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An Interview with Award-Winning Novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez

(The following is a repost of an interview conducted by Catalina Gómez, Reference Librarian, Hispanic Division. This interview originally appeared as part of the Interview Series of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress.)

Juan Gabriel Vásquez was born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1973. He is the author of seven novels, including “Los informantes” (The Informers), “Historia secreta de Costaguana” (The Secret History of Costaguana), “El ruido de las cosas al caer (The Sound of Things Falling), and “Las reputaciones” (Reputations), which will come out in English in September of 2016. He has also written short stories, essays, a biography, and a weekly column for the Colombian newspaper, El Espectador. His books have been published in twenty-seven languages. Vasquez’s honors include the Alfaguara Novel Prize in Spain, the English PEN award, the International Dublin Award, the Prix Roger Caillois in France, and the Royal Academy Prize in Spain. He has translated major literary works into Spanish, including some by John Dos Passos, E.M. Forster and Victor Hugo. He lived in France, Belgium, and Spain for 16 years before returning to Bogotá, where he currently resides. His most recent novel, “La forma de las ruinas,” was published in 2015.

Interview

At the Hay Festival (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 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 in the Library of Congress for the Archive of Literature on Tape 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). 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.

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