The Vortex and the Map:

Cartographic Illusion and Counter-Mapping in La vorágine (1)

Amanda Mignonne Smith

The Johns Hopkins University


How many maps, in the descriptive or geographical sense, might be needed to deal exhaustively with a given space, to code and decode all its meanings and contents? It is doubtful whether a finite number can ever be given to this sort of question.



José Eustasio Rivera (1888-1928) saved a final half-page of the notebook where he drafted the first part of La vorágine (1924) to specify where he was when he scribbled the text:

Este cuaderno viajó conmigo por todos los ríos Orinoco, Atabapo, Guaviare, Inírida, Guainía, Casiquiare, Ríonegro, Amazonas, Magdalena—durante el año 1923 cuando anduve de Abogado de la Comisión Colombiana de Límites con Venezuela y sus páginas fueron escritas en las playas, en las selvas, en los desiertos, en las popas de las canoas, en las piedras que me sirvieron de cabecera, sobre los cajones y los rollos de los cables, entre las plagas y los calores. (85r)


So integral was the mapping of this riverine frontier to the genesis of the novel that the Colombian poet returned to the first page of the manuscript and penciled the names of the rivers there as well, below his first entry (1r). In protest of what he saw as a debacle of mismanaged resources and unrealizable expectations, he had formally withdrawn from the mixed border commission that was to update the landmarks of Colombia’s eastern limits. While rejecting the work of the official border commission, though, he engaged in his own cartographic reconnaissance, traveling along rivers and interviewing Brazilian, Venezuelan, and Colombian tenant farmers as well as members of indigenous communities to exchange geographic information (2). Notebooks and papers housed at the Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia show that he sketched rudimentary maps, documenting the routes and names of major rivers and their tributaries (3). This urge to map spills over into the pages of La vorágine in what Jennifer French refers to as its “topographic drive,” which she considers key to the text’s structure and thematics (133). Besides French’s brief discussion, though, the intersection of literary and geographic mapping in this now canonical novel has mistakenly remained unconsidered.

This article bridges that critical gap in detail to reexamine La vorágine’s intellectual legacy in Latin American literature. Since its first publication, critical ambivalence and controversy have surrounded the novel. One of its most vehement critics, Colombian journalist Ricardo Sánchez Ramírez, using a pseudonym, chided the text for both its perceived literary shortcomings and what he viewed as hyperbolic depiction of the violence of the Putumayo Rubber Boom of earlier decades (1870-1910) (4). Not coincidentally, though, Sánchez Ramírez was also a former Colombian consul of Manaus, a position named directly in La vorágine as being ignorant to the country’s geography (Rivera 361). Decades later in 1969, Carlos Fuentes further disparages the novel as a novela de la tierra, “más cercana a la geografía que a la literatura” (9). Relatively recent studies by Carlos Alonso (1990), Jennifer French (2005), Charlotte Rogers (2012), and Ericka Beckman (2013) have insightfully argued that the text’s perceived provincialism in fact functions as a critical response to modernity in the forms of the literary avant-garde, British neocolonialism, madness, and export-led modernization, respectively. Yet as I show, in the immediate context of Rivera’s writing, he experienced modernity as the imposition of the fixed lines of a map onto a space that resembled a vortex. What Fuentes refers to pejoratively as the text’s closeness to geography merits attention as part of that spatial confrontation. In the geocritical analysis that follows, La vorágine serves as a point of departure into the ways that science and fiction have clashed in representing and shaping Amazonia  (5).

