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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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