Another violent trip down memory lane
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s new novel draws on his life in Colombia during Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror
Juan Gabriel Vásquez has come all the way from Bogotá to talk about his new novel, The Sound of Things Falling. But when he begins to explain his concerns, his interests and what’s close to his heart as a writer, it’s clear that it’s not such a long, long way from Colombia to here as you might expect.
Vásquez, who left Colombia to live in France, Belgium and Spain for many years, is well acquainted with such themes as political violence and enforced exile. He recently returned to live in his native city, only to find it hugely changed. And if all that wouldn’t have Irish readers nodding their heads in recognition, how about this: one of his literary heroes is John Banville.
When it comes to sheer Gubudom, of course, the outrageousness of Colombia’s recent history puts Ireland into the halfpenny place. The Sound of Things Falling opens with this arresting image: “The first hippopotamus, a male the colour of black pearls weighing a ton and a half, was shot dead in the middle of 2009. He’d escaped two years before from Pablo Escobar’s old zoo in the Magdalena Valley.”
Vásquez came across a photograph of the dead hippo in a magazine, and it triggered a series of memories that became his way into writing the novel. “I had suppressed them, because they were linked with a decade which was very difficult,” he says. “We lived with the constant threat of a bomb. Pablo Escobar was bombing shopping malls and civilian planes. It was completely unpredictable. There wasn’t a target. He was just trying to create fear and cause chaos in order to force the government to negotiate with him.”
Vásquez never thought he would find himself writing about the drugs trade. “It has become a very popular subject in Colombia, mostly in crime fiction and thrillers, occasionally in literary novels,” he says. “But I don’t work with themes. I never say, ‘I should write about the drug trade,’ or, ‘I should write about the Nazis in Colombia.’ When I began to remember what I felt during those years of violence, I realised that there are very few books about the internal, private, emotional and moral consequences; how public events have affected us as private individuals.”
Nazis in Colombia form the dark heart of Vásquez’s haunting debut novel, The Informers. His second book, The Secret History of Costaguana, explores the intrigue that surrounded the building of the Panama Canal. The central focus of Vásquez’s narratives, however, is firmly inside the head of his narrators. The Sound of Things Falling has a strikingly idiosyncratic tone: wistful, elegiac almost, but not at all sentimental.
“I suspect it’s the tone of somebody remembering,” he says. “Memory is a very big thing for me – it’s in all three of my books. In this book, it’s particularly important. The narrator is about to turn 40, and he remembers his 20s and the way his life was sidetracked by a violent situation. An accident of violence.”
How do Vásquez and other young writers in South America remember their illustrious forebears – the big names of what is now called the Latin American boom? “I know that for many writers they are a threat to the imagination, and it has become a sort of fashion to disparage and disavow their influence,” he says.