Archive for the ‘Juan Gabriel Vasquez’ Category


June 21, 2017

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s Reputations, his fourth novel to appear in English (translated again by Anne McLean), is a timely meditation on the rights and responsibilities of free speech. Javier Mallarino is political cartoonist, “a moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half” but a man with power and influence:

“…able to cause the repeal of a law, overturn a judge’s decision, bring down a mayor, or seriously threaten the stability of a ministry, and all this with no other weapons than paper and India ink.”

He refuses to be cowed or bought: “I won’t get into bed with anybody.” When his wife, Magdalena, complains he is attacking their friends in his cartoons, he replies, “Well, let’s change friends.” However, he is also guilty of inflating his importance, claiming people “need someone to tell them what to think.” As Magdalena says:

“Don’t be naïve…People already know what they think. People already have their prejudices well formed. They only want someone in authority to confirm their prejudices, even if it’s the mendacious authority of the newspapers.”

As the novel opens, Mallarino is preparing to accept an award to celebrate the forty years of his career; as he puts it, “the very same political class he’d attacked and hounded and scorned from his redoubt… had decided to put the gigantic Columbian machinery of sycophancy into action to create a public homage.” It is at the ceremony that Mallarino meets Samanta Leal who originally claims to be a journalist, but is, in fact, after answers to more personal questions.

Samanta, it transpires, was a childhood friend of Mallarino’s daughter Beatriz at one point, and once spent the day with her while Mallarino held a party. The party is interrupted by an unwelcome guest, a politician, Cuellar, whom Colon has recently lampooned. Cuellar all but begs Mallarino, “please, Javier…please don’t draw me like that anymore. I’m not like that.” Mallarino finds himself disgusted by what he sees as Cuellar’s weakness:

“…feeling a confusing emotion that went beyond contempt, something that wasn’t irritation or annoyance but seemed dangerously close to hatred.”

Before Cuellar leaves a strange incident occurs involving Samanta. The two girls have been caught drinking the dregs from abandoned drinks and been sent up to bed to sleep off the effects. When Samanta’s father comes to collect her there is an altercation with Cuellar who seems to be upstairs with the girls; the father follows him down shouting, “What did you do to my little girl?” The implication is that he has sexually assaulted Samanta as she lay sleeping. Samanta’s first memory is of being placed in her father’s car; years later, no longer in touch with her father, she has come to Mallarino in an attempt to discover what happened. Mallarino claims not to know, but his own suspicions are clear from a cartoon he draws shortly after with the caption:

“Congressman Adolfo Cuellar – Suffer the little girls to come unto me.”

Mallarino says the “image had formed in is head” the next morning and talks of feeling not “indignation or rage, but rather something more abstract, like disquiet, almost like the awareness of a possibility…Of a power, yes, that was it: the awareness of an imprecise power.”

Just as Mallarino takes people and reduces them to caricatures, the recovery of his past forces him to reconstitute them as individuals. He must revisit the devastating effects his cartoon has on Cuellar while at the same time facing up to the fact he assumed rather than searched for the truth. His crusading style may seem to serve justice but his lack of awareness of Samanta’s existence as a victim leads us to question his motivation.

“What good is ruining a man’s life, even if the man deserves ruin? What good is this power if nothing else changed, except the ruin of that man?”

Reputations reminds us of the dangers of the broad stroke, the black and white approach. It is, in itself, an argument for the more complex, nuanced art of the novel.

The All Saints’ Day Lovers

June 10, 2015

all saints day lovers

With some writers a collection of short stories is more anticipated than a novel; others stand astride the two genres, equally adept; but for a third group – let’s just call them novelists – that volume of shorter fiction is simply an ad hoc stop gap, plugged between their longer works. After three fine novels, I feared that Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s latest (which, being so enamoured with his previous work, I hadn’t realised was not a fourth until I opened it), a collection of stories published prior to his novels, would disappoint. Even more disconcertingly, the Columbian author who had so expertly exposed South America’s twisted, tortured history, had set every one of these stories in France or Belgium where he lived during the second half of the nineties. In fact, The All Saints’ Day Lovers proved to be an outstanding collection, its setting allowing Vasquez the freedom to turn his analytical eye to relationships rather than politics.

While not every story in the collection might be said to be about love, each one contains a pair of lovers. We see relationships in their final stages, relationships which have outlasted infidelities, relationships which have not outlived one night. In the opening story, ‘Hiding Places’, the narrator is the observer – quite deliberately – of a married couple, Claire and Philippe, under the instruction of Claire’s father:

“I want you to notice everything and then tell me. How they live. If she’s all right, if he treats her as she deserves to be treated.”

