‘A Storm Waiting to Happen’: A Colombian Writer Watches His Home From Afar
In the opening story of his new collection, “Songs for the Flames”, Juan Gabriel Vásquez talks about a war photojournalist who returns to a part of the Colombian countryside where, 20 years earlier, the victims of the bloody conflict between paramilitary forces and guerrillas floated in a nearby river.
“Now things were different in some lucky places: the violence was receding and people were getting to know something like tranquility again,” she thinks. Yet when she reunites with a local woman, she realizes that the horrors of the past – the repressed memories, if not the bodies – remain just below the surface.
“History shows you how quickly Colombian reality is changing,” Vásquez said in a video interview from Berlin, where he gives a series of lectures on fiction and politics (“my usual obsessions”) at the Free University. since early April. “We try to deal with the present tense in fiction, and reality leaves us behind.”
He is of course referring to the end of April, when the Colombian reality suddenly changed again: after President Iván Duque’s government attempted a tax review in response to the economic fallout from the pandemic, strikes and mass protests took hold. erupted across the country. In the weeks that followed, protests intensified and spread to encompass issues of social inequality and police reform. Images of clashes with the police circulated the world. The country is set on fire again.
48-year-old Vásquez, whose novels such as “The Sound of Falling Things” and “The Shape of the Ruins” recount Colombia’s turbulent history, viewed from afar in horror. It was “frustrating and exasperating,” he said, especially as the country’s struggles against the pandemic, police violence and the rift between rich and poor had long been apparent.
“It was very sad that some of us – a lot of us – got to see it, but the government didn’t,” he said with a sigh. “It was quite a storm waiting to happen.”
Due to the turmoil in Colombia, “Songs for the Flames”, which Riverhead will release in English on August 3, translated from Spanish by Anne McLean, seems particularly timely. But it came as a harbinger when it was released by Alfaguara in Colombia in 2018. “A year later we had protests against police brutality in which 13 people were killed,” said Vásquez. “And now we have what we see every day. Colombian reality has an incredible talent for bringing about bad omens.
The book includes four previously published stories and five short stories, linked by what he described as “echoes and threads.” Several of them are propelled by narrators who resemble previous incarnations of Vásquez – struggling writers adrift in Europe, unsure of their future and whether or not to return home. In “The Last Corrido”, a young novelist takes on a mission for a magazine touring with a Mexican band in Spain, pondering illness, death and their uncertain fate along the way. In “The Boys”, the rituals of a circle of adolescents in Bogotá reflect a world where judges and politicians are slaughtered in broad daylight and the drug cartels of Cali and Medellín “start to be on everyone’s lips. “. The story, he said, is “a metaphor for my own adolescence.”
After 16 years in Paris, the Belgian Ardennes and Barcelona, Vásquez returned to Bogotá in 2012, where he often commented on contemporary political and literary issues. Today the father of twins, he radiates warmth and thoughtfulness, as passionate in conversations about writing as he is about football.
Vásquez believes in the power of literature to open up new spaces in the dialogue about the past and the present charged with his country, something that concerns him more and more since the peace accords of 2016 between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces. of Colombia, or FARC. “I realized that one of the most important things that was negotiated was a version of our past,” he said. “We were trying to establish what happened in Colombia during these 50 years of war, and of course the only way to find out is to tell stories. This is where journalists, historians and novelists come in.
Indeed, the Colombian literary landscape is flourishing today thanks to writers such as Laura Restrepo, Jorge Franco, Pilar Quintana and Pablo Montoya, to name but a few. This is not surprising, according to Vásquez, because “places in conflict produce fiction: fiction is the place where all anxieties and discontent, dissatisfaction and fears of a society, filter”.
Ricardo Silva Romero, novelist and journalist based in Bogotá, echoed Vásquez’s sentiments in an email exchange. “All Colombian literature was made in the middle of the war, all of it from ‘La Vorágine’ [‘The Vortex,’ a 1924 novel by José Eustasio Rivera] to ‘Songs for the flames, ‘” Silva Romero said. “Our literary tradition, like our lives, runs along internal conflicts.”
For him, there is even room for cautious optimism: “We have wonderful authors who tell what has happened to us and what is happening to us with such vigor, with such courage, that we could live with the hope of to be able to shake up the logic of violence.
Not everyone shares such a rosy vision. Héctor Abad, the Medellín-based author of “Oblivion, ” a memoir on the murder of his father by paramilitary forces in 1987, among other works, said in an email that recent events have clouded his outlook.
“Maybe the reality is too real around us. It’s hard to get by: it imposes on your imagination even if you don’t want it, ”he said. “I think we’ve tried to help as writers, but I’m very discouraged these days. We live in a deeply sick society. Even the society of letters is sick.
Vásquez’s mood is tense: the peace accords, which he and Silva Romero see as the best chance “to break free from the spiral of violence”, have been politicized and are in danger, he said. “And for me, the social unrest we see today is inseparable from the failure of our leaders to keep the promise of the agreements.”
But he still managed to get something positive out of this difficult year. “One of the weird things about the pandemic is that I entered this time of loneliness and focus like I’ve never known it,” he said. “In nine months, I wrote a 480 page novel. It was unheard of. “
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