I argue that Rivera’s narrative representation of the jungle in La vorágine exposes Colombia’s maps as a kind of fiction themselves, a cartographic illusion, that nevertheless causes devastating consequences in the real spaces that the maps depict (6). The novel presents those consequences as local realities effaced and, therefore, denied by scientific mapping. If a map colonizes space by dividing, quantifying, and simplifying a territory in order to render it finite, uniform, knowable, and ready for use, in a Foucauldian sense, Rivera’s vertiginous vortex counter-maps. La vorágine presents confusing and interconnected space that amplifies local realities elided in Colombia’s cartographic representations, and in doing so, it also undermines the supposedly universal applicability and objectivity of scientific approaches to mapping the jungle. That this problematization of geographic representation unfolds in a novel—as opposed to Rivera’s preferred genre, poetry—speaks to the critical potential of the novel as a literary form. For Bakhtin, it “is genre that is ever questioning, ever examining itself and subjecting itself to established forms of review” (39). Not only does Rivera’s novel question a variety of forms of mapping, but in counter-mapping, it also challenges the resulting knowledge encoded in those forms. This analysis of that critical discourse begins with a consideration of the geopolitical stakes of fixing the border in order to contextualize what the commission aimed to resolve and how Amazonian topography frustrated those aims. With that physical reality in mind, a close textual analysis of La vorágine reveals not only the treachery of maps when navigating the vortex but also the ways in which its poet narrator’s literary rendering of space closely resembles the spatial abstractions of the maps he criticizes. What results is a revised interpretation of the novel’s rich geographic detail as a critical framework for understanding and using representations of space to make sense of Colombia’s complex geographic realities.

The 1903 annexation of Panama by the United States was a humiliating spectacle of Colombia’s failure to secure and defend the limits of its national territory. With attention focused on the chaos of the Thousand Days’ War (1899-1902), U.S. Forces had orchestrated Panamanian independence in order to resume construction on the canal. Although Bushnell has dismissed this geopolitical amputation as a non-issue for a country with what he deems a “relative weakness of national sentiment,” his assessment fails to consider the anxiety produced by both the economic implications of the loss and the international attention to Colombia’s geopolitical fragmentation (143). The security, protection, and documentation of national territory were key concerns driving the 1902 creation of the Oficina de Longitudes y Fronteras (7). Established to create and preserve a scientific record of Colombia’s national cartography, “levantar y mantener la cartografía del país,” this institution was the government body that organized and oversaw Rivera’s border commission and the one that he would denounce in both his public life and in La vorágine (Montáñez Gómez 19). Panama’s usurpation made the Oficina de Longitudes’s mission more urgent, for it revealed—to correct Benedict Anderson’s oft-cited definition—that the nation was in fact more than just imagined (6); rather, its sovereign limits required physical demarcation for the semblance of national presence. Lacking such cartographic markers, Colombia’s ability to self-govern had publicly been called into question. Neale-Silva insists that both the loss of Panama followed ten years later by former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt’s opposition to the proposed twenty-five-million-dollar indemnity constituted a devastating blow to Colombia’s “honor nacional” (121). Given this historical prelude to Rivera’s mapping commission, the task of marking Colombia’s eastern frontier between the Amazon and Orinoco river basins was a pressing exercise in territorial flag-staking.

The borders between both countries were first negotiated verbally in Bogotá to resolve questions of commerce and transit, but as an antidote to the geopolitical pain of the loss of Panama, the physical work of the mapping commission was largely symbolic. Matthew Edney, in his work on the British imperial mapping of India, has keenly emphasized the importance of belief in creating and maintaining the cartographic illusion of 1:1 correspondence in which the map materializes the “epistemological ideal of cartographic perfection” (24). Colombia’s long-standing border dispute with Venezuela, which began with the dissolution of Gran Colombia in 1831, had failed to produce the illusion of that ideal. Instead, faulty maps based on colonial records’ ambiguous narrative descriptions undermined Colombia’s cartographic illusion (8). Rather than resolve these issues with careful topographic survey—a logistically and economically daunting undertaking given the difficult terrain found along the eastern border—the mapping commission would attempt to erect landmarks corresponding to key geometrical points on the map. Methodologically speaking, this aim was common practice in border mapping. As Paula Rebert explains, boundary maps move through three stages—negotiation, delimitation on paper, locating and marking the boundary—only the last of which involves actually going to the disputed territory. In the last stage, the map, a representation of space, becomes the referent for the land and not the other way around. In the territory itself, the participation of Venezuelan and Colombian geographers and engineers alongside Swiss arbiters staged the appearance of a scientific process involved in the resulting maps; however, as a material undertaking, very little changed on the ground. The mapping commission did not set out to gather information for Colombia’s geographic record but rather to establish a precedent for believing that the national maps corresponded to the land. In this way, belief in cartographic illusion would neutralize territorial claims and visualize national sovereignty.

There was no room in this symbolic process to deal with any discrepancies encountered in situ, whether lack of resources or physical impediments to marking the land, and yet outcries against the unfeasibility of the mission account for a great deal of correspondence and press regarding the commission. Rivera himself returned to Bogotá, and in an open session of congress, accused Minister of Foreign Affairs Jorge Vélez of deceiving commission members by sending them without scientific equipment or tents “a pesar de que en telegramas y correspondencia apremiante de toda clase le informamos de nuestra desairada situación” (ctd. in “Se hacen” 4). Other reports of terrain incompatible with designated landmarks almost overshadow Rivera’s concerns. Even if the commission members had had the necessary scientific instruments, they would not easily have been able to employ them in the tropical ecology they traversed. On July 23, 1923, P. Lardy, a Swiss arbiter reports in a telegram to Garzón Nieto, chief of the commission’s northern section, “la imposibilidad material absoluta en que la Comisión Suiza de Expertos se encuentra de recorrer la mayor parte del territorio litigioso comprendido entre Catatumbo y el Zuila, que la selva vírgen [sic] hace impenetrable sin grandes gastos y con pérdidas infinitas de tiempo.” Where human passage was possible, rivers, the physical feature that defined the area where Rivera’s team worked, swelled with precipitation, altering the landscape and moving borders. Commission members observed firsthand the ways in which rivers belied the static lines of the maps they were helping to create. Garzón Nieto reports in an October 14, 1927 letter to the minister of foreign affairs an instance in which rising and falling water levels would cause a small island to change jurisdiction throughout the year. These reports called into question the cartographic assumptions authorizing the national maps, and the fact that Vélez failed to respond to them suggests a disinterest in acknowledging local geographic realities. Instead, landmarks were placed, however absurdly, as in the case of a hermetically sealed bottle placed beneath a toppled trunk or written on a rock in the middle of a river (Álamo Ybarra 116-17). The border commission’s work shows how mapping pitted the universalizing tendencies of scientific survey against regional variations.

All maps necessarily smooth over the textures of local realities, for abstraction and reduction are necessary maneuvers in a science that aims to scale the immensity of space to a user-friendly format. This quality of maps becomes an important theme in La vorágine articulated by Clemente Silva: ¡Cuánta diferencia entre una región y la carta que la reduce! ¡Quién le hubiera dicho que aquel papel, donde apenas cabían sus manos abiertas, encerraba espacios tan infinitos, selvas tan lóbregas, ciénagas tan letales!” (306). However, Rivera’s published comments aimed at critiquing the incompleteness of Colombia’s cartography in fact point to a more challenging problem: the maps not only lack crucial information, but their cartographic framework contains an urban bias that cannot account for the fluvial realities of Colombia’s eastern frontier.

In a series of articles he published in El Tiempo under the headline “Falsos postulados nacionales,” Rivera corrected erroneous statements made by Venezuelan diplomat Hermes García regarding the navigability of border rivers. Having both spoken with people who made daily use of those rivers as well as navigating them himself, Rivera was armed with extensive knowledge to rebut García. Likewise, when protesting the Colombian government’s failure to follow through on demands to protect the border from encroaching Peruvians such as those working for Casa Arana, Rivera emphasizes the government’s utter ignorance of jungle geography. On April 13, 1924, he writes, “¿Imaginaría nuestro Canciller que es empresa posible andar por las selvas interminables y por ríos y desiertos en busca de los invasores para hacerle a cada cuadrilla nómade la notificación del señor Prefecto?” (“Penetraciones” 64). In the same article, he notes in detail the number of days required to traverse the areas in question by river, underscoring both his extensive knowledge of Amazonian geography as well as the government’s lack thereof. As French has indicated, Rivera’s censorious statements point to the need for “internal colonization” to protect Colombia’s citizens and territories (135). However, in calling attention to a geography that undermines and contradicts information available on maps—information needed to understand, navigate, and govern these borderlands—Rivera exceeds neocolonial rhetoric to imply that cartographic standards developed outside of Amazonia simply could not account for salient aspects of Colombia’s eastern geography.

La vorágine, in the final entry of the narrator Arturo Cova, takes up this urban bias directly; for his final act of writing, he sketches a “croquis imaginado” of his location, which fails to lead rescuers to him and his party who have presumably been devoured by the jungle (383). As a metonym for geographic knowledge produced by outsiders, Cova’s ineffective imagined map points to the limits of the urban intellectual imagination in understanding Amazonian space. Cova’s map is not unique in this sense, for each of the text’s paper maps fails to orient the men. When Cova and his companions put a plan in motion to officially denounce the crimes of the rubber economy to the consul in Manaus, he blames the Oficina de Longitudes for what he sees as political inaction:

Tal vez, al escuchar la relación de don Clemente, [nuestro Cónsul en Manaos] extienda sobre la mesa aquel mapa costoso, aparatoso, mentiroso y deficientísimo que trazó la Oficina de Longitudes de Bogotá, y le responda tras de prolija indagación: ‘¡Aquí no figuran ríos de esos nombres! Quizás pertenezcan a Venezuela. Diríjase usted a Ciudad Bolívar.’ (361)


Although Cova is under duress when he writes this impassioned reproach, he nevertheless shrewdly articulates the connection between faulty cartography and the unsanctioned violence of the rubber economy. In Clemente Silva’s reliance on maps, the text zooms in on the personal impact of this cartographically caused violence. He becomes lost with his companions after fleeing the horrific conditions at the Naranjal rubber plantation and tries to evoke his memory of a map on the wall at Naranjal, which he has meticulously studied. Just as he used to run his finger along the lines of the map, observing the geography from above, he climbs a tree to try to separate himself from the land below and gain perspective. This man, known for his navigational intuitions as Brújulo and Rumbero, cannot orient himself, though, by trying to separate himself from the jungle, as in looking at a map. His companions die gruesome deaths: friends turn against each other, sudden and unapologetic fratricide ensues, a man dies grotesquely of hemoptysis bathing himself in a vomit of blood, and the remaining men are devoured, down to the bone, by carnivorous ants. Life is lost in each of these instances in which jungle space is conceived outwardly as lines on a page.

The first mechanism of the counter-map is to show an absence of such lines in its chorographic description. As Cova relays his experiences of traversing rivers and swamps, he also transcribes the narratives of those he encounters along the way, leading to a confusion of discourse that Silvia Molloy has aptly named “contagio narrativo” (489). The effect of this narrative contagion is a spatial confusion and expansion; through the act of recording others’ stories, the narrative transposes the space of the present narrative onto distant spaces from others’ stories, expanding the geographic breadth of the text. The resulting narrative descriptions erase any traces of lines, demanding alternative ways of conceiving of space. Moving from the wide, open llanos, where the urban spatial design of vanishing points and linear perspective is more easily superimposed, Cova and his companions venture off into the closed jungle, nightfall coinciding with their entry beneath the canopy  (9). Cova describes the river’s trajectory as moving circularly “hacia el vórtice de la nada,” a reference to the novel’s title as well as its vertiginous leitmotif (195). The swirling geography emphasizes that this new space has all at once precluded linear ways of understanding positionality: “Sobre el panorama crepuscular fuese ampliando mi desconsuelo, como la noche, y lentamente una misma sombra borró los perfiles del bosque estático, la línea del agua inmóvil, las siluetas de los remeros” (195). Significantly, in this passage the travelers lose sight of the fixed lines that separate and quantify things in space—profiles, riverbanks, and silhouettes. Rather than distinguishing between countable entities, Cova’s sight only tracks an enmeshed darkness. His grief (desconsuelo) grows, then, because dividing lines are his only means of understanding his relationship in space, and they are no longer available to him. Likewise, at no point do the characters—who move from Colombia to Peru to Brazil to Venezuela—encounter any physical delimitation of national borders. Only Montserrat Ordóñez’s footnoted geographical annotations reveal when they cross borders. Indeed, borders are illegible in the dense jungle; as one of Cova’s companions Helí Mesa explains, one crosses into another national territory unwittingly: “El Palomo y el Matacano estaban acampados con quince hombres en un playón, y cuando arribábamos, nos intimaron requisa a todos, diciendo que habíamos invadido territorios venezolanos” (219). These absent lines and markers undermine the mimetic illusion of the map by pointing to the absurdity of cartographic linearity in a space that Rivera describes as a vortex.

