Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Brussels, 2009

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Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Brussels, 2009

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 at all. The seven stories all take place in Belgium or France, and several of them are set in the Ardennes. Vásquez spent almost a year there living with a Belgian family, and he turns out to be wholly at ease writing about hunting, shooting, and fishing in the Belgian countryside. In “Hiding Places,” the first story in the book, the narrator is actually a Colombian writer living in the Ardennes who is asked to write an article on the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris: he gives us a foreigner’s view of the people he meets in the Ardennes, Brussels, and Paris.

In several other stories the narrator turns out to be an Ardennes local, and in all of them we feel we are living within the local life. So in “The Lodger,” we have the impression that we are with the hunters as they get ready just before daybreak. They are all in green, save that “no green was the same as the next.” All have had a bit of cognac—they have sipped it for breakfast—and they are, like Georges, inhaling “the cold air…the mountain smells, manure and pine, rain and damp moss….” Vásquez makes us share in the excitement of this very Belgian hunt, and then—typically—it takes a sinister turn.

Although set far from Colombia, the stories are worthy precursors of Vásquez’s novels because they contain his favorite topics: the breakdown of seemingly solid relationships, whether between parents and children or within married couples, the struggle against loneliness, the emergence of sudden, uncontrollable passions, a tendency to act with unwitting self-destructiveness, the unforeseen and unwelcome intrusion of the past, and finally, curious affinities between characters who turn out to be near doubles of each other, as though Vásquez as a writer had discovered that there were far fewer characters than people in the world; that now and then, when people meet, they find themselves reflected in one another. This is a notion that was frequently found in the work of Borges, to whom Vásquez owes a generously acknowledged debt.


There are few stories more characteristic of Vásquez than “At the Café de la République,” one of the best in the book. It is told by a young writer in Paris who has inexplicably walked out on his wife, Viviane. Six months later, he writes to her because he wants her to join him on a visit to his father, whom he has not seen for a year, and whom he cannot face alone. Viviane agrees, and the couple travel awkwardly on the metro to the Place de la République, where the father suggests lunch at his favorite table in the café.

As they eat, Viviane gallantly fills nervous gaps in the conversation, causing the narrator to acknowledge to himself that “leaving her had been one of those mistakes that nothing can rectify.” Meanwhile he observes his failure of a father with dismay. Long ago abandoned by his wife, he was subsequently exposed for fraudulent journalism. He is more interested in the whisky he is drinking than in his son. He does not notice that the son has a nasty growth on his neck. The narrator has told Viviane on the metro that the doctors suspect lymphatic cancer.

On their way back, things seem promising for the young couple. He remembers that she had helped him become a writer. She is solicitous about his potential cancer, which no one else cares about. They are attracted to each other. They are both lonely. But despite everything, he, like many of Vásquez’s characters, has a solipsistic streak. He does not want to depend on anyone, does not want to be loved. Maybe it is for fear of rejection after his mother left. He does not bother to tell Viviane that in a telephone call he made at the café, the doctor told him it was not cancer after all. Viviane realizes that there is no point in trying to get back together. When they reach her flat, she says, “We made a good couple. But you better go.”

Vázquez’s novels have more characters like this narrator: men who resent their fathers, or who get on with a woman only to undermine their relation in some way, as though some secret impulse were causing them to make the wrong decision. This happens not only to men with their fathers, wives, or girlfriends but also with their children. Driven by some personal obsession that they are never really able to explain, they suddenly abandon their home.

But just as there are characters who mysteriously drift apart, there are others who are thrown together. This is the case with Selma, the tall young beauty in “The Solitude of the Magician.” When her husband Léopold and his friends go hunting one morning, she stays behind because she is pregnant, and to her surprise finds that a “magician” called Chopin has stayed behind too. They look at each other and are immediately shaken, as if their whole lives had been leading to this moment. They rush to the bedroom and make torrid love, and from then on never look back, until an unforeseen accident spoils everything. Remarkably, this implausible, “magical” relationship is described by Vásquez with a combination of humor and tenderness that has the effect of making it seem credible, and then sad when things go wrong.

In an author’s note to this book, Vásquez quotes Tobias Wolff as saying that “a book of short stories should be like a novel in which the characters don’t know each other.” Vásquez achieves that and something more: he leaves us feeling that his characters could in fact have easily met. The book closes with the remarkable story “Life on Grimsey Island,” and by the time we get to it, we are so immersed in Vásquez’s world that we feel that we know something about the people described even before learning of what happens to them.

The central character here is Oliveira, another of Vásquez´s surprisingly genial misanthropists. He has inherited a small stud farm from his equestrian father, but in an act of unexplained renunciation typical of Vásquez, he decides to get rid of it. He meets Agatha, an attractive vet who is castrating one of the horses. He observes the dexterity, the sensuality with which she performs the operation: “The scrotum opened like fruit rind, separated as if it had a life of its own, and the smooth white testicles were exposed to the air, luminous against the black skin.” Impressed, Oliveira offers to take her home.

