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Stateside Podcast: Coded love letters inspire debut novel

Love in Four Dots, a novel written by Juan Garcés, tells the story of two young lovers during a tragic period of Colombian history. The story is based on a series of coded love letters that were sent between two lovers, Sofía and Federico, during the Thousand Day War.

These rich love letters were written in a secret code within the pages of an 1844 copy of the classic Spanish novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Sofía and Federico used the novel to smuggle their messages back and forth while Federico was held in military prison.

 Juan Garces
April Van Buren/Michigan Radio

Years later, Garcés discovered these letters, which inspired his novel, Love in Four Dots.

Garcés first stumbled upon the copy of Don Quixote in a second-hand antique object-store. He was attracted to this pocket-sized book because of its beautiful engravings and prints made by hand.

“I bought it because of the images,” said Garcés.

 Engraving showing Don Quixote kneeling behind a peasant girl he thought to be Dulcinea.
Courtesy of Juan Garcés
Engraving showing Don Quixote kneeling behind a peasant girl he thought to be Dulcinea.

A year later, exhausted by his chemistry final exams, Garcés picked up his copy of Don Quixote off the shelf. Like a magic guiding hand, Garcés said the book opened right to the page where Sofía wrote her first letter to Federico.

The title of the book, Love in Four Dots, came from Garcés’ first discovery of these coded letters, which began with a dot under the Spanish word for love: amor.

“That defines the whole story because, from that little discovery, the whole thing followed,” explained Garcés. “Over the years, it finally gave me the complete story.”

Garcés found it fairly easy to crack the secret code.

“It was just a matter of copying the letters above the pencil dots that they had put in the book,” said Garcés. “Joining the letters, I got words and eventually sentences, and then six fantastic letters, part love letters, part political intrigue.”

In writing the story of Sofía and Federico, Garcés had to imagine what these characters would be like. He luckily recognized his close connections with these characters as his ancestors came from the city where the letters were written.

“It was not difficult for me to imagine how these people look. I had, as models, my own relatives and I had pictures of my grandparents that presumably were contemporary with Sofía and Federico and lived in the same city,” said Garcés.

More connections between Garcés and these characters surfaced as Garcés researched the lives of the real Sofía and Federico.

Garcés recounts hearing his grandfather, Antonio, who was a veteran during the Thousand Day War, telling stories about his time in prison while sipping a strong cup of coffee.

Hotel Monasterio patio. This was my model for the revolt in the prison. We slept in a room similar to Federico’s at 300 feet from his cell.
Courtesy of Juan Garcés
Hotel Monasterio patio. This was my model for the revolt in the prison. We slept in a room similar to Federico’s at 300 feet from his cell.

“Tied up with ropes, barefoot, and then thrown up in a jail where he spent some time,” said Garcés. “When I did the research on the novel, I came to the conclusion that most likely, that was the same prison where Federico had been.”

His grandfather provided Garcés with imagery to enhance the story of what it was like to be held in prison during this war. Garcés even included Antonio as a character who was imprisoned alongside Federico in the novel.

Thousand Day War
Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain
Thousand Day War

The Thousand Days War took place between 1899 and 1902 and was a civil war in which liberal and conservative political factions were fighting. It was a devastating conflict, and Garcés said it had an immense impact on Colombian families and culture.

“I think my grandfather suffered all his life until the day he died because of that war,” said Garcés. “He survived and lived, but his emotional memory was after him constantly. He never never stopped thinking about that war.”

Decades passed between Garcés’ discovery of the letters and writing Love in Four Dots. In the meantime, he worked at Midland’s Dow Chemical, got married, and had kids. However, he never stopped thinking about Sofía and Federico.

 Coded letter
Courtesy of Juan Garcés
Coded letter

“The mystery of the story was dancing between my temples over many years, and I never abandoned it,” he said.

After retiring from his career as a chemist, Garcés sought out more information about the real life Sofia and Federico. He even took a trip to Popayán, where he spent time combing through the city’s archives. It was there that he found the property records that tied the story together.

He felt especially drawn to writing this story because very little has been written about the southern part of Colombia, which was one of the key centers of the Thousand Day War.

I felt like an obligation to bring this that was buried between the lines of Don Quixote to the light. Tell people about what happened to these two lovers and the people around them, and what happened in Colombia at the time,” he said.

Even after publishing the book, Garcés said he continues to make discoveries about Sofía and Federico.

“Six months after I published the Spanish version, I got a phone call to my home and said ... I am the granddaughter of Federico and Sofía,” said Garcés “That was like being hit by lightning.”

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Tessa is a senior student studying Broadcast Journalism and Theatre at Michigan State University and she joined the Stateside team as a production intern in June 2023.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.