Juan Gabriel Vásquez: ‘I write these books to help me understand Colombia’

The cerebral writer has won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award for a novel that recalls drug baron Pablo Escobar’s reign of corruption but also offers a portrait of contemporary Colombia

Juan Gabriel Vásquez can’t stop smiling, but it’s a calm, serene smile. The kind of smile that says “it is very nice to win another prize”. He has won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award – the first South American to do so – with a cool, intelligent novel that represents the changing face of Latin American writing.

Standing beside him is Anne McLean, a gifted translator who not only listens to her authors, she listens to their books. She is laughing, gives a victory salute, and is so openly happy that only a spoilsport would attempt to stop the party and interview this pair of literary collaborators. Vásquez is the first to admit that the novel’s success in English lies in McLean’s creative evocation of the narrator’s rueful tone and his bitter resentment of the misfortune that has befallen him.

Tone is always vital in fiction, yet in The Sound of Things Falling it is almost the entire story. Antonio Yammara, the narrator, is a disgruntled young law lecturer given to spending his afternoons playing pool. He has suffered a gunshot wound that has seriously affected his life, undermining his sense of self. Poor timing and very bad luck place him beside a man with a price on his head. The two men are little more than acquaintances, yet, when an assassin appears on a motorbike and kills Ricardo Laverde, a stray bullet leaves Yammara injured and angry.

“He needs to find the answers for many questions” says Vásquez, who cheerfully agrees that the narrator is not very sympathetic. “No, he’s a jerk. I knew he was a jerk right away. He’s a guy who thinks only of himself, sleeps with his students, treats his girlfriend – the mother of his child – badly, and leaves everything when he sets off to find out things for himself. The men in my books are never good. The women are much better.”


The translator

Vásquez speaks very good English. "It is my second language," he says, and when he makes minor mistakes, McLean, who also translated The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguana, corrects him in the muted voice of an absent-minded school teacher. The novel recalls drug baron Pablo Escobar's reign of corruption and resulting violence, but also offers a portrait of contemporary Colombia and, with it, Yammara's personal quest.

McLean had visited the country many years before she met Vásquez. “It was before I learned Spanish; I didn’t know any when I first went to Colombia, to visit my sister, in 1988. That was the thing that got me learning Spanish.” Initially, French had been her second language. “My French disappeared into my Spanish.”

Since experiencing that nudge, she has translated several of the finest Spanish- language works of recent years, including Javier Cercas's Soldiers of Salamis, which won the 2004 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize; and four of his other books; as well as Tomas Eloy Martinez's The Tango Singer. Her translation of Evelio Rosero's The Armies won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009, and The Informers was also shortlisted that year. She has also translated the work of Enrique Vila-Matas.

She compares her work to that of an actor or a musician. “I interpret. He [she points to Vásquez] wrote the book. I try to make sure it’s his book that I get out there. The original is like a composer’s score or script to me, which I need to recapture and recreate and rewrite as closely as possible to the original. Creative liberty is a necessary part of the process, otherwise the translated novel is not a work of art.”

She brings tremendous energy to her work. McLean believes in fiction as a way of seeing the world, as does Vásquez, and it shows in the deliberate, allusive way in which he writes.

He is an intensely cerebral, unemotional writer, equally alert to popular as well as literary and historical events. He finds out things and makes these connections before somehow piecing it all together in a fiction that evolves into an investigation, in which the reader plays a part.

Vásquez has a law degree and is the son of lawyer parents – “although my mother doesn’t practice, my sister does” – and describes himself as a typical South American writer. “I went to Paris, we all – meaning South American writers – go to Paris.”

He studied Latin American literature at Sorbonne, and then moved on to Belgium before living in Barcelona, picking up a good grasp of French along the way.

He has a well-groomed air of privilege about him. When he mentions being born on January 1st, it figures, and it somehow seems quite correct to tease him about being so perfect. He is approachable and good-natured, joining in the discussion of his novel as freely as if it had been written by someone else, which in some ways, for the English-language reader, it has been. His 16 years of travel have given him the distance required to look at his country with a detached gaze.

“I write these books to help me understand Colombia. You know you think that you know your country – I thought I did – and then you realise, no, there is something else, something I hadn’t noticed before. Everything is always changing. Nothing is really that obvious. Colombