Juan Gabriel Vásquez was eight when his father showed him where Rafael Uribe Uribe was butchered.
He was told that the Colombian civil war general was killed by two men with hatchets in Bogotá’s historic district. This area, La Candelaria, has come to have a special place in the mind and work of Vásquez, who many consider the nation’s finest living author.
“My novels are always at least partially set there,” said Vásquez from his living room further north in the capital.
Now that he has returned to again reside in his home city, after spending 15 years abroad in Europe, he makes a regular pilgrimage to the stone streets of La Candelaria to revisit the locations of infamous deaths.
There is the nation-altering site where populist political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated in 1948. He stops at the spot of the great poet José Asunción Silva’s suicide. Then comes the place where South America’s liberator, Simón Bolívar, narrowly escaped death. And he always returns to where his father told him that Uribe Uribe was killed with an ax.
“It’s terribly morbid,” said Vásquez. “It’s my death tour.”
Vásquez is not a dark man. In his kitchen is a chalkboard with fresh drawings by one of his daughters, and on the day he spoke with The City Paper, he chose to wear a thin, light-blue shirt more befitting a coastal vacation than a high-mountain capital. His eyes, through sleek glasses, cannot hide the excitement over the day’s upcoming football match between Colombia and Ecuador that he will watch with his father.
But the death tour reaffirms the historical importance of a place whose presence is even stronger in Vásquez’s childhood memories than it is in real life. “Deepest Candelaria is a place out of time,” he writes in his award-winning New York Times-bestselling book The Sound of Things Falling.
Colombia is the Bogotá-born novelist’s muse, and no other corner of the country inspires his imagination like La Candelaria. It is where he first learned about his nation’s history and the lens through which he frames his attempts to further discover his homeland today.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez had to leave home. It is what great novelists do, and his destination was not really a choice but a calling.
Paris was a beacon that drew him in. Hemingway. Joyce. Wharton. Fitzgerald. Dos Passos. Mailer. They had all gone there, so a 23-year-old Vásquez enrolled in a Ph.D. literature program at the renowned Sorbonne, less as an academic pursuit than as a reason to live in a sacred literary city.
“I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the people who I admired,” said Vásquez. He admits that, “I was a walking cliché.”
He wrote and published two books there in the 1990s. On the surface, Vásquez had realized his dream, and his novel even got some good reviews. But it did not work for him. He was a professional author, but he didn’t feel successful. He felt that he had published the literary equivalent of a dress rehearsal rather than a finished performance.
“I realized that I could write a sentence, but I didn’t know what to write about,” said Vásquez. “I didn’t have a subject.”
It was a time of crisis. Vásquez began to doubt whether this writing life would unfold as he expected. He was sure about one thing, however: His days in France were over. Juan Gabriel left first for Belgium, before settling in Barcelona.
He chose the Spanish city for two reasons. The first was its role in the Latin American literary boom four decades earlier. Colombian luminary Gabriel García Márquez and Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa had both lived there.
In a more practical sense, Barcelona was, at the time, an affordable city for a person committed to only living off money earned writing in Spanish.
His anxiety was rooted in a shortcoming: He knew the subject of his work had to be Colombia, but he also believed he didn’t truly know his home country. Ernest Hemingway had said a person can only write what he knows, and this edict was embedded into Vásquez’s core.
With reflection, however, he had an epiphany that would go on to define his career.
“I started slowly to realize that not knowing my country — not understanding my country — is the best reason to write about it,” said Vásquez. “That feeling that I felt as a shortcoming is not a shortcoming. It’s the reason to do literature. Novels are not written when you absolutely know something and you show it to the world. Novels are acts of discovery.”
The connection of this revelation to his later work is not lost on Juan Gabriel. During a period of confusion and self-discovery, he came up with the idea that he would write books about characters obsessed with discovering Colombia’s past.
“My novels, since The Informers, always take, in a way, the shape of an investigation,” said Vásquez. “Narrators are always going into places they don’t know and finding out about them.”
The Informers, his first novel to be translated into English, focuses on a dark, little-known period in Colombian history during World War II when Germans living in the country were interned and stripped of their property by the government. Vásquez wasn’t even aware of this shameful event until, while home visiting family in 1999, an old woman told him that her German-passport-holding father, who was actually Jewish, had narrowly avoided captivity.
“At that point, I knew I had a novel,” said Vásquez.