His visit coincides with the death of Phillippe’s nephew in an accident. Philippe has gone alone to his sister – Claire has never met his family – but she turns up uninvited and overrides Philippe’s reluctance in an attempt to comfort the mother. Throughout the relationship seems threatened by the respective families creating a lack of trust between the couple, but Claire sticks by him even when she knows he is seeing someone else – “This is a phase, you know.” The story ends with the phone ringing – the narrator knows it is Claire, but cannot pick it up, instead inventing a series of possible callers. Vasquez is warning us that there can be no easy resolutions, even when relationships end.

A number of the stories deal with infidelities. In the title story a couple consider the question “Are we going to split up?” on a hunting trip. A wounded bird they fail to locate becomes a symbol for their relationship:

“I don’t think you tried very hard. Have you no pity? The bird is suffering right now. You should have found him and killed him.”

The narrator immediately leaves, purportedly to find the bird, but a few hours later he is in bed with waitress: clearly this behaviour is at the root of the problem (“This isn’t going to end, is it?”). Vasquez retains our sympathy for the narrator, however, by showing his kindness to the waitress, even after his relationship has failed. ‘The Lodger’ approaches infidelity from a different angle; here, the affair happened many years in the past. The couple, Georges and Charlotte, are still together, and the lover, Xavier, remains a neighbour. That they have Xavier’s car locked in their garage at the request of his son suggests something about how the past affair affects their present day friendship. However by the story’s end, the roles are reversed:

“From this night on More [Xavier] would appropriate part of the house: he would be a permanent lodger.”

Although in the past, the story reveals that the affair still has the power to influence the present.

‘The Solitude of the Magician’ is also about an affair. Perhaps the cleverest and slickest of the stories, it is also the least satisfying, though a coda beyond its ‘twist’ ending adds a little more depth. ‘The Return’ also ends with a twist but is briefer and has a macabre aura about it, a ghost story without a ghost. ‘At the Café de la Republique’ and ‘Life on Grimsey Island’ are more complex, examining relationships from either end. In the former the narrator asks Vivienne to pretend they are still together for a visit to his estranged father, fearing he has bad news about his health; in the latter, Oliveira, looking for a new life, meets a woman who is also looking to escape hers. In both Vasquez beautifully observes the fluctuating nuances of the lovers.

The All Saints’ Day Lovers is a that rare thing, a collection of stories where each one works on its own terms, but which as a whole presents a multifaceted exploration of what it means to love.

The Secret History of Costaguana

April 16, 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – The Secret History of Costaguana

Unlike last year, when Juan Gabriel Vasquez made it through to the short list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with his first novel,The Informers, The Secret History of Costaguana has not reappeared for round two. Though this may be partly down to the competing attentions of other South American novels (the other three are through), it has to be said that the central conceit of the novel is not entirely successful.

The idea is an intriguing, and brave, one: take a classic European work about South America (Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo) and link it to the ‘real’ South America through your central character. The novel is predicated on a meeting between our narrator, Jose Altamirano, and Conrad, as we are told in the first few pages:

“Conrad and I, who were born countless meridians apart, our lives marked by the difference of the hemispheres, had a common future…When this happens, when the paths of two men born in distant places are destined to cross, a map can be drawn a posteriori.”

The meeting between them takes up only a few pages (though every so often Altamirano reminds us what Conrad is up to); the bulk of the novel is taken up with Altamarino’s life, his father’s life, and the life of his country, Columbia – the story that he claims to have shared with Conrad during that meeting.

From the beginning his father is portrayed as a believer in progress, championing the use of corpses for dissection in the face of the Church’s opposition. His father finds a way round the prohibition by using the corpses of Chinese workers killed building a railway across Panama. Later his father will become a steadfast supporter of the Panama Canal, and these dead bodies are an early indication of the price of progress, though one his father consistently ignores:

“My father does not hear a story of personal tragedies, does not see the dead Chinaman as the nameless worker of no fixed address for whom no grave is possible. He sees him as a martyr, and sees the history of the railway as a true epic. The train versus the jungle, man versus the jungle…”

This attitude is more damaging when he becomes a journalist in Panama, refusing to allow facts to get in the way of his belief in progress:

“Examining my father’s articles: in one from 1867, the fifteen dead had become nine; in 1872 he mentions nineteen wounded, seven of them seriously, but not a word about deaths; and in one of his most recently published texts…my father recalled ‘the tragedy of the nine victims’.”

Perhaps Vasquez intends to draw some parallel between this and Conrad’s use of Altamarino’s story as raw material for his novel, but there is no indication he regards Conrad’s work as propaganda. Altamarino’s main complaint is that Conrad has removed him from his own story:

“My tale lived there, the tale of my life and my land, but the land was another, it had another name, and I had been removed from it, erased like an unmentionable sin, obliterated without pity like a dangerous witness.”

