Another violent trip down memory lane
“But Borges, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortázar are the founders of my literary tradition. For me, only good things have come from this tradition. The only thing they have done is to open roads for us.”
One major contribution was to open Latin American literature to the outside world.Where it was once regarded as heretical to admire Kafka or Joyce, “now I can say that one of my greatest influences is Banville, or Philip Roth, and nobody says anything”, Vásquez says with a smile.
As we’re talking, his mobile rings, bringing the news that The Sound of Things Falling has just won a French literary award, the Prix Roger-Caillois, putting Vásquez in the same starry company as previous winners Fuentes, Vargas Llosa and Roberto Bolaño. Vásquez is clearly delighted, but he modestly says that the timing of his novel has helped it gain admirers in Europe.
“It was written in Barcelona after the al-Qaeda bombings in Madrid, so it was written among people who were afraid,” he says. “I saw this on people’s faces for some months – the mistrust when somebody saw a bag left in the metro – and so I think it’s a book written in a world that understands what it means to be afraid of acts of terrorism. It’s about questions that we all have: fear, the anxiety of unpredictable violence, the inability to protect people that you love.”
But it’s also a beautifully written novel.
Goooaal! How Pelé set Vásquez on a literary path
Reading fiction in translation brings many pleasures, not all of which are, strictly speaking, literary. A mention of something called arepas in the early pages of The Sound of Something Falling had me scurrying to Google and, shortly afterwards, salivating over photographs of these Colombian cornmeal treats.
Mostly, though, the sign of a really good translation is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself. No clunky gear changes or awkward sentences. In this Vásquez is fortunate. All three of his novels have been silkily translated by Anne McLean, the Canadian translator of – among many other books, both fiction and nonfiction – Javier Cercas’s The Soldiers of Salamis. She even has the translator’s equivalent of a knighthood: earlier this year she was awarded the Spanish Cross of the Order of Civil Merit for her role in making Spanish-language writing accessible in English.
Vásquez, mind you, has his own record in translation. At the age of nine he was commissioned by his father to translate a biography of Pelé into English. It was, the writer recalls fondly, a smart educational move on the part of Vásquez snr. “Football was the only thing that interested me at that moment,” he says. “My father, who was a very good reader and who loves the English language, wanted me to fall in love with the language at the same time as I was doing something I liked.”
He never did finish his translation of the life story of the great Brazilian footballer, he adds with a smile. But it was the first step on a reading road that led Vásquez through Joseph Conrad to Philip Roth and John Banville.
The Sound of Things Falling is published by Bloomsbury