Ghost in the Medellín

The Anthill: A Novel BY Julianne Pachico. New York: Doubleday. 320 pages. $26.
The cover of The Anthill: A Novel

Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill is a story of homecoming and return in urban postwar Medellín. Yet like many protagonists in the “return of the native” trope throughout the history of the novel, from Thomas Hardy’s Clym Yeobright to Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, the book’s heroine, Maria Carolina, can’t quite go home again. Set in the wake of the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC militias, The Anthill documents a city in which the twin missiles of tourism and development have begun to wreck the landscape. Within this context, Lina has come back to her home city from England after twenty years away. As a child, Lina once saw a tourist on a visit to a nearby mountain town—a sight rare enough that she still remembers it. Now, she encounters a metropolis heaving with trendy galleries, shops, and cafés, a playpen for international digital-nomad types and volunteer groups. The visitors pile into gondolas that whisk them up and down the city’s hilly promontories and there are guided tours of Pablo Escobar’s hippo-laden former estate, dubbed a “theme park” by one American visitor.

In The Anthill, Pachico returns to terrain she explored in her first book, The Lucky Ones (2017), which examined the lives of privileged students at an elite boarding school in Valle del Cauca (where Pachico grew up) from the 1990s to the 2010s. A collection of linked narratives, The Lucky Ones ranged across multiple perspectives—including the students’ servants, maids, and teachers—in order to show how decades of violence affected Colombians from various social classes. While elements of the surreal played a minor role in Pachico’s first book, they move to center stage in her second novel.

Lina’s comfortable childhood ended abruptly when, at the age of eight, her mother died in a traffic accident and her father shipped her off to boarding school in England, where he now lives and works (but mostly, we gather, drinks). With Lina’s long, expensive education finally sputtering out in the face of a doctoral thesis on Gothic fiction, she decamps from London more or less on a whim, having heard about a project started by her childhood friend Mattías in Medellín. Matty, whom Lina remembers as a bubbly and playful child, has founded a youth and community center known as the Anthill. Though Lina calls Matty her “best friend,” the truth is more disturbing: He was a child of poverty himself, whom Lina’s dreamy mother, ever in search of a cause, plucked off the streets to live with them as a not-quite son and brother. Today, Matty is intensely private, seemingly immune, at least at first, to Lina’s progressively bold bids for his attention. His focus is on promoting the Anthill and its uncanny cult of bootstrapping optimism. (“And don’t forget to make good choices!” he and the other volunteers constantly remind their charges.)

Medellín, June 2014. Photo: Iván Erre Jota/Flickr
Medellín, June 2014. Photo: Iván Erre Jota/Flickr

Our protagonist is part of a certain subgenre of millennial semi-creative—vaguely depressed, maladroit, compulsively oversharing, ever striving to close all of her internet tabs. She finds excuses to name-drop the work of Henry James, Thomas Mann, and Gabriel García Márquez to unimpressed listeners. Her narration is laden with similes that careen from the onerously resonant to the rather less elevated: A suitcase topples over “like the felled monument of a dictator after a war”; a corkscrew is described as “sticking out of the wine bottle like a weird adult version of the Sword in the Stone.”

Lina is navigating an in-betweenness that accounts for much of her malaise. Neither a foreigner nor quite one of the “locals”—like Matty and his colleague Maryluz—she strives to distinguish herself from the novel’s cast of earnest, white, predominantly monolingual American volunteers. One fellow staffer authoritatively explains Colombian history to Lina as she struggles to get a word in. Another couple reflects “that it’s wonderful they were able to get time off to travel and do something like this; with so many troubles in the world, it’s great that they’re able to help; Medellín is absolutely gorgeous, except for the Venezuelan street beggars on every corner.” One of Lina’s first social excursions in the city is to an art-gallery opening in a newly trendy districts, where the signs and advertisements—for street-graffiti tours, hiking groups, film festivals—are all in English. Lina pays careful attention who speaks Spanish “with an accent,” who is “badly accented,” and who can switch back and forth between Spanish and English at will.

Lina is resentful when Gabriela, one of the children at the Anthill, calls her a gringa. “Your Spanish is amazing!” someone else squeals at her. As she ping-pongs between euphoria and disillusionment—depending on how “native” or “foreign” an encounter makes her feel—the novel patiently analyzes the confusion and fatigue of having to answer, again and again, “Where are you from?” When Lina accompanies one of the Anthill’s children, Tomás, back home, his grandmother also speaks to her as an outsider. Lina gently corrects her:

—Actually, Lina says, sighing, I grew up here.

—Yes, Tomás’s grandmother says. But you’re not from here.

Lina can’t quite square her own proprietary claim on national identity with her expensive education, with her expatriate years as conflict raged at home, and with her uncertain class status as a lowly grad-student kept afloat by family coffers—and as a déracinée who, having joined the mobile ranks of cosmopolitan elites, jealously guards her native bona fides all the same.

She begins to push Matty aside, consigning him to the background as she attempts to take over, making suggestions as to what’s “good for the Anthill,” ordering around the volunteers, and, feeling, finally, back home again. This behavior clearly mirrors her chilling treatment of Matty when they were children—she would cheerily inform him, “I made you out of dirt . . . so I wouldn’t be lonely.”

Like The Lucky Ones, The Anthill swerves between first-, second-, and third-person narration: Lina is referred to as “you” at the start, then later as “the new volunteer.” At first, this technique appears to highlight our protagonist’s fractured sense of self: “In pubs, you’ve often talked about Colombia in a deeply amused voice, rattling off the blandly standard details from any upper-class Third World childhood.” But then it turns out that Matty is likely the narrator of the novel’s second-person sections. Though we glimpse the shock of inequality and servitude that he experienced in Lina’s family, Lina remains the star: Matty does nothing but recapitulate her story.

As the novel progresses, it deploys familiar tropes from horror and ghost stories—Lina is, after all, studying Gothic fiction—to highlight the everyday brutality of class conflict in Medellín. A small, grimy boy who is glimpsed here and there turns out to be a ghost to be literally tugged out of the closet—a version of Matty’s childhood self, haunting the Anthill’s supply room. It’s hard to tell if moments like this are meant to be earnest or parodic. At one point, Lina spews vomit near the youth pastor leading the latest fleet of volunteers; as the narrator’s tone swings from pastiche to bathos in a reckoning with Colombia’s violent past:

This dirt they’re all made of, this country that has created and taken away so much, filled with graves and mines and rifle cases and indestructible plastic, all of which will never biodegrade, will never fully fade away or disappear, not in a hundred thousand years. The bones of the massacred anonymous dead, the nameless and voiceless others who will never be recognized, never be acknowledged, never be given a chance to speak.

Recent fiction and film, from Marie NDiaye’s novels (especially Ladivine) to Mati Diop’s movie Atlantics, has used Gothic tropes and haunted-house horror to powerful effect. Mingling a realist narrative with a ghost story allows readers to linger over the uncanny clash of late-capitalist mobility, inequality, and the persistence of past violence. This can incite terror, uncertainty and panic in the privileged and precarious alike.

Pachico attempts something similar. But the ghost of Matty’s and Lina’s past is, in the end, a rather clunky motif, a “monstrously dark presence that no amount of good cheer and optimistic determination can hide,” one that “urban transformation and twenty-first-century innovation can’t hide.” The novel hurries to ask, “Has it been lurking in the background of this country the entire time?”—a question that the reader might have asked herself, given less prodding.

Victoria Baena is a writer and PhD candidate in comparative literature based in New Haven, Connecticut.