The novel further undoes maps’ functionality by showing the horrific violence that marks the lives of people found off the map. Silva, who came to the jungle in search of his runaway son, becomes entangled in a web of violently enforced debt peonage. Silva’s back is scarred from overseers whipping him. Newspaper articles—an allusion to those written by Peruvian journalist Benjamín Saldaña Rocca in 1907—arrive to the rubber camps reporting similar abuses happening elsewhere at the hands of Casa Arana. Even those who manage to escape these slave-like conditions resort to violence to survive. Cova’s group learns of a “tribu cosmopolita” of deserters who live defensively, away from the panoptic eye of the rubber economy (231). These conditions create violent obstacles to Cova’s travels because, as one of Cova’s companions explains, “si dábamos con los prófugos nos tratarían como a enemigos; y si con las barracas, nos pondrían a trabajar por el resto de nuestra vida” (121). As the men dodge these unmarked violent grooves of the earth, the narrative also tells of violence enacted on the jungle ecology by this socio-economic upheaval. The men come across litter in the jungle that includes canned fish and empty bottles, inorganic materials discarded by men working for rubber companies (240). These noxious remains mark the transit of people in remote areas of the jungle. Other ecological havoc is more pronounced and devastating. Cova compares human intervention in Amazonia to a mudslide in its devastating and reorganizing potential: “Y es de verse en algunos lugares cómo sus huellas son semejantes a los aludes: los caucheros que hay en Colombia destruyen anualmente millones de árboles. En los territorios de Venezuela el balatá desapareció. De esta suerte ejercen el fraude contra las generaciones del porvenir” (298, my emphasis). Cova emphasizes not only the drastic reconfiguring of the landscape caused by the rubber economy but also its lasting effects. The novel’s maps, those of the Oficina de Longitudes, do not account for any of these geographic changes—the regulation of men’s movement and behavior or ecological destructions—but La vorágine records them as part of Colombia’s spaces.

The nonlinear narrative vortex that occupies those spaces at first inspires its own horror. For example, early in the men’s adventures two Maipurean men are knocked into the water and sucked into the current by a gyrating whirlpool when attempting to straighten a canoe. This scene is rife with words that reference the novel’s title, structure, and principle leitmotif: “tormentoso torrente,” “vórtices,” “torbellino,” “girando en el remolino” (233). In a state of shock, Cova is so traumatized by the spinning waters that quickly swallow the men that he watches them sink beneath the surface of the water unable to act. He prefers to let them die a “bello morir,” which for him means a form of death that does not spill blood but rather hides death’s abject horror beneath the surface of the water (233). Silva, too, when lost finds himself haunted by the circularity of the jungle space: “Por tres veces en una hora volvió a salir a un mismo pantano, sin que sus camaradas reconocieran el recorrido” (306). The other men, believing they are walking in a straight line, fail to understand the relationship of their bodies in space. Only Silva is dismayed at being trapped in a circle that he is trying to escape. Inattention to the shape of the vortex spins men into a nightmare in which space repeats itself and traps them.

Yet the perceived violence of the jungle’s circularity amounts to a perspectival problem, one that has made its way into much of the critical literature on the text. Nielson, Rueda, and Wylie, for example, affirm Cova’s depiction of the jungle as a hostile space, but Rogers and Beckman have shifted away from that colonialist rhetoric to emphasize that the horrors experienced and projected onto the jungle in fact originate not in “nature” but in the imposition of modernization onto a perceived natural space. Unknowingly, Cova records information that hints to the regenerative potential of circularity as well. Because Cova is so focused on death as a frightening telos, he misses the rejuvenating potential of the Maipureans’ demise. Their hats swirl beneath “el iris que abría sus pétalos como la mariposa de la indiecita Mapiripana” (233). Told earlier in the text, the legend of Mapiripana personifies the jungle’s cruel punishment of unwanted outsiders. However, Mapiripana’s murderous revenge against a lustful missionary was only one part of the story. She also symbolizes life, “exprimiendo nubecillas, encauzando las filtraciones, buscando perlas en la felpa de los barrancos, para formar nuevas vertientes que den su tesoro claro a los grandes ríos. Gracias a ella, tienen tributarios el Orinoco y el Amazonas” (225-26). In other words, the blossoming flower at the site of truncated life—far from serving as a symbol of destruction—is rather a reminder that the jungle’s destructive forces give way to life. When later removed from the immediate threat of death, Cova, too, recognizes that the movement of the jungle “[e]s la muerte, que pasa dando la vida” (297). Cova is horrified by being pulled into the vortex because his focus is linear, with death as the end of his life. He is unable to see his participation as a small part of a complex circular ecology around him. The vortex is only threatening to Cova because he wishes to distinguish himself from it, a subject position constantly threatened by circular regeneration.

