Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Bogotá, 1973) is the author of a collection of stories, Los amantes de Todos los Santos, and the novels Los informantes (The Informers, Riverhead Books, 2009) and Historia secreta de Costaguana (The Secret History of Costaguana, Riverhead Books, 2011). He has also published a collection of literary essays, El arte de la distorsión (which include an essay that won the Simón Bolívar Award in 2007), and a brief biography of Joseph Conrad, El hombre de ninguna parte. He has translated works by John Hersey, John Dos Passos, Victor Hugo and E. M. Forster, amongst others, and is a columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. His books have been published in fourteen languages and thirty countries. His third novel, El ruido de las cosas al caer, (The Sound of Things Falling, Bloomsbury, 2012) won the Alfaguara Award in 2011.
Sergio Angulo: —Juan Gabriel, The Sound of Things Falling is your latest novel, tell us about it.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez: —The novel is the story of this young law professor called Antonio Yammara, who one day meets this mysterious character, a guy called Ricardo Laverde, who evidently has something to hide and is not who he says he is. What begins as this frivolous curiosity, turns into something more serious when this Ricardo Laverde gets killed by a sniper in the street, by a hit-man. The narrator gets hit by a bullet, a straight shot that obviously changes his life. He becomes obsessed with finding out who this guy really was and why he was killed, in order to reach some conclusions about what has happened to him and why his life has changed. So he embarks on this personal investigation, a personal enquiry into the life of a dead man and his past of Colombia. This sends him back to the years in which the drug trade effectively began in Colombia, the early seventies.
We learn that this guy was a pilot and he was not only a witness, but also a participant in the first phase of the drug trade. The novel becomes a sort of exploration of what it means to my generation to grow up surrounded by the drug trade, and particularly, what it means for us to have suffered through the worst years of drug-related violence – of the drug wars in the eighties, when Pablo Escobar basically declared war against the Colombian Government. This is what I have tried to explore.
Sergio Angulo: —The story is not a real case, but it somehow, portrays the reality of this era in Colombia.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez: —It’s a work of fiction, but I tried to explore things that really happened. One of my obsessions has been, not only in this novel, but in my other novels too, how public events shape our private lives. This is one of the things that interests me as a novelist – how things that happened in what we call “history” or “politics” penetrate our lives and affect the way we behave as friends, or as couples, or as parents and children.
One of the reasons behind the writing of this novel was to realise that, in those years, during that period of violence, we had a lot of public information, we had a lot of statistics, a lot of images in the media, (we can even find the video of a presidential candidate in Colombia getting killed) but, at some point, I became anxious at the idea that there wasn’t a place we could go to find out about the effects all of this had had on private or personal lives. In a way, the novelist I wanted to be, is a sort of historian of emotions. I tried to explore the emotional and moral side of those very public events.
Sergio Angulo: —You were living in France for a while and, as far as I know, you are now based in Spain, in Barcelona. Has this distance had any effect on the way you see Colombia now?
Juan Gabriel Vásquez: —It’s very difficult to prove, but I’ve always said that, the only reason I´m able to write about Colombia, is because I have left. My first book was a book of stories about Belgium and France, and people used to ask me, “Why don’t you write about Colombia?” And the reason, to sum it up in a nutshell, is that I felt that, since I didn’t really understand my country, I wasn’t allowed to write about it. But because of the distance, because of the time I spent abroad, and because there was an ocean between my country and me, I ended up realising that, perhaps the fact that I didn’t understand my country was the best reason to write about it. I could use novels as a way of understanding the history of my country and how that has shaped me as an individual.
Sergio Angulo: — Historically, Barcelona is a place where many of the most important Latin American authors have lived. Now we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Latin American literary boom. Is this literary boom still happening, or has there been a turning point with new generations taking different paths?
Juan Gabriel Vásquez: —I always considered the writers of the Latin American boom as the real founders of my tradition. The tradition in which I tried to write began with them. Before them, the Latin American novel had maybe produced a couple of isolated things, very interesting things, but isolated. There wasn’t a tradition of Latin American novels to speak of. It all began with Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortázar. So, in a way, they’re quite present for me, in the sense that they are all still living. Vargas Llosa and García Márquez are still living. Vargas Llosa is still writing. But, at the same time, they are classics. They are living classics, and for me, having them sharing the same world, is almost as if a 21st Century Irish writer could pick up the phone and call James Joyce. It’s a very strange situation, and a very profitable one. I don’t feel in any way threatened by their presence, as many writers do. I feel there is a very big legacy that has opened doors for the people who have come after them.
Sergio Angulo: —Living in Europe, is our perception of Latin America accurate?
Juan Gabriel Vásquez: —There is always a certain degree of inacuracy. But it works both ways. The media have an extraordinary ability to distort the image of a country, sometimes through no fault of their own, because time in the media is limited, resources in the media are limited… But one of the nice things that novels do is, in a way, fight against cliché, against stereotypes, so perhaps we, as readers, get a much better understanding about the complexity of the United States, when we read Philip Roth. Maybe an Irish reader, or a British reader, will get a better understanding about Colombia and the complexity of life there, the contradictions, the unpredictability of life in Colombia, when they read a novel such as this one. In any case, that’s what I would like to see happening.
Sergio Angulo: —You are very young, but you are already at the peak of the literary world. How is the view when looking down?
Juan Gabriel Vásquez: —In reality, I’m looking towards the next book, and wondering how difficult it will be to write it, because one of the cruel things of this trade is that every book is more difficult than the last one, in the sense that you know more things, you’re more conscious of the pitfalls and the problems, and the difficulties of writing. You don’t want to repeat yourself. I’m one of those writers who wants to change with every book. You always get deeper and deeper into this arrogant mindset that you can write a book like the books you love. And I think that’s what you constantly strive to do. You never get to do it, of course, because it’s impossible to write a book like those books that made me want to become a writer. But I think in the attempt to accomplish this, you might give the reader a couple of nice pages, and that’s probably enough.
Sergio Angulo: —Finally, any advice for a young writer who is at the bottom of the hill, getting his book and his backpack ready to start climbing the mountain?
Juan Gabriel Vásquez: —Well, I always give the same piece of advice, which is very simple but very honest, and I think it’s very useful, – Write only if you feel it’s absolutely necessary. The writing life is a very difficult life to live. You have to sacrifice friends, you have to sacrifice time with your family, so write only if you think that you will be unhappy if you don’t do it. Forget about the money, the reviews… they don’t matter. Write only if you know that your only reward will be the satisfaction of a job well done.