She is a bit older than he is, and that excites him. He contemplates her next to him in the car,


each of them alone but traveling together, with the awareness that a night of sex wouldn’t transform them but might be, as had happened to him with other women for one night, an anesthetic, numbing his solitude.

However, the night becomes much more challenging than even the pessimistic Oliveira could ever imagine. He discovers that Agatha is haunted by a dreadful past tragedy. Her daughter had run away to join a religious sect, and had died two years ago with other young girls in an act of brutal self-immolation. Agatha makes Oliveira listen to the daughter’s harrowing farewell tape. For a moment Oliveira thinks that he can help her, that there is a chance that they could save each other from their desperate loneliness, but that is not to be: Vásquez´s hardened solipsists always manage to take the wrong turn.

Colombia, 1975; photograph by Danny Lyon

Magnum Photos

Colombia, 1975; photograph by Danny Lyon

If Vásquez’s best novels are, like “Life on Grimsey Island,” often about how the past conditions the present, that is understandable in a country like Colombia, with its turbulent history. In The Sound of Things Falling, two characters, Antonio Yammara and Maya, try to decipher the past of the former pilot Ricardo Laverde. Antonio is a law professor who meets Laverde in 1996, in a bar. One day, when they are walking together in the street, they are both shot at by a passing motorcyclist. Unlike Laverde, Antonio survives, but his wounds leave him impotent and with permanent pain. He becomes obsessed by the shooting and needs to know who Laverde was and why he was killed. What led him to spend nineteen years in prison and then to be attacked so soon after his release?

Maya is Laverde’s daughter. She is also hungry for information about a father she had presumed dead when she was only three years old. She contacts Antonio, and he self-destructively leaves his wife and daughter and job, and their home in Bogotá, to join Maya on her farm in the torrid Magdalena valley. There, they go through boxes of documents day after day, and they listen obsessively to a tape recording Laverde had left when he died. Little by little they reconstruct the story of a pilot who had been caught trying to smuggle cocaine into the United States, and in doing so they revive their own memories of Colombia’s violent drug wars, which only quieted down with the death of the drug baron Pablo Escobar in 1993 and seem far from over.

Antonio and Maya share a close affinity from growing up during this murky period, unlike Antonio’s wife Aura, who lived comfortably with her parents overseas. It is as though Colombians cannot love one another unless they share the same historical memories, unless they are able to say to one another that yes, as children they both visited the exotic zoo in Escobar’s notorious Hacienda Nápoles, and that yes, they can remember what they were doing when Escobar blew up such and such a plane or killed such and such a politician. As happens to other characters in Vázquez’s novels, Maya in the meantime learns things about her parents and her childhood that they had hidden from her, such as their own involvement with criminals. Thanks to the detective work she undertakes with Antonio, she is gradually able—for good or ill—to free her current identity from past parental lies.

What is there in all this for Antonio? He has after all sacrificed everything for this quest—he does not even inform his family where he is. He is attracted to Maya and she to him, but he is impotent. He is obsessed by the attack he suffered with Laverde. It has—no doubt exaggeratedly—become the single defining event of his life. He needs to know why it took place, all the more so because he is also impelled by the strange conviction that he is Laverde’s double, that he and Laverde are linked in some mysterious way, that in Laverde’s life he will find a clue to his own destiny.

It is this kind of notion that Vásquez shares with Borges, both here and in other novels, but the characters that entertain it are clearly set up by Vásquez as being a bit mad, so for readers of Borges there seems an element of parody as well. Perhaps Antonio’s mind was affected by the accident? In this Antonio is like José Altamirano, the narrator of The Secret History of Costaguana. Altamirano claims he met Conrad in London in 1903, at the house of Santiago Pérez Triana, an exiled Colombian who did in fact supply Conrad with information for the writing of Nostromo, which came out 1904. But according to Altamirano it was he, not Pérez Triana, who gave Conrad most of his material, in particular, a blow-by-blow account of the civil war—which Altamirano witnessed—that led to the secession of Panama in 1903. But Altamirano is not content to accuse Conrad of plagiarism. As mad as Antonio, he mysteriously considers himself to be Conrad’s double. Although the novel makes clear that their lives are different, Altamirano insists that he and Conrad are essentially one and the same person.

In Vázquez’s latest novel, Las Reputaciones—just published in the US as Reputations—his most intelligent and persuasive work, another young woman, Samanta Leal, tries like Maya to discover a truth about her childhood that her parents have concealed from her. When she was a pubescent schoolgirl she visited her friend Beatriz Mallarino in a house in the mountains overlooking Bogotá. Something odd happened there that day. What was it? What caused her father to carry her out of the house in a fit of fury and then make her change schools?