Cova’s struggle to separate himself from the surrounding geography comes very close to imitating the mechanisms of the maps that he so disdains. As he approaches his demise awaiting Silva with Alicia and his newborn son, his Cartesian subjectivity comes into acute crisis with the looming threat of becoming forever lost in the immensity of the jungle. At this moment, he writes more frequently and self-consciously. Suddenly, after hundreds of pages of narrative and spatio-temporal contagion, Cova begins acknowledging the act of writing in the present tense by starting his entries with statements such as “Esto lo escribo aquí, en el barracón de Manuel Cardoso” (381). Left to navigate the jungle on his own, Cova ceases to tell an entangled collective story and instead carefully marks his subject position, as if plotting fixed coordinates on a map. Timothy Morton identifies these sorts of “as I write” statements as a form of ecomimesis, a characteristic of nature writing that “is implicitly saying: ‘This environment is real; do not think that there is an aesthetic framework here’” (Ecology 35). According to Morton, while ecomimesis serves functionally to draw the reader into the environment, the act of “as I write” in fact prohibits this, turning the environment into an object of discourse, separate from the writer, and therefore the reader. In the case of Cova, however, calling attention to the surface of his writing serves not only to draw his rescuers into the immediacy of his desperation but also as a coping mechanism. Through writing, he asserts his geographic position and distances himself from the space around him, in an effort to protect himself from any threats to his subjectivity. As Tittler summarizes, “Cova’s attempts to save his life by escaping from the jungle are tantamount to his trying to escape from nature itself” (22). However, contrary to Tittler’s suggestion that Cova’s dissolution within the jungle’s “viscera” results from the fact that Cova “lacks an identity apart from his surroundings,” Cova disappears because he tries to maintain an identity separate from his surroundings (22). He is lost in his writing, which prevents him from observing and learning from his immediate environment: Cova’s ecomimesis is the discursive equivalent of holding out a paper map and dissociating oneself from the land that it represents. He, too, substantiates the cartographic ideal of the faulty, deficient, lying maps he has so scorned by claiming to pen his route over the land precisely and objectively. Even as he penetrates deeper in the jungle, he remains stubbornly separate from it, and with this perception fallacy, his fate is sealed.

Silva, on the other hand, goes through dramatic changes during his long stay in the jungle and acquires a different relationship to the forest that allows him to cease relying on maps. After gruesomely losing his men in the jungle, he wanders two months “ausente de sus sentidos” (314). In other words, he ceases to rely on the accustomed epistemological paradigms to make sense of the world around him. In this state, Silva must learn from others how to survive. He becomes a “bestia herbívora,” imitating monkeys’ eating habits in order to sustain himself (314). This key moment in which Silva leaves behind his humanness to become a beast himself is followed by a “repentina revelación” that saves his life (314). He suddenly remembers the legend of the cananguche palm that describes the path of the sun and begins to orient himself. Then, crucially, he is able to communicate with a palm tree:

La secreta voz de las cosas llenó su alma. ¿Será cierto que esa palmera, encumbrada en aquel destierro como un índice hacia el azul, estaba inclinándole la orientación? Verdad o mentira, él lo oyó decir. ¡Y creyó! Lo que necesitaba era una creencia definitiva. Y por el derrotero del vegetal comenzó a perseguir el propio. (315)


Following the anthropomorphized palm’s instructions, he arrives at a stream and instinctively throws leaves into it to determine its direction. From an ecocritical perspective, Silva has encountered “strange strangers” in the jungle (Morton, The Ecological 41). According to Morton, such encounters involve a Freudian sense of the uncanny because they reveal likeness and interconnectedness across species (The Ecological 81). Silva’s ability to relinquish a perspective of difference with his surrounding environment and instead strangely and uncannily recognize himself as like the monkeys and the palm saves him. He begins to navigate the jungle, and a group of Albuquerques finds him and nurses him back to health. Through these experiences of becoming lost and losing access to urban ways of knowing space, Silva is able to access geographical information directly from the world around him. His integration with his surrounding space depends on intuition and integration with Amazonia, possibilities denied by the distance implied in holding out a map to study geography.

