The following interview with Juan Gabriel Vásquez was conducted in 2016 by reference librarian Catalina Gomez as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.
At the Hay Festival (in Cartagena, 2016), you talked about the transgressive power of literature. What do your novels offer us in that respect, especially in their salvaging of Colombian history?
Well, I’ve always believed that literature is, among many other things, the place where we can confront the official versions of our history, and maybe rebel against them. My very last novel (The Shape of the Ruins) deals with two political murders that shook the 20th century in Colombia. They have this in common: the accepted truth about them, the official version, is very different from what most likely happened—what we think really happened. But we don’t have to talk about conspiracies. Every event in history has another side, a version that has been ignored, hidden away or consciously suppressed. Literature is subversive in that it penetrates history through its cracks and lets us know about these hidden places. “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history” is the way Novalis put it. I’ve always believed this.
A lot of your characters are obsessed with uncovering past truths—can you talk about the importance of that work in your own writing?
All my novels are, in one way or another, investigations. My characters have that kind of relationship with reality: it is a mystery, it hides secrets, and their task is to dive into those dark waters and come up again with something new in their hands. Perhaps this is because I have the same relationship with my writing. The process of writing a novel, for me, involves a feeling of uncertainty, of going into places (usually dark places) that I had never visited before. The Colombian hotels turned into prisons for Nazi propagandists in The Informers; the first years of the drug trade in The Sound of Things Falling. Or mysteries of the private past: what did really happen during that strange night, many years ago? This is what bothers the political cartoonist of Reputations, and he sets out to try to uncover that secret.
In what ways do you think that your work can speak to readers who are not part of, or aware of, the specific historical and political realities that you deal with in your novels?
In the same ways, I suppose, as Latin American readers of Philip Roth can read I Married a Communist without being aware of McCarthyism. Or in the way readers of Blood Meridian can enjoy (if that is the word) the novel without knowing about the Glanton gang of 1850. This is what literature does: it finds in our historical experience or in our clash with historical events that which is common to all humanity. My novels don’t talk about Colombian history; they talk about violence, fear, memory, the weight of the past. To do that, they take a moment of reality—something that actually happened and makes part of my experience, directly or indirectly.
When you recorded here at the Library of Congress for the Archive of Literature on Tape (now the PALABRA Archive) in 2013, you talked about disowning your early work. Can you talk about what your later work is able to accomplish that your early work did not?
I was discussing my first two novels, published when I was 23 and 25 years old. These are works that I value because of the things I learned while writing them, but they are full of mistakes that I’m not about to impose on readers. They are, so to speak, rehearsals, and we don’t go to the theater to look at rehearsals: we want to see the finished product. That is why they are not translated and I haven’t allowed any reprints. Now, you ask what my later work is able to accomplish that those two novels did not. It’s very simple: I found my subject. In those first attempts, if I’m not terribly wrong, I became a decent maker of sentences. But those sentences didn’t speak about anything. It took me several years to discover what my obsessions were and how to turn them into literature.
Your next novel coming out in English is Reputations (to be published in September 2017). Can you tell us a little bit about this book?
It’s a very different book from the ones my American readers know. For one thing, it is much shorter: it was written in the spirit of the short novels I love, those concentrated studies of one character in his predicament. Secondly, there is no Colombian history in the book. It deals with the past, but it is a private past. It is the story of a very powerful political cartoonist who, as he is celebrated for his life’s work, is paid a visit by a young woman. She asks him to remember one night, 28 years before, and that act of investigation into his memory leads to questionings and reconsiderations of everything that matters to him. So all my interests are there, but in their most intimate form.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is the author of numerous novels, including The Shape of the Ruins, which was shortlisted for the 2019 International Man Booker Prize; Reputations, a New York Times Best Book of the Year; and The Sound of Things Falling, a National Bestseller and winner of the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Vásquez’s novels have been published in twenty-five languages worldwide. After sixteen years living in France, Belgium, and Spain, he now resides between Bogotá and New York City.