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.