Silva’s relationship to the space of Rivera’s mapping commission directly contrasts with Cova’s. Silva has already undergone these transformations when he meets Cova and his group, and when he first appears to them, he graphically embodies his acceptance of his place in the jungle’s ecology. When the men examine his wounds, they discover worms living off of Silva’s rotting flesh. Silva’s reticence to show his wounds suggests that although he feigns surprise—“¿Será posible? ¡Qué humillación!”—he is probably already aware of the parasites living off of his body (246). He even knows when he became infected, “¡Y fue que un día me quedé dormido y me sorprendieron los moscones!” (246). For Silva, his condition is perfectly logical if not inevitable. He has already confronted the uncanny experience of recognizing himself in the forest monkeys and understanding the language of the palm tree, and he knows that the jungle is as much inside of him as outside. He seems almost amused by his liminal state between life and death—“¡Engusanado, engusanado y estando vivo!” (246). Cova makes every effort to avoid such blurring in his writing and he perishes. Silva, though, walks the line between life and death and survives.

The way out of the jungle is unexpectedly the way in—to become part of it and move with it. Silva saves himself by listening, communicating with, and learning from other species how to be part of the space around him. For this reason Jean Franco errs when she suggests that in La vorágine, “El hombre es castigado por sus ilusiones pero lo que contribuye a su derrota es su propia naturaleza, su instinto animal” (144). Certainly, men are punished in the novel for their illusions—or rather, delusions—however, animal instinct, grounded in the surrounding space, would in fact protect Cova from these illusions. Cova uses rationality to try to control the jungle and himself, using words to impose a binary between him and the surrounding space. As Lefebvre asserts, though, “Man does not live by words alone; all subjects are situated in a space in which they must either recognize themselves or lose themselves, a space which they may both enjoy and modify” (35). Cova’s tactics of non-recognition lead to losing himself, to becoming literally lost. By contrast, Silva abandons rationality and by the end of the novel, moves freely in and out of the jungle, finally avoiding detection, trapping, and getting lost, and he has done so by going so far into the jungle so as to slough off linear ways of trying to grasp space. Despite the fact that Cova has carefully related Silva’s story in his diary, he fails to internalize its lessons. Instead, Cova clings to an urban linearity that leads him nowhere.

The fact that Cova’s strategies so closely resemble cartographic tendencies blurs the differences between maps and Cova’s narrative description as representations of space, but these modes of representation do not become equivalent. Cova’s faulty map results in a misrepresentation of Amazonian geography and the disappearance of a small group of people. The government maps, on the other hand, obscure slavery, torture, murder, and the ecological destruction of the rubber economy; the stakes are not the same. Furthermore, though, La vorágine is after all a work of fiction, narrated by en emotional and volatile poet and prefaced with a prologue by Rivera who claims, “respeté el estilo y hasta las incorrecciones del infortunado escritor” (75). In other words, it calls attention to its representational abstractions, allowing the text to do what the map cannot: reflect on and criticize them. Lefebvre—referring to scientific processes—reminds that reduction is necessary to deal with the complexity and chaos of observation: “This kind of simplification is necessary at first, but it must be quickly followed by the gradual restoration of what has thus been temporarily set aside for the sake of analysis” (105). The maps in La vorágine do not allow for such a restoration, turning reduction into reductionism. The text itself, though, encourages readers to see beyond the representational reductions of mapping. In this way, La vorágine marks a subtle distinction between fiction and non-fiction, art and science; whereas both employ mechanisms of abstraction, science hides those abstractions, and art can call attention to them.