But, as Conrad says when Altamirano asserts that Nostromo is false: “That, my dear sir, is a novel.” Vasquez may have cleverly taken the fictionalised history of Nostromo and turned it back into the factual history of Columbia, but I remain unclear as to whether this implies criticism of Conrad’s fictionalisation. Of course, it may not, and may simply be a device for attracting attention to what would otherwise be a novel about the history of Columbia.

This would be ironic as where he is particularly successful is in portraying that turbulent history, both in the general (with frequent references to the Angel of History) and in the particular. There are two stand-out examples of the latter. One is where he provides the history of a rifle over eight pages; another is when he spends thirteen pages focusing on a particular soldier.

Vasquez is clearly a very talented writer and, while this may not have quite the impact of The Informers, it also an excellent novel. Having covered almost 150 years of Columbian history in his first two novels, it will be interesting to see what he does next.

The Informers

July 27, 2009


Recently I seem to have read a number of novels which explore the relationship between Nazi Germany and Latin America, from Jenny Erpenbeck’s outstanding The Book of Words to the less cerebral A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr. The Columbian writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s, first novel, The Informers, tackles similar territory with both a narrative and structure that focuses on stripping back, layer after layer, towards the truth.

The truth which the narrator, Gabriel Santoro, is searching for relates to his father’s life. The novel begins by outlining a conflict between them – the cause of that conflict being Gabriel’s decision to write about the life of a family friend, Sara Guterman, a Jewish woman who escaped from Germany to Columbia in 1938. His father (also called Gabriel) objects to this to the point where he writes a savage review, even though his expertise is in the area of oratory, on which he lectures, and he would not normally lower himself to print. This rift only begins to be healed when the father requires heart surgery, and Gabriel and Sara help him recuperate. It is, however, only after his father’s death in a car accident (which may not have been an accident but suicide) that the secret his father has been hiding from is revealed: that he falsely informed on Konrad Deresser, his friend’s father, during war-time when Nazi sympathisers in Columbia were blacklisted. Deresser lost his business and his family and never recovered, later committing suicide. This revelation is made publicly by his lover, Angelina, ruining Gabriel senior’s posthumous reputation.

As one of the Bogota 39, Vasquez represents a new generation of South American writers, and in style and structure this novel can be seen as almost anti-magic realist. The story is presented in the format of a documentary, and the characters are delivered to us in a series of autobiographical segments, directed towards the reader in written or spoken format. As well as the first person narrative there are extracts from the taped conversations with Sara, and a number of lengthy conversations with other characters like Angelina and Enrique, Deresser’s son, which allow them to tell their stories. That this is a novel that is concerned with the possibility of recreating a life can be seen from the inclusion of the word “life” in the heading of each section apart from the Postscript. The Postscript is another device used by the author to create a documentary feel: it purports to be written in 1995, a year after the book “The Informers” was published. (The Informers was published in 2004). This is in keeping with the way that the novel is structured as an ongoing investigation – we only know what Gabriel knows at that time, not at the time he is writing about it. The most striking example of this is when he reads Deresser’s letters. They are in a folder in reverse order, i.e. the last one first, and this is how they are reproduced in the novel. (I couldn’t help it – I read them chronologically).

Clearly this is a novel about betrayal. It is Gabriel’s father’s betrayal that is the secret that he hides from his son. He feels betrayed by his son when he writes about Sara, revisiting a past he wishes to stay buried – and, in turn, betrays him with his criticism of the book. Angelina betrays her lover by revealing his secret – she informs on him – but she does so because he abandoned her, and she also felt betrayed. It is also a novel about the impossibility of knowing someone. Perhaps Gabriel’s father is also angered by his book because it suggests he feels he can sum up someone’s life in print, that he can understand someone without even having lived through the same times as them. In order to keep his secret, Gabriel’s father has falsified more than one aspect of his life: his ability to speak German, the way in which he lost the fingers of his right hand. His son has not really known him at all. Vasquez’s style emphasises this theme by presenting characters largely in their own words. This may seem superficially a path to greater insight, but it allows us few other clues to their lives beyond what they tell us. By the end of the novel, for example, we know remarkably little about the narrator beyond what relates to his relationship with his father and his attempts to understand him.

There also seems to be an interesting conflict between written and spoken language in the novel. As already mentioned, Gabriel’s father lectures on oratory, while Gabriel is a writer. While his father speaks, Gabriel listens, and it is this that leads him to the truth. His father’s ability to talk well is ultimately seen as a method of deception:

“My father spoke about reconstruction and morals and perseverance, and he did so without blushing, because he focused less on what he said than on the device he used to say it.”

This is an accomplished first novel, stylistically astute, and engaging both as a historical study and as the portrayal of a father-son relationship.