Hernán Hoyos sits in front of me at a table in his house sipping his café tinto. At 86, he looks the same as he did throughout his adult life: thin and short, hair cropped close to his small head, a big gap in his lower teeth, bushy eyebrows over small, bright eyes, and dressed in a blue-striped shirt and khaki slacks. There is no indication in how he dresses or carries himself that he was ever the best-selling writer in Cali, the man who in the 1970s sold more books than Gabriel García Márquez (that is, before European agents and publishers made García Márquez a hot global commodity).
Hernán lives up in the hills in Nuevo Napoles in a very modest home he built with the profits from his books. When he first moved here, his house was one of the few on the lush, tropical hillside, but today the city has arrived and with it a mass of people, motorcycles, corner stores, and improvised concrete and tin houses. He lives in the house with his wife, daughter, and a granddaughter. He had with him at all times a kangaroo pouch he wears under his shirt. In it he carries money, his identity card, phone numbers of close friends handwritten on a scrap of paper, and a list of his novels in case he should lose his memory (which is fading pretty fast).
In his studio, which is also the living room, there are old paperback books strewn around his desk and shelves, plus several old typewriters. The original typewritten manuscripts of his books are piled haphazardly in a large, open cardboard box collecting dust. He has none of the original editions of his books and none of the original cover art, and has never even bothered to copyright his work. When I tell him I’d like to translate one of his novels and get it published in Europe or in the United States, he simply tells me to send along his share of the money when it comes out.
Before he started to make money from his books he worked as a receptionist in a hotel, a factory worker, and a salesman of electronic appliances and car parts. He had steady jobs with several newspapers, usually just titling articles or elaborating on the international news updates that arrived from UP cables. He worked hard and always made enough money to frequent brothels, which, until he got married, was for him the reason a man needs money.
He also worked in a library for a few months, where in his spare time he wrote a novel based on the real-life story of a 17th-century Spanish nun who left her convent after a doctor raped her. Years later, dressed as a man, she went to see the doctor, challenged him to a duel, killed him, and afterward sailed off to fight with the Spanish army in the New World. On the way there, the boat sank outside Veracruz, killing everyone on board. In Hernán’s novel, however, the nun survives and, dressed as a man, has a string of adventures in Mexico. Hernán followed this up with El callejon de San Roque, the first Colombian novel to deal with sicarios (hired killers) and the violence they perpetrated in the streets of Cali. Both books, however, met with limited success.
One day, over coffee, Hernán and his friend José Parda Llada, a Cuban who, though he was gay, had been buddies with Fidel Castro and had fought with him in the Sierra Maestra, started to talk about sex. José was living in Cali, working for newspapers and as an announcer on the radio, as well as organizing beauty contests. Hearing Hernán talk about his own sexual adventures in the city’s brothels, and about his attempts at writing “serious” novels, José suggested he should write a Kinsey Report for Cali in which he collected data about the sexual habits of the local inhabitants. Hernán accepted the challenge but did it his way: “Instead of writing an academic essay, I realized that if I wrote about the sexual lives of people of different sexes, preferences, and economic situations, I could give a good idea of what sex was like in Cali.”
Hernán began by interviewing some male and female members of a swank social club, but he then went on to speak with artists, intellectuals, and journalists from the middle class, and pimps and prostitutes, including transvestites, from the zona de tolerancia. He also interviewed an 18-year-old Black model, two high-school girls, a widow, homosexuals, a “seducer,” a person with learning difficulties, a man who had raped his cellmate in jail, and even a priest he was working for (who, like the 18-year-old model, had little to tell, having had no sex life). To all the interviews he carried with him his trusty Hermes Baby portable typewriter (he was a very fast typist) and, for the interviews he did in the zona de tolerancia, he also brought along a gun.
The final product of his interviews was Crónicas de la vida sexual (Chronicles of Sex Lives), a compendium of live sex acts in the words of the people themselves, published in 1968. “I preferred to give the reader autobiographical stories to make them an accomplice to the spontaneous, fresh, at times primitive flavor of certain narrators who might never have written them themselves.”
Hernán made a point of being accurate. As he states in the short introduction:
The concepts, vocabulary, and syntax of the people I interviewed have been carefully respected. This is the origin of the improprieties, repetitions, lack of coherence, and the cacophony of the dialogues. I apologize for the use of vulgar language but this was necessary so that some of those whom I interviewed could more easily understand the questions.
Hernán paid for the printing of Crónicas and gave José Parda Llada 10 percent of the total sales in exchange for publicity in newspapers and on the radio. With the influential José plugging his book several times a day on the radio as the first “absolutely pornographic” book written in Cali, 2,500 copies were sold within two weeks, with lines of people forming in the main bookstore in Cali, something unheard of in what is considered an un-literary city. When he began distributing the book to corner newsstands, where the pornographic magazines (both imported and local) were sold, sales increased rapidly.
