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EL ESPECTADOR

When A Writer Meets His Fictional Character In Real Life

Colombian novelist Héctor Abad Faciolince recounts how a man in Denmark claimed to have lived exactly as one of the writer's characters. Eventually, the two would meet.

Hector Abad Faciolince
Hector Abad Faciolince
Héctor Abad Faciolince

BOGOTÁ — You tended to change your email account over the years. Hotmail, Yahoo, or Une here in Colombia ... until Gmail absorbed it all and you forget some of the stories left behind in the old addresses. They become like the locations of former homes, falling into decay over the years or decades before they disappear. Indeed, they become inaccessible and prevented reconstruction with bits of the past that exist either exactly in the correspondence, or vaguely and transformed, in one's memory.

It is for these email changes that I cannot precisely rebuild the start of my story with a compatriot who has been living in Copenhagen for nearly 50 years now, without ever returning home to Colombia, and who sent me an email at the start of the millennium to state something like, "You do not know it, but Davanzati exists: I am Bernardo Davanzati."

Davanzati is the protagonist of one of my novels, Basura ("Trash"), published in Spain in 2000. Its main character is an old man who wrote a couple of books nobody read, and who now lives alone and writes compulsively, though for nobody, as he tosses out everything he writes.

I've often received emails from a female reader saying something like "I really identified with the book," or another one thanks me by saying "your novel clearly states something I have long believed." But it is rare to receive a message by an unknown person who insists they are one of my characters. And that happened to me more than 15 years ago, with the message sent by the most unusual of correspondents, actually named Hernando Cardona.

There is something in this work that attracts the attention of the disturbed. And yet...

As best I recall, I was initially cordial and discreet with him, though I imagine almost certainly reticent. There are too many crazies in the world and you cannot correspond with every deranged individual who sends you an email. There is something in this work that attracts the attention of the disturbed, the way church spires attract lightning. But this Davanzati doppelganger wrote very well, and he gradually gave me arguments and autobiographical data to confirm his extraordinary resemblance to my fictional character. My sense of curiosity and bemusement peaked when Cardona informed me that as his daily language was now Danish, he had translated Basura into that language so some of his female friends could read his life story, not as fragments revealed in conversations, but just as it was.

About 10 years ago, "Hernando Davanzati" let me know he had finished translating Basura and many of his friends had duly read his life story, which made him feel better.

Now, there is something in the lives of certain characters that even their authors do not entirely know. In the life of Davanzati, there are certain secrets that are difficult for me to disentangle: obscure episodes from his professional past (drug trafficking, or corruption or guerrilla activity?), unspeakable events of his private life (a spurned child or a devastating love affair), and many dispersed writings impossible to find.

Which is why I dreamed for years of going to Copenhagen to seek out Cardona. I wanted to meet Bernardo Davanzati. Yet every time I suggested it, Cardona discouraged me. Was it all a lie then — his existence, similarity and the translation? Ten years ago, without telling him, I went to Copenhagen for another reason. The first thing I did after arriving was to go to the address I had for Cardona. I rang the bell and then I had no doubt — it was him. And he recognized me. We went to visit the tomb of Hans Christian Andersen and then had lunch. Now I know my character's secret past. Bernardo Davanzati exists in reality, and cannot be anyone other than Hernando Cardona.

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