 As a counter-map, La vorágine does not supplant one method of reductionism for another, but rather compels the expansion of one’s spatial perspective beyond the map—to step back from the representational frame and see it as such. Jennifer French mistakenly concludes, then, that La vorágine “is a new, verbal map to replace the antiquated government maps of which the characters repeatedly complain” (132). The problem is not that the government maps are antiquated but that they are based on scientific epistemologies insufficient for navigating Amazonia. Far from trying to dispense with maps altogether—an equally deficient method for understanding and protecting Amazonia—La vorágine compels a different approach toward understanding Amazonian space, one exemplified by Silva’s methods. It also urges new methods for using and understanding spatial representations. The counter-map, then, is not another map but a different way of approaching maps that makes them more useful by taking their cartographic illusions into account and suggesting that other realities and sources of geographic knowledge may exist beyond the page. Tragically, then, after the publication of La vorágine, people would often dismiss sensationalist non-fiction accounts of abuses and devastation in the jungle as “cosas de La vorágine” (Rivera, “La vorágine y sus críticos” 69). In this response, the delicate balance of belief needed to understand representation becomes painstakingly urgent, for if La vorágine exposes the dangers of taking the cartographic ideal too seriously, its reception reveals the dangers of not taking it seriously enough. La vorágine suggests that the crimes and territorial usurpations of the rubber economy would not have gone unchecked if people outside of Amazonia could see beyond the map.

The necessity of considering the geographic complexities elided by cartographic lines remains a pressing concern in Colombia today. A recent article in El Tiempo describes a twenty-first century instance of the use of maps to deny damage caused, this time, by multinational companies. With a title that alludes to the final lines of La vorágine, the article “Los pueblos que se tragó el carbon” discusses the forced displacement of approximately 2,000 people in three towns of Colombia’s César department along the northern border of Venezuela due to unsafe contamination levels caused by mining (10). Three multinational corporations, CNR, Drummond, and Prodeco, who in the nineties promised to bring prosperity to the department, instead brought devastating pollution that has threatened people’s health and access to food and water. Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced persons in the world, but the article explains that this is the first time “que se produce un reasentamiento (en las últimas, un desplazamiento forzoso) por las críticas condiciones ambientales que ha generado la minería. A Boquerón, Plan Bonito y El Hatillo se los tragó el carbón. Literalmente” (Escárraga) (11)In 2010 the minister of the environment ordered the three multinational companies to relocate the populations. Drummond—in a statement eerily similar to Cova’s ventriloquism of the Colombian consul in Manaus—says that it will do so despite the fact that “ninguna de las poblaciones queda dentro de nuestros contratos de concesión ni de influencia directa” (ctd. in Escárraga). An interactive map available through El Tiempo supports this statement visually, showing that the three towns in question are situated outside the purview of Drummond mining. The map’s borderlines appear thick and stable and fail to show the way the ecological effects of each corporation extend beyond the lines demarcating their territories, affecting human lives. Long after the rubber boom, then, La vorágine beckons an urgent rereading as an indictment of unchecked belief in cartographic illusion.




(1). I would like to acknowledge Elsa, Gustavo, and Mauricio Patiño, and Tulia Peña, who generously hosted me in Bogotá during my archival research for this article.  


(2). Rivera reports this activity in his “Informe de la Comisión de Límites con Venezuela,” written with his friend and colleague, Melitón Escóbar Larrazábal, who had also quit his position with the commission.


(3). I am referring to the manuscripts listed in the BNC’s catalogue as “Cuaderno de notas,” “Mapa no. 1,” “Mapa no. 2,” Mapa no. 3,” and “Croquis del Ríos Isana.”


(4). Both Neale-Silva and Rodríguez Arenas have thoroughly examined this controversy.


(5). Bertrand Westphal and his translator Robert Tally have emphasized the need for geo-centered literary analysis to excavate the ways in which literature shapes space and mediates experiences of space. My analysis follows their imperative and dialogues with a variety of different approaches to spatial analysis including historical geography, Lefebvre’s sociological and philosophical inquiries into space, and ecocritical theory.


(6). I borrow the term “cartographic illusion” from Harley who uses it to refer to the “illusion of cartographic objectivity” in the representation of space (82).


(7). This institution operates today under the name Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi in Bogotá.


(8). See Álamo Ybarra for a thorough history of the problems with the geographic records of this border since Gran Colombia.


(9). Lefebvre convincingly argues that linear perspective is a construct that grew out of the urbanization of Tuscany: “The artists ‘discovered’ perspective and developed the theory of it because a space in perspective lay before them, because such a space had already been produced” (79).


(10). Although the novel’s final line is “¡Los devoró la selva!” it was famously misquoted by Carlos Fuentes as “¡Se los tragó la selva!”—a line that continues to be popularly associated with the novel (9).


(11). The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates the number of IPDs in Colombia in 2012 to be between 4,900,000 and 5,500,000. See “Global Statistics.”



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