Juan Gabriel Vásquez and the displaced novel

Juan Gabriel Vásquez's novels evoke a Colombia of lesser documented events where memory is a powerful force in healing.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez's novels evoke a Colombia of lesser documented events where memory is a powerful force in healing.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez was born in Bogotá in 1973 and grew up in the city until his early 20s. Enthralled by literature, books and writing from an early age, Vásquez remembers writing a short story for a school competition, which he won, at the age of eight. It was a happy childhood, and one in which his parents fueled his love of reading and literature constantly.

Despite his eminently literary vocation, Vásquez went on to study Law at university from 1990 to 1995, continuing to write voraciously in his free time: short stories, literary and political articles, translations, and extended essays on other writers.  The arcane world of law and legal practice seemed an ever less appealing prospect, though, and Vásquez soon came to the dawning, inevitable realization that he wanted to devote his life to writing.

On completing his studies, Vásquez took at this point in his life the critical decision of heading to Europe: “I needed distance from Bogotá, the capacity to think and write about my country and my experience from a different vantage point”.  From 1996 – 1998, he studied Latin American literature at the Sorbonne, thereby following in the Parisian footsteps – “perhaps stereotypically”,  he quips – of some of the great Latin American novelists of the Twentieth Century: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar and Fuentes, to name a few.

They were an inspiring two years, immersed in reading, writing and the systematic discovery of the literature of his continent and the world.  The following year, Vásquez went to live and write in the Belgian Ardennes, before moving definitively to Barcelona in 1999, where he has set up home with his wife and young twins (with frequent visits to Bogotá to see family and friends, and to research his books), since that time.

Vásquez speaks of how important it was to leave Bogotá in order to gain the critical distance needed to pursue his writing career, however ruthless and abrupt it might have seemed at the time. His two principal novels to date, both based on events in Colombia, arise out of the creative energy generated by this original “physical displacement” from the city and country of his birth.

The first fruit of these early European peregrinations, however, is to be found in what Vásquez calls his first ‘real’ book – two novels which he has subsequently “disowned” precede it – a collection of seven short stories entitled Los Amantes de Todos los Santos (All the Saints’ Lovers).  The settings are France and Belgium, and the stories touch on many of the facets of human emotion and experience which permeate his later novels: individual vulnerability; love, forgiveness and guilt; chance encounters and happenings leading to radically altered lives.

Vásquez’s big breakthrough came with the publication of his novel ‘Los Informantes’ (The Informers), which received widespread praise in Colombia and internationally, and which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the UK into 2009 following its translation into English by Anne McLean.

The novel is a powerful evocation of the Second World War and its aftermath as lived out in Colombia, focusing on the Government of the time’s decision to ally with the United States, leading to the persecution of Colombia’s German population, including their incarceration in the ‘Hotel Sabaneta’, located near Fusagasugá.

The novel depicts a complex web of human relationships, in which the experience of the principal protagonists – their deceit, hurt, weakness, memory, and search for truth – is masterfully laid out amid the tight workings of a compelling plot.

There is generosity at work in Vásquez’s writing and in his approach to characters. The author’s principal motivation is “a deep desire to understand,” a one which he shares with his favorite novelists, Flaubert and Conrad.

Vásquez remains a voracious reader, saying that reading novels is a way of “living condensed lives,” and arguing that “obsessive readers of novels have a privileged view of society.”  When we meet, he is immersed in re-reading the complete works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, sharing his amazement at these three authors’ “breathtaking agenda” and their capacity to describe “human experience.”

This love of literature, and desire to engage analytically with other authors, is a key facet of Vásquez’s writing; and the driving force behind his collection of literary essays, ‘El Arte de la Distorsión’, which contains erudite reflections on Cervantes and ‘Don Quijote’; Gabriel García Márquez, magical realism and misunderstandings of his work; Joseph Conrad; Winfred George; and Philip Roth.

Vásquez’s special interest in Conrad led him to write a short, literary biography of the author, ‘El hombre de ninguna parte’, before writing a second novel, ‘The Secret History of Costaguana’ which is based on Conrad’s fictional encounter in Nostromo with Colombia at the turn of the twentieth century.

Vásquez contends that, in these novels, his aim, through the evocation of history and memory, is to address the “universal implications” of often little-known periods of Colombian history: the country’s experience of violence, its oblique connection to world affairs, and how events in the past illuminate the country’s present.

Released in 2012, ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ is Vasquéz most recent work and examines a difficult moment in this country’s history when the Medellín drugs cartel extended a reign of terror across the nation, and through a tormented lawyer named Antonio Yammara, the author masterfully evokes language as the redemptive power to stop the carnage which seems to fall from the sky – such as the bombing of a commercial airliner, a hail of bullets, and even a dead hippo from Escobar’s luxurious farm, referred to by Vásquez as a “fallen meteorite.”

One of continent’s most important contemporary writers, Vasquez is in the literary leagues of Mario Vargas Llosa; a writer and intellectual whose work and contribution he admires. The author also seeks to make a contribution to public life through means beyond books. For this reason, he cherishes a column in El Espectador, in which he writes on politics, literature and current affairs.

Vásquez stresses that he is “radically opposed to violence in all its forms,” and that he rejects the “cult of a single, messianic figure” so often a feature of Latin American politics; and that “every oppression is bad,” whether in right-wing dictatorships such as those of Chile under Pinochet or in left-wing autocracies such as Cuba or the Venezuela of Chavéz. Vásquez’s commitment remains to “writing about things that are not there,” such as his love for fiction and memories with healing power.


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