For answers to these questions she consults Javier Mallarino, Beatriz’s father. Mallarino has become an institution in Bogotá. His incisive cartoons help set the tone of political debate every day. He is the “country’s conscience,” as he immodestly explains to Samanta:

I tell people what’s going on. The important thing in our society is not what goes on, but who tells us what’s going on. Are we going to allow ourselves to be told only by politicians? That would be suicide, national suicide. No, we can’t rely on them…. We need to look for another version…from humanists. That’s what I am: a humanist.

During a long night in which the aging Mallarino has intermittent bouts of desire for young Samanta (Vásquez’s male characters get the most inappropriate urges at the most inopportune times), he gradually reconstructs the distant childhood scene. He recalls a party he gave to inaugurate his new mountain retreat, following his divorce from Beatriz’s mother. To his annoyance, Adolfo Cuéllar, a moralistic congressman he dislikes intensely, arrives uninvited. Mallarino has drawn several cartoons of him, ridiculing his hypocrisy and pomposity, and Cuéllar has come to persuade Mallarino to be kinder to him, if only to spare his children the shame they feel at school every time one of the cartoons appears.

Suddenly there is mayhem. The two little girls have been finishing everybody’s drinks, and they are blind drunk. Mallarino settles them in his bedroom upstairs, in the hope that they will sleep it off. But when Samanta’s father appears, he fails to tell him about the drinking or to accompany him upstairs (a baffling inability to say or do the right thing at the right time is typical of Vásquez’s characters). Soon the father is storming up and down the stairs, first chasing none other than Congressman Cuéllar, and then carrying away his daughter. The implication is that the congressman sneaked upstairs at some point and did something untoward to the sleeping Samanta. The next day, Mallarino publishes a cartoon of Cuéllar surrounded by pubescent girls with the caption “Suffer the little girls to come unto me.”

What use is it to Samanta to discover all this now? Is it not often best not to know? Now that she does, will she ever be able to live it down? Is there anything worse than ghosts from the past altering one’s present and future beyond repair? And is Mallarino’s memory reliable? Is he sure of what happened? Was his cartoon fair? Soon after its publication, Cuéllar committed suicide. Is Mallarino certain that he did not drive the man to suicide unfairly?

Talking to Samanta that night he realizes that in fact he is not certain, and that leads him to question his entire life. He has a reputation for being relentlessly independent and pure, but it is built on his damaging other people’s reputations. What if sometimes he did so unfairly? What if he was frivolously inspired just by some physical trait of his victim to which he wrongly attributed moral significance? He remembers Cuéllar pleading with him that day. As he did so,

Mallarino saw his ears, his nose, the bones of his forehead and temples, and thought of the strange disdain those bones and cartilage produced in him, and said to himself that even if Adolfo Cuéllar didn’t strike him as a repugnant little character, he would keep drawing him nonstop, and his bones and cartilage were to blame.

Mallarino has just been given a standing ovation in Bogotá. A postage stamp with his self-portrait has just been issued by the government. He is at the height of his glory, one of the country’s most praised men, a national institution. But in talking to Samanta he realizes that he has been something of a fraud; that he is as much of a hypocrite as the moralistic Congressman Cuéllar, and his life collapses.

With his book of Belgian short stories and his five Colombian novels, Vásquez has accumulated an impressive body of work, one of the most striking to have emerged in Latin America so far in this century. He acknowledges a big debt to Conrad, and not only because of Nostromo. Like Conrad’s best novels, Vásquez’s are tautly written—every line is charged with acute observation and analysis. In this he also recalls Borges, albeit in a more down-to-earth, nonmetaphysical mode.

Fortunately, Vásquez has managed to avoid writing in the shadow of Gabriel García Márquez. He affectionately parodies him now and then, especially in The Secret History of Costaguana; he wants, it would seem, to distance himself from García Márquez’s magical realism, which has become a dangerous dead end for Colombian writers. Vásquez’s characters live in the Colombia of civil wars, drug cartels, and revolutions; the exaggerations of magical realism are scarcely necessary.

In this respect, it is probably just as well that Vásquez finally abandoned the Ardennes. In his latest novel, La forma de las ruinas, the narrator gets severely criticized by Carlos Carballo, one of his characters, for writing Belgian stories:

Who cares about those European characters who go hunting in the forest and who separate from their wives? What frivolity, what rubbish. With a civil war here at your doorstep, more than twenty thousand dead a year, terrorism such as no other Latin American country has seen.

The Belgian stories stand up well, and they set the mood for the Colombian novels, but if one compares them to Reputations, one has to acknowledge that Carballo has a point.