In her address at the Man Booker Prize ceremony in London last month, Bettany Hughes reflected on Vásquez’s themes of “muses on the nature of power and memory” and “flashes of wit into the darkest of subjects.” Declaring the last nine pages of The Shape of Ruins as mandatory reading for all historians, the judges’ nomination of Vásquez represent only the second time in the 14 year history of the prize that a Colombian has been shortlisted. The City Paper met with Juan Gabriel to discuss his nomination and importance of coming to terms with the past.
The City Paper (TCP): How did it feel to receive the news of the nomination?
Juan Gabriel Vásquez (JGV): It was very exciting because the previous incarnation of this prize was awarded to two of the most important writers for me in my career. As a novelist, few writers have shaped my idea of what novels are, as much as Phillip Roth, and Alice Munro. Having my book nominated was in a very vague way, an association with my literary heroes.
TCP: As the second Colombian author to be nominated for the prize after García Márquez in 2005, does The Shape of Ruins mark international recognition for the Latin American literary “boom”?
JGV: I have a very strong relationship, both as a reader and novelist, with the Latin American literary “boom.” Some of the writers of my generation have rejected this “boom,” but I embrace it. Even if I have this tense relationship with magical realism, I’ve never felt it is a threat. García Márquez, Cortázar and Borges were all very important for me at different moments. I am aware of influence and how influence works. Instead of rejecting any kind of contact with the masters, I have copied them, writing a short story in the style of Cortázar and another one in the style of Borges. I once wrote the beginning of a novel like One Hundred Years of Solitude, but when I reached page 100, I realized it was horrible!
TCP: This year’s prize put forward a female majority shortlist with yourself as the exception.
JGV: This is how women writers must have felt since we started writing novels. I mean this is Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury. It’s good to have the tables turned. Women writers have been giving us minority reports since the modern novel was invented, so to have it a little bit the other way around is healthy. I think gender had nothing to do with the shortlist, rather a certain way of discussing the human experience. Maybe there is a new sensibility which is predominantly feminine, which I would love.
TCP: Looking at the themes of the book, are conspiracy theories more prolific in Colombia?
JGV: The kind of conspiracy theories in the book was not part of our international conscience in the same way that modern conspiracy theories are now. Something changed in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump, among other political phenomena, and that kind of conspiracy theory is just a way of imposing a false narrative on the world to advance certain political ideas. I don’t think that’s the same thing as what my character Carlos Carballo does in the book. Carballo finds Colombian stories that explain what history has obviously tried to suppress or lie about. Conspiracy theories told by Carballo are a sort of defense mechanism against the lies or shortcomings of history. Whereas what is happening now is a proliferation of falsified realities with the intention of slandering or morally murdering political opponents to advance certain political ideas.
TCP: So historical truth doesn’t exist?
JGV: The Shape of the Ruins discusses the relationship we have with historical truth and the lies that we believe to soothe ourselves. This is what happens with human beings, we will always take a lie that we like over a truth that we don’t like, and this is truer than ever, today. The strange marriage between populism and post-truth is a realization that what matters in politics are emotions, and if you give somebody a story that satisfies emotions, even if it’s a lie, they will take it over the truth that doesn’t satisfy their emotions.
TCP: Your narrator warns that a great orator must never be believed. What role do orators play in perpetuating conspiracy theories?
JGV: This is much more pertinent to Colombia’s political tradition that gives a lot of value to the spoken word. Politicians until the 1980s used to be very eloquent, commanding the attention of the masses with words. This has changed because the dynamics of politics has also changed. Today, there’s a distrust in the political discourse, and probably, a distrust of education.
TCP: A further theme in the book is familiarity with violence. Does this stem from your days as a student in Bogotá?
JGV: Yes. This familiarity with violence is one of the things I have reckoned with in writing more obsessively. In the book, there is a scene where someone dips their handkerchief in the blood of the slain Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and others who didn’t have handkerchiefs dipped pages from newspapers. Someone even had a Colombian flag in hand. I think this theme goes to the heart of what the book tries to discuss: that we Colombians have a relationship with the remains of acts of violence that is almost religious. A vertebrae from Gaitán and a piece of the skull of Uribe Uribe – that appear in the novel I held in my hands in real life. Colombians have the same relationship with tokens of violence that early Christians had with relics. Memory in literature is a moral act.
TCP: In your book, you pinpoint the start of this culture of violence to April 9, 1948, with the murder of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.
JGV: April 9 was a watershed moment in 20th-century Colombian politics. Colombian politicians were murdered before, like Rafael Uribe Uribe, and murdered later, like Luis Carlos Galán, but Gaitán was different. Never before had one politician connected so profoundly with the working classes. Politicians then had always emerged from the political and social elites, and they had quite consciously divided the political world into a liberal oligarchy and a conservative oligarchy – oligarchies nonetheless.
Gaitán was the first serious presidential candidate with a chance to win, and who incarnated a hope Colombians had never felt before, as well as a threat to the establishment never felt before. I know this first hand because my great uncle came from that establishment and he was one of the ones who perceived the enormity of what this man was doing. I grew up with legends and stories about that fateful day. When hope was broken with the assassination, nobody could have foreseen the reaction of the people, and how a small uprising became El Bogotazo. During three days in which 3,000 were killed, and much of the city devasted, the way Bogotanos behaved would change forever. A whole way of life disappeared. It also made us more inward-looking than ever before.
TCP: The Shape of Ruins then is grounded in the stories many who lived through the Nueve de Abril still remember to this day?
JGV: Yes, but these memories are being lost, and this is a great pity. It’s one of the reasons I’m obsessed with getting all of it down in writing.
TCP: Your book reawakens the ghosts of Colombia’s past, and forces us to look at them anew. In order to move on, do we need to go back to the ruins and reconsider them or forget them altogether?
JGV: That is one of the biggest and most important questions. Should we remember and so keep the wounds open, or should we forget just to turn the page, but also run the risk of the wounds festering? I’ve always thought that as the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes said, “you can’t have a living civilization with a dead past.” So if you want to move forward as a society, you have to come to terms with what happened, and this is something Colombians are particularly bad at. It’s happening right now, we are making serious efforts that come from the peace agreement to remember and document the past, to find out what happened in 50 years of internal conflict, and try to keep those memories alive so that they can be understood as the only path to reconciliation.