After the success of his first nonfiction book, he compiled another series of interviews with locals about their sex lives, which also became a best seller. Certain he had found his role in life, he burned his earlier novels and started a new career writing books of sex-fiction, as he called them, that is, novels usually based on real life and real sex, both his own and that of others. At the peak of his production, he would be hard at work writing four different books on four different typewriters, simultaneously. His called his self-publishing house Ediciones Exclusivas and offered three genres of books, “social, adventure and mystery, and erotic,” all written by Hernán and all typed, printed, and bound by him, as well.
Hernán’s fame grew as quickly as his literary output. Between the 1960s and ’80s, he would write more than 40 books. As he told me: “I wrote about sex because I wanted to make a living from my writing, I wanted to be able to sell my books.” The formula worked wonders, especially with the titillating titles and sexy artwork on the covers that he chose.
The books were published as pulp-sized pocket books (based on the format of Reader’s Digest) with bright color covers. Some covers had artwork drawn by a cartoonist friend who adapted images from photographs Hernán would cut out from European men’s magazines. In one edition of El Tumbalocas (The Lady-Killer), the cover is a hand-colored photograph of a woman lying naked with a man in bed, her nipples painted red. On the cover of another edition of the same book, the inked shadow of a man includes a giant phallus. For Sin calzones llegó la desconocida (The Mysterious Woman Arrived Without Underwear), the cover bears a photograph of a sexy blonde leaning against a door with lace panties in hand. For 008 contra Sancocho (008 vs. Chicken Soup), the cover drawing shows an old man with a magnifying glass examining a handprint on the butt of a waitress wearing a baby-doll dress.
In total, Hernán sold more than 500,000 copies of his self-published books. He used his house as a warehouse and distributed them himself, traveling to cities all around the country to leave books on consignment.
Hernán revolutionized Colombian literature by introducing a wide variety of sex acts into real-life situations in his novels, instilling within his readers not only a greater appreciation of human sexuality but also a love for pulp fiction. To get an idea of his popularity in Cali, when José Parda Llada gave a talk about journalism and literature in an all-female high school and asked the students how many had heard of García Márquez, only two or three responded, but when he asked how many had read the work of Hernán Hoyos everyone in the class raised their hands.
As Hernán’s fame spread, people, especially women, began to come to his house to tell him their sexual history on the chance that they might wind up as a character in one of his novels. In this way, Hernán came to know intimately the ins and outs of the sex lives of caleños. A 16-year-old girl he interviewed described her sex life in such detail that Hernán wrote it down practically verbatim. While working on her life story with the writer, the girl herself started to write and wound up composing the last chapter with Hernán. The book, La Colegiala (The High-School Student), published under his name, was a big commercial success.
In the novel La Alcahueta (The Female Pimp), based on interviews he conducted with an elderly lady living in the center of the city, the main character of the book starts renting out rooms in her house by the hour to people seeking a place to consummate their furtive pleasure. As the novel shows, a woman could achieve not only self-realization and liberation through sexual activity but also social mobility, something very hard to come by in the provincial city of Cali.
Within the Church and even in the literary circles in Cali, virginity had always been viewed as a virtue to be saved until marriage. In Hernán’s novels, however, it is something to get out of the way as soon as possible in order for a woman to start enjoying her own body and, if she so desires, to make a living from it. The married women, single women, and prostitutes in his novels enjoy the sex they have, and they are often the ones who instigate intimate contact with men. His many female protagonists aren’t made to pay for the “sin” of enjoying themselves — a healthy liberation from the oppressive morality preached by the Church. In addition, Hernán doesn’t make distinctions between the sex lives of different social or economic classes, including working women, and his characters are more racially diverse than those of any other writer of the time.
More than even the sex, it was the direct, crude language of the streets that excited his readers in Cali. Hernán used contemporary slang and gutter language not only to sell books but also to subvert the literary, academic, and Catholic sensibilities of the time. Consequently, a long list of established writers denounced the vulgarity and perversity of his work, disqualifying it from the realm of literature.
It is impossible to understand the revolutionary nature of Hernán’s writing outside the context of Colombian literature of the mid-20th century. Writers before him (and even most afterward) have tended to approach the female body through the equivalent of a literary “soft focus,” enveloping it in metaphors drawn from nature, never expressing the true physicality and sexuality of women. Hernán cut through this hypocritical pabulum with an insistence on presenting the desires and words of real people in a real place at a real time, free from social taboos.
The language employed in Hernán’s novels can be seen as a compendium of local sex slang. For instance, the term pollo asado (roasted chicken) is often used to describe the position of a naked woman lying on her back with her legs up in the air. Men’s penises are described as organs, weapons, snakes, or are called, affectionately, Don Pepe. Women’s vaginas are referred to as forests, tunnels, arepas, red cauliflower, and also as Central America. Gay sex is described as rice with shark meat or playing with the other team. Even his last name, Hoyos (holes), sounds like a play on words and the name a pornographer might give himself.
