Juan Gabriel Vásquez published two novels, Persona (1997) and Alina Suplicante (1999), while still in his twenties, but according to him they were derivative and immature, and he prefers them forgotten. His first major work, published in Spanish in 2001, was Lovers on All Saints’ Day, a collection of seven short stories that appeared in English last year, well translated by Anne McLean. He has subsequently written five powerful novels. Four of them have been ably translated into English, also by McLean: The Informers (2004), The Secret History of Costaguana (2007), The Sound of Things Falling (2007), and Reputations (2013), probably his finest novel, of which the English version has just appeared. The fifth novel, La forma de las ruinas, came out in Spanish earlier this year.
Vásquez has lived for most of his writing life outside his native Colombia, but his novels are immersed in Colombian settings. In The Informers, a writer working in the violent early 1990s, when the drug cartels were causing havoc in Colombia, evokes the fraught life of German immigrants to Colombia during World War II. Some were close to the Nazis, some Jewish, but they were indiscriminately interned in camps. In passing he learns that his own father was an informer who drove a German immigrant to suicide.
The Secret History of Costaguana is an alternative version of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. Conrad set his novel in a fictive Latin American country called Costaguana, generally believed to be Colombia, although it has been suggested that it also has elements of the dictator Cipriano Castro’s Venezuela.* Vásquez’s novel is set in Colombia and Panama. In The Sound of Things Falling, the narrator, Antonio Yammara, writing in the relatively peaceful Colombia of 2009, attempts to reconstruct the life of an acquaintance, Ricardo Laverde, a pilot who was imprisoned for flying cocaine to the United States in 1976.
Finally, in 2013 Reputations subtly explored the reaction to the work of Javier Mallarino, Colombia’s leading cartoonist, as he exposes the foibles of public figures in his daily cartoon for a national paper. At the expense of his victims, Mallarino has built up an enormous reputation for independence and integrity, until it turns out that some of his drawings make accusations that may be mistaken. One of them drives a congressman to suicide. An unexpected visit of a young woman many years later makes Mallarino realize that this cartoon may have been based on a misjudgment. A recurrent theme of Vásquez’s novels is the habit the past has of making unwanted visits that destroy his characters’ complacency, obliging them to reconfigure deep notions they have of themselves.
Against the backdrop of all these very Colombian novels, Lovers on All Saints’ Day will seem an unusual book, because it is not set in Colombia…
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