Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Writer in Residence: 2012-13
Colombian born, Juan Gabriel Vásquez is both one of most promising Latin American writers and a very accomplished novelist, whose work has been received with great admiration and has been translated to several languages. Aside from writing novels, short stories and essays, Vásquez, has translated works from E.M. Forster, Victor Hugo, and John Hersey into Spanish, is a regular contributor to various magazines and journals, and writes a weekly opinion column for the newspaper El Espectador.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, an itinerant writer, received a Law degree from la Universidad del Rosario in Columbia and his Ph.D. in Literature from the Sorbonne in Paris. After finishing graduate school, he lived in Belgium and at the moment resides in Barcelona, but plans to return to Colombia in 2013.
Jaggi, The Guardian, 25 June 2010: “The Informers (2004),
published in a translation by Anne McLean in 2008, nods to
Conrad's Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent. A morally
complex thriller set in the late 80s and 90s in Colombia, it looks
back to the 40s and the second world war, when the government
unjustly interned German nationals on the basis of murky blacklists
and spying, during a period of zealous realignment with Washington.
One character plagiarises Gaitán's speeches, while, for a
Jewish refugee, the Bogotázo riots are a terrifying echo of
Kristallnacht. Vásquez's interest is in exploring
"dark corners of Colombian history that have made us what
we are now."
The novel was published in 12 languages; Carlos Fuentes admired its charting of that "grey area of human actions and awareness where our capacity to make mistakes, betray and conceal, creates a chain reaction that condemns us to a world without satisfaction". Vásquez was named one of the Bogotá 39 – Latin America's top writers under 40 – when the city was Unesco world book capital in 2007. For Mario Vargas Llosa, his is "one of the most original new voices" of the region.
Matthew Shaer, Bookforum, November 2009: “Vásquez has much in common with Roberto Bolaño. Vásquez’s great theme is memory: the nightmares, personal and political, that return to haunt us. But unlike Bolaño’s stolid, serviceable prose, Vásquez’s style is musical, occasionally even lush, and its poeticism remains unmuddled in McLean’s translation. “Now I’ve started to see my father when he’s not there,” Gabriel thinks, “to confuse him with my image of him, now I’ve started to unlearn his silhouette, for I’d realized I would have to unlearn his life: one revelation, just one fucking revelation, and already my father is a crude hologram, a phantom in the streets.”
Jane Ciabattari (Los Angeles Times, August 2011): “The Secret History of Costaguana" is a potent mixture of history, fiction and literary gamesmanship. Vásquez's themes are of the moment: powerful countries (the U.S. foremost among them) dabbling in Latin American politics, bribing politicians and journalists, trolling for profits; European writers appropriating history for their own tales. His particular triumph with this novel is to remind us, as Balzac put it, that novels can be "the private histories of nations."
Listening to Carlos
Fuentes with my eyes
I have spent the last few hours in my library, sitting in front of the shelf which holds my Carlos Fuentes collection (those books I have read and those I will read – I think it's safe to say very few have kept up with his prodigious output over recent years), and it has surprised me to realise how much time I have spent in the company of his work. I met Fuentes five years ago, but my relationship with his books, at least according to the personal survey I have just conducted, began in 1992, when I read The Death of Artemio Cruz and Aura and also Geography of the Novel. I always make a note of the date when I finish reading a book, so those pages bear witness to these 20 years. To put it another way: when I met him, in the summer of 2007, I had already been reading him as a classic for 15 years; and that literary admiration metamorphosed into the thrill of his friendship, of his company and conversation, of his all-too-rare curiosity. That passage from literary to personal knowledge of a novelist often leads to regret and disappointment; in this case, it was nothing short of privilege.
I saw him last October, I saw him in January, but I won't see him in November. This seems impossible to reconcile with the last image I hold of him, with the recurrent surprise of his longevity. Not his physical youthfulness, which was in itself miraculous, but the vitality of his mind: his unbelievable memory, allowing him to quote the entire cast of any film from the 60s; his quick wit and good humour, capable of defusing any solemnity. Fuentes's intellectual leadership is inexhaustible. Several generations learned from him and a few others what Latin American literature is. I learned, for instance, that this literature is the exact opposite of local literature, and that the Latin American novelist will embrace the world, accept or seek every influence of every tradition, devour every theme and every territory. I also learned to read: Cervantes and the chroniclers of the Indies and Broch and Musil. Fuentes's work passed on an idea of ambition – what it is, what it is for; it also pointed out that fidelity to a vocation does not mean hiding away from the world, but rather engaging with it and seeking its reinvention by the power of the written word. I learned, finally, about generosity of spirit, although I will never be able to practise it as he did.
A few months ago, through someone else's initiative and for reasons not pertinent here, I wrote to him asking who were his deceased. The question meant to touch upon Francisco de Quevedo's famous poem:
"Retreated in the peace of these deserts
With few but learned books together
I live with the deceased in conversation
And with my eyes I listen to the dead."
His answer reached me a couple of days later. His handwriting, which I knew before meeting him (having seen it in facsimiles, in autographs), had become almost indecipherable, but its message was as luminous as can be: "My deceased, you may imagine, are all those ancestors I remember (very few) and all those I am unable to (the great majority). I am what I am – and you are what you are – because of them." And tonight I cannot help but think that Fuentes has become one of those deceased; and after the mourning and the sadness, here, in my library where so many learned books stand together, I'm thinking at least I will live with him in conversation. I will listen to him with my eyes.