As he researched the real history to weave into his fictional narrative, he found that uncovering forgotten documents and combing through newspaper archives was rewarding. “That idea of drowning in old paper is just pleasurable for me,” said Vásquez.
The Sound of Things Falling follows a similar structure. The history covered allows for more personal insight, however, and this emotional weight powers the story. It is no coincidence that this is the book that has most deeply resonated with readers and brought him literary fame.
Unlike the story set in the 1940s, he was not just alive but grappling with a transition to adulthood during the time detailed. The book takes place during the bleak stretch in Bogotá’s history when Pablo Escobar’s bombing campaign turned the capital into a place where any car on any corner could become an explosion.
Vásquez recounted the chaotic, frightening era between Escobar’s assassination of Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla in 1984 and Escobar’s death in 1993. “That decade, we really lived in a city of unpredictable violence — of bombs and shooting in the streets, of not knowing if you would come back alive in the evening,” said Vásquez.
Writing The Sound of Things Falling required Juan Gabriel to re-examine those years. His memory, a concept explored in all his works, was strained by uncertainty. He would call friends and relatives to see if their recollections matched his.
Had these things really all happened? Had they really been numb to all the tragedy?
“I remember at least three times being at somebody else’s place when an important political figure was murdered and there was an immediate curfew declared,” said Vásquez. “You had to choose between spending the night at this place that you didn’t know, with people you didn’t know, or making a run for it.”
Vásquez’s memory of those days is reflected in a passage in The Sound of Things Falling that comes after the narrator watches a television anchor report the assassination of a presidential candidate. “We saw, above the dates of birth and the still fresh one of his death, the face of the victim in black and white … Nobody asked why he’d been killed, or by whom, because such questions no longer had any meaning in my city.”
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is now widely considered to be Colombia’s greatest living writer, a recognition held by Gabriel García Márquez for a half century until his death in 2014. Like everyone to touch a pen in this country, Vásquez has always existed in the shadow of the 20th century titan known as “Gabo.”
García Márquez’s opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is so monumental that its fictional setting of Macondo has become more famous than all but a handful of real locations in Latin America. García Márquez, who died two years ago with a Nobel Prize for Literature and at least 30 million copies of his genre-defining work sold, didn’t invent magical realism, but he did master it. And in time his style turned a literary tradition into a brand for his country.
The phrase “Magical Realism” has become a marketing slogan for Colombia. The official tourism board uses it to promote gorgeous landscapes throughout the nation. It makes sense in this context. There are locations — the “River of Five Colors” in Caño Cristales, the colonial splendor of Barichara, the gorge-spanning cathedral of Las Lajas — where it is hard to discern the tangible from the imagination.
But the harsh, day-to-day existence many Colombians have lived in recent decades has been all too real. Little has been magical.
This is the Colombia that Vásquez writes about, and although such issues were also hallmarks of Gabo’s works, their literary techniques could not be more different.
“If we accept that one of the things that great novels do is open up doors for us to go to places we have never been before, magical realism is exactly that,” said Vásquez. “It allowed us to look at the world and go to places that were unavailable before that. Nobody had ever been able to go to these places that García Márquez discusses in One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
He is an ardent fan and an admirer of Gabo. But Juan Gabriel Vásquez believes that sharing a homeland with another writer does not mean you inherit his method for exploring the world with words.
“García Márquez is the best example himself that writers usually choose influences … García Márquez never looked for Colombian writers when he was beginning to write,” said Vásquez. “He looked to Faulkner or Hemingway or Kafka. In the same way, when I started to realize what my demons were — what my obsessions were — I realized that García Márquez, who was one of the reasons I became a writer in the first place, didn’t have the answers. The method of magical realism didn’t have the answers for me.”
Instead, Vásquez looked to other writers: Joseph Conrad, Philip Roth, Mario Vargas Llosa. More than anything, he looked to La Candelaria. Though he realized the memories of his youth and the clouded recollections of the tumultuous decade of his teenage years didn’t have all the answers either, he did realize that they were full of questions.
And answering these questions, by digging through both the actual historical record and the depths of his own memory, has become the defining characteristic of his work.
Most great writers have a conflicted relationship with their home. They leave, they explore, they reflect, they return. Vásquez has walked that well-worn path that, even as a 23-year-old, he knew was a cliché.
But the journey has given him a literary life that is uniquely his own. And now his words are allowing people the world over to discover a country that is full of traditions that transcend violence and magical realism.