Hernán’s novels of the late 1960s and ’70s were an attack on censorship, which was quite a strong force in the Catholic Church–controlled culture of the city and a social ill that his idol Henry Miller was fighting in the US courts at that time. He was, in some ways, a combination of Miller and Lenny Bruce, with a dash of Kinsey and Wilhelm Reich. And his one-man, self-publishing house did for local culture in Cali what Olympia Press did for international literature, and came close to selling as many books, as well.
Although he became a local legend for his sex-novels, it was the last, sexless novel that he wrote that would most change the course of Colombian literature. Coca, written and self-published in 1977, is a true crime novel that chronicles the last year in the life of Jaime Caicedo Caicedo, alias El Grillo. El Grillo started out as a second-story man and a petty thief but then went on to syndicate crime in the city with his organization Atracos S.A. (Robbery Inc.), which converted him into Cali’s King of Thieves. Eventually, he became the first man to globalize cocaine trafficking (his activities would give rise to the Cali Cartel, the largest distributor of cocaine in the world). With the profits from robberies and cocaine trafficking, El Grillo bought and managed 13 bars and dance clubs throughout the city, with names like Picapiedra (which means Flintstone but is a reference to chopping up cocaine crystals), La Naranja Mecánica (Clockwork Orange), and Tiempos Viejos (Old Times), at one time employing up to 6,000 people in his different businesses, both legal and illicit.
Coca was the first novel in Colombia that dealt with the cocaine drug trade, focusing on everything from its production to its distribution, and including the new narco culture of sex, drugs, prostitution, and violence that was reshaping Cali. Not just a passive observer to the story, Hernán forms part of the rise of El Grillo. In one scene, a reporter publishes the first article that mentions the main character’s illegal activities, which brings the mafioso greater fame and notoriety; this happens to be just what Hernán did for El Grillo when he was writing for a local newspaper. And just like in the novel, Hernán, a gun in his pocket, stood his ground when confronted by an angry, vengeful El Grillo, telling the jefe that while his job was crime, Hernán’s job was to write about criminals (the news dispatches which appear throughout the novel reflect the reportorial work Hernán was doing at the time for the local newspaper).
Coca, a taut, gripping, but faithful-to-the-facts novel and a best seller in its time, which gave birth to the most popular genre of literature in Colombia today, the narco novela.
Coca: An Excerpt
One Saturday, feeling as if he had recovered from his wounds, Zoilo arrived at Babylonia in his black Ford. He wore an electric-blue suit with a white silk tie, and was accompanied by King Kong, Curly, and Armadillo. The ex-guerrilla was wearing a shirt, tie, jacket, and corduroy pants.
Carlota, Raquel, and Liliana had just come back from the US. They were waiting at a table with a large basket of flowers for Zoilo.
Zoilo walked in and sat down at the table with the ladies.
Everyone applauded and whistled, and the mariachis played his favorite song, “El Rey.”
When the song finished, there were more applause and whistles, and several people got up from their tables to shake Zoilo’s hand.
A few days later, Zoilo traded his black Ford for a large, flashy, beige Chevrolet with wings on the tail, bought cheap from Benvenuto, an Italian who made a living stealing cars from Venezuela and smuggling them into Colombia. The weapon he always carried with him to get across the border safely was a large wad of dollar bills.
By slipping some money to Z-4 agents and to people who worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles, Zoilo got the car’s papers in order.
Zoilo would drive around Cali in his flashy Chevrolet, wearing a brightly colored sports shirt, without his bodyguards, circling Plaza Caycedo, waving and smiling to those he knew.
Around that time, a reporter wrote an article that was published in a local magazine in which he called Zoilo “the Boss of Cali,” and described him as a criminal and drug trafficker.
Thousands of people read about the life of the gangster they would see every day casually driving around the streets of the city.
At first, Zoilo was incensed. He called the reporter and told him he wanted to meet him outside the offices of the magazine. The reporter was young and audacious, and agreed to meet Zoilo. The day of the meeting, the reporter stuck a gun into his pants.
Zoilo showed up with King Kong and Curly.
In full view of all the people walking by on the street, Zoilo, his hand in his pocket, threatened the reporter.
If you mention me again in your magazine, I’ll kill you.
The young man, his hand also in his pocket, stood his ground.
My job is to write. You don’t frighten me.
The reaction to the article, however, came as a surprise to Zoilo. People who had never greeted him before now went out of their way to do so. Everyone smiled when he walked by. Everyone talked about him. Reporters from other magazines and newspapers asked to interview him.
In the end, Zoilo was thrilled. He sent a message to the reporter saying that he wasn’t angry anymore and even thanked him for the article.
Translated by Kurt Hollander
Hernán Hoyos died on October 5, 2021.
Kurt Hollander is a writer, literary translator, and fine art/documentary photographer. Originally from downtown New York City, he lived in Mexico City for many years and has been living in Cali, Colombia, for the past seven. Kurt has just finished The Joyous Life, a book and photography project about the working-class culture of sex in Cali (which includes a discussion of the work of Hernán Hoyos), as well as a translation into English of Hoyos’s masterpiece, Coca, and is looking for a publisher.