Juan Gabriel Vasquez: Through fiction, an unsettled expat tries to decipher his homeland

November 21, 2013

To get a clear view of one’s country and its neuroses, sometimes a writer has to leave it. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway knew this. And so does Juan Gabriel Vasquez, who left his native Bogota for Paris at 23, in the mid-1990s, to become a novelist and, not incidentally, to get away from an upbringing amid the bombings and assassinations of Colombia’s drug war.

It took a while to discover that the country he left behind was his true subject, and even longer to realize that it would fall to him — and a few others seeking their own light in the awesome literary shadow of their countryman Gabriel Garcia Marquez — to find a way to turn those decades of strife into art.

“I had to spend six years living abroad to find how to write about Colombia, how to deal with the country in fiction, which had always been tricky,” Vasquez said. “At first Colombia was this dark place for me which I didn’t understand, which I had left when I was very young, so in a way it was far away from me. I felt I didn’t have any moral right to deal with it in fiction.

“Then I realized that the fact that I didn’t understand my country was the best reason to write about it — that fiction, for me, is a way of asking questions. I think of it as the Joseph Conrad approach: You write because there’s a dark corner, and you believe that fiction is a way to shed some light.”

As he spoke, Vasquez was sipping coffee Thursday morning from a porcelain demitasse cup in a wood-paneled salon at the Colombian ambassador’s residence, in Dupont Circle. Despite some unsparing truths in his novel “The Sound of Things Falling” — albeit narrated with an expat’s profound affection — the Colombian government views Vasquez as a cultural ambassador and includes his visit to Washington in a “plan to promote Colombia abroad.” At 40, the writer already is an international literary superstar.


Juan Gabriel Vasquez, the 40-year-old author of “The Sound of Things Falling,” recently returned to Bogota, Colombia, after almost two decades of living abroad. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist and Nobel Prize winner, has called Vasquez “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.”

Later Thursday, Vasquez gave a reading at the Library of Congress and was also interviewed for inclusion in the library’s Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape. The archive includes recordings by such giants as Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Gabriela Mistral and Octavio Paz.

“It’s a big thing for me, from an emotional point of view,” Vasquez said, “to be in the same collection as those guys who made me want to become a writer in the first place.”

The younger writer belongs exactly in that company, said Georgette Dorn, chief of the library’s Hispanic Division.

“He’s probably the most important Colombian writer today, and one of the most important in the Hispanic world,” Dorn said. “He has broken with that whole 1970s magical realism tradition, and he’s writing about the Colombia of today.”

After vowing in interviews to forever remain a foreigner, as the perfect detached existential state for a writer to inhabit, Vasquez recently moved back to Bogota. But not permanently, he insists.

“I was able to move back to Bogota because after 16 years of living abroad, it had again become a strange place,” he said. “It had ceased to be the place I knew when I was 23. It was strange that I could move back there and still feel this tension, which is what I like: to feel uncomfortable, to feel that I don’t wholly grasp the place.”

The place is different, perhaps more settled. Drug lord Pablo Escobar has been dead 20 years, and his style of urban warfare has subsided. The other great source of civil strife, the world’s longest-running guerrilla war in the Colombian jungles, is now the subject of peace talks.

The first job of a contemporary Colombian novelist with aspirations for originality is to set himself apart from that other unmistakable voice, the one Colombian writer whom most readers can name.

In the second of his four novels to date (he disowns two earlier apprentice works), “The Secret History of Costaguana,” Vasquez pokes a little fun at that overindulged magical real style pioneered by Garcia Marquez.

“This is not one of those books where the dead speak or where beautiful women ascend to the sky, or priests rise above the ground after drinking a steaming potion,” Vasquez’s narrator announces.

He means no disrespect of his literary forebears, who are among his heroes. Separating himself from the omnipresent influence of Garcia Marquez would not be difficult, Vasquez understood, if he simply remained true to himself.

“I realized from very early on that he had nothing to teach me from the point of view of method and technique and strategy, even though ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is one of the reasons I became a writer,” Vasquez said. “Rather, I had to look for lessons in Conrad or Dostoyevsky, or the contemporary writers I love — Philip Roth, Don DeLillo. All these people do what I like to do, which is try to explore the crossroads between the public world — history and politics — and the private individual.”

By his third novel, “The Sound of Things Falling,” he felt ready to take on the period of Escobar’s reign of terror in the 1980s and early 1990s. The project evolved as it did almost by accident.

“You can say that growing up, I never knew a peaceful country,” he said. “So I left Colombia in a way with this traumatic feeling of trying to run away from that state of things. And maybe that’s why I never tried to deal with that in fiction.”

Then, in 2008, he was working on a novel, about a pilot, that was going nowhere. He happened to see a picture in a magazine of a hippopotamus that had escaped from Escobar’s zoo and been shot by snipers after the drug lord was long dead. A wave of memories came back to him. As a boy, Vasquez had visited that zoo, a public attraction. He recalled a university friend who was hit by a stray bullet, and he remembered the feeling of collective psychic trauma caused by periodic assassinations and bombings.

The hippo appears in the first sentence of the novel.

“And I found out I had a narrator,” Vasquez said. “I found out that the novel was not about this pilot, it was about a narrator from my generation, who meets this pilot, and then suffers the collateral damages of living in a time like that.”

The narrator, a law professor, says: “I’m not talking about the violence of cheap stabbings and stray bullets . . . but the kind that transcends the small resentments and small revenges of little people, the violence whose actors are collectives and written with capital letters: the State, the Cartel, the Army, the Front. We Bogotanos had become accustomed to it.”

The novel filled a lacuna that a few others of his generation of writers are also confronting as they try to make sense of the recent past: Although documentary evidence of the violent period was abundant, something was missing.

“There was no place you could go where you could find out about the private side, where you could think about the moral and emotional consequences,” Vasquez said. “Because only fiction can do that.”

He could have written a bloody police procedural, but he didn’t. Rather, like Conrad, say, or Albert Camus writing about horror, the violence is largely to the side, dissolved like a subtle poison in the atmosphere.

His most recent work is a novella, called “Reputations,” about a political cartoonist confronting his past. It’s not yet available in English. Meanwhile, in the two years since “The Sound of Things Falling” was published in Colombia, there has been a spate of documentaries and television shows on those violent times, even a telenovela about Escobar.

“You have to ask why, 30 years after all that began, they are just popping up everywhere,” Vasquez said. “The reason is that we haven’t got to the bottom of that. We haven’t really understood why that happened, what the consequences of those years are. So we tell stories.

“It also shows that for 30 years we have had a very bad relationship with those years, with the fact that they happened, and the fact that the country allowed them to happen. I think for 30 years we have been trying to suppress some of those very uncomfortable memories. And now at the end, we’re trying to come to terms with them. And one of the ways to do that is with fiction.”

David Montgomery writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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