

The poet and his novel

Among the numerous episodes in Rivera’s biography reflected in La vorágine, the most relevant is his participation in the commission to delineate the border with Venezuela. Prior to this, he had already achieved national recognition, after the publication in 1921 of a compendium of 55 sonnets titled Tierra de promisión: Land of promise. Throughout his adult life, he combined his work in literature with different roles as a public servant: ranging from low-level bureaucrat to backbench parliamentarian. Rivera was born during a period in Colombian history known as La regeneración: The regeneration. This period is marked by the response to a series of liberal reforms implemented with the Constitution of 1863. Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Colombian politics were defined by a bitter confrontation between the country’s two traditional parties: the Conservative and Liberal. The former defended the preservation of most of the socioeconomic and political structures established during the colony. The latter was founded on the ideals that ignited the American and French revolutions and fought for causes like the abolition of slavery, the instalment of a federalist government and an economic development based on free trade. However, the most controversial of the policies they defended was the separation of Church and State.

At the time of José Eustasio’s birth, the Rivera family was counted among the few private agents that ruled over what today is the province of Huila, which back then was still part of the province of Tolima. The split between these two provinces was one of the consequences of a conflict known as the Thousand-days war (1899–1902). There is an anecdote from those days, narrated by Rivera’s biographer Isaías Peña, when his parents (who were moderate conservatives) gave shelter to a group of liberal friends. These friends were being prosecuted by Jose Eustasio’s own uncles, who were generals in the Conservative army. When I began my research about Rivera’s life, I spoke to some of his distant relatives.13 One of them told me he came from the ‘left side’ of the family. In this case, the ‘left’ did not refer to his social and political stance, but to matters of lineage and pedigree. Nonetheless, this term can also be used in strictly ideological terms.

José Eustasio’s relationship with his uncles (and by extension with the hardline of conservatism) is also reflected in an episode from his childhood, when he was expelled from the School of Santa Librada by one of them: the general Napoleón Rivera, who at that point was the school principal. Later on, when he was working as a school inspector in the city of Ibague,14 he was invited to his home-city of Neiva, to give the graduation speech at a ladies’ school. This speech provoked a major outrage among the representatives of the clergy and the higher classes, as he spoke of the need to integrate schools and of the benefits of mixed-gender education. He also promoted the doctrines of Galileo and asked for more liberty for the students. Soon after this, he was to serve the first (out of two) terms as a member of congress. However, this experience only lasted for a few days, as he was led to resign due to the pressures of the then Bishop of Garzón: Monsignor Esteban Rojas.

The major consequence of the Thousand-days war was the separation of Panama in 1903. This led Rivera’s generation to become disenchanted with the nation’s centralising forces. It also led them to reject the intervention of foreign governments, particularly that of the United States. Like his parents, Rivera always had to deal with the pressure of being a defendant of liberal ideals, serving among the ranks of the Conservative Party. José Eustasio also found himself in the middle of the divide between the values of the rural world (where he spent most of his childhood) and that centralised impulse that aimed to model the nation in the image of Europe. In 1914, after the signature of the Thompson-Urrutia treaty, the US agreed to pay the Colombian government US$25 million in compensation for the loss of Panama. During these times of plenty, which got to be known as La danza de los millones: The dance of the millions, like the wealthy rubber barons from Manaus, the elites from Bogota preferred to invite the most prestigious theatre companies from Paris, London or Vienna (to perform in a city that got to be known as the Athens of South America) than to develop the infrastructure necessary to make sure the nation would be ready to face the challenges brought by the twentieth century.

When Rivera travelled with the commission to delineate the border with Venezuela, he was affected by the disdain that the central government has always professed towards peripheral regions. After filing several complaints because they did not receive the necessary equipment to fulfil their task, he quit the commission and decided to sail down the Orinoco, until he reached the Amazon River and eventually arrived to Manaus. In this journey, he gathered testimonies from locals who had either witnessed or suffered the atrocities of the rubber barons.

After the publication of La vorágine in 1924, Rivera achieved both national and international recognition. In 1925, during the second time he served as a member of congress, he presided over a commission to investigate the government’s misuse of public funds. In this role, he led two major investigations: one focused on acts of corruption by the Ministry of War; and the other one on irregularities in the contract to build an oleoduct between the cities of Barrancabermeja and Cartagena. During these years, he also began to write what would have been his second novel. As he had done with La vorágine in relation to the rubber industry, this one was meant to target the abuses of the emerging oil industry in Colombia. It was going to be called La mancha negra: The black stain.

His work, both as a writer and public servant, turned all sorts of powerful men against him. One of them was the then Minister of War: the general Carlos Jaramillo Isaza, who vetoed him from running for congress in the subsequent term. The most powerful among them was Henry Ford. In 1927, after learning about Ford’s intentions to make large investments in Amazonia, Rivera sent him a letter which included the following passage: ‘Unfortunately, Mr. Ford, you will colonise the jungles just when they are almost deserted. More than 30,000 Indians were exterminated in the Putumayo river basin alone, in rubber plantations, under the action of whips, clubs, and castration.’

The last episode in José Eustasio Rivera’s story ends under a cloud of conspiracy. He died in New York on 1 December 1928. He had travelled to this city to discuss terms for the translation of La vorágine and to look for opportunities for a film adaptation. While he was there, on 22 November, he witnessed the departure of the pilot Benjamín Méndez, and was invited to improvise a last-minute speech to celebrate his flight (which would be the first one between New York and Bogota). Soon after this, he began to suffer severe headaches, which became increasingly worse and then he died. Despite suffering from cefalea (headaches) and other ailments from a very young age, due to the list of powerful enemies he had made; and because his body never had an autopsy,16 there are many conspiracy theories regarding the real cause of his death.

The decades that followed unfolded as a tragic confirmation of the concerns that the poet took to his grave. Just four days after he passed away the nation experienced another traumatic event, known as the Banana Massacre. This massacre, perpetrated by the United Fruit Company in allegiance with the Colombian armed forces, would become a major turning point in another masterpiece of Colombian literature: Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One hundred years of solitude (1969). It also opened a new chapter in the subservient relationship between Colombia and the US. Throughout this period, Latin America’s feeble stance as the empire’s backyard has continued, going through new episodes (and new sources of trauma) like the Cold War and the so-called War on Drugs. The twentieth-century also reinforced a maniqueist view that began during colonial times, in which, as the late humourist Jaime Garzón17 once stated, the ideals of progress and civilisation were equated to the image of concrete, while the imagery of the tropical jungle was related to the notion of barbarism.

What remains to be seen, now that a century has passed since the days when Rivera wrote his opera magna? Beyond the conspiracy theories (past and present); beyond all the tweets and beyond all the freaks that compose the contemporary political fauna, what ultimately prevails from the world before the COVID-19 outbreak is the image of burning fire. Burning in Australia, burning in California, burning in Amazonia. The tragic destruction of millions of hectares of the most necessary ecosystems, question what Conrado Zuluaga recognised as the central premise of La vorágine. The ‘vegetable world’ that devoured the flesh of the heroes and villains in this epic depiction of the rubber holocaust, is now at the brink of destruction by the hand of another green demon. When the gurus of capital proclaimed the greenback as the almighty god, they decreed a newer testament: where greed is good and growth is endless. The prophets of profit have turned the tables in the oldest and fiercest of battles ever to be fought by the homo sapiens. Yet, despite all the power and wealth they have managed to accumulate in the process, they have failed to realise there’s no winning in this battle: because in this case, the ancient notion of victory has become a synonym of extinction.


1. Translated as The vortex.
2. Titled The War on Meats.
3. Anacaona was a Taino cacique from the island of Hispaniola who faced the Spanish conquerors led by Christopher Colombus; La Gaitana was an indigenous leader from the south of Colombia, who also fought against the Spanish conquerors; La Pola is the nickname given to Policarpa Salavarrieta, who was a heroine from the Colombian process of independence; and Doña Barbara is the main character, who gives the title to another major work of Latin American literature written by the Venezuelan author and politician Romulo Gallegos (in the novel, she is known as la devoradora de hombres: the man eater).
4. Published during the centennial anniversary of the birth of Jose Eustasio Rivera.
5. My translation.
6. Political analyst and deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.
7. Portrayed in a book later adapted into a movie titled The Lost City of Z.
8. The discovery of quinine would later become an advantage in the colonisation of Africa, as it was used for the treatment of malaria.
9. Because of the colour of rubber latex.
10. Wickham’s efforts in Amazonia allowed the British to grow rubber trees in their colonies in Southeast Asia.
11. This is the name under which Julio Cesar Arana registered his rubber-extracting business as a British company in 1907.
12. The business of rubber-extraction in Amazonia was based on a corrupt system of debt-peonage, where the collectors were charged more than what they earned to hire the equipment necessary to gather the latex (and thus became slaves of the rubber barons).
13. These are descendants of his siblings or uncles, as José Eustasio did not have any children.
14. The capital of the (now) neighbouring province of Tolima.
15. Garzón is a town located in the south of Huila, which historically has been the stronghold of conservatism in this province.
16. His body was shipped to Colombia and then transported in a mortuary parade that stopped in all the major ports of the Magdalena River. Despite all these delays, his body ended up arriving in Bogota before Benjamín Méndez’s flight.
17. Assassinated on 13 August 1999.

Mauricio Rivera Ramirez

Mauricio Rivera Ramirez is a Colombian-born, Melbourne-based, writer, journalist, scholar and visual artist with a PhD in Media and communications from RMIT University. During the past two decades he has combined his work in academia with the production of multiple journalistic, literary and audio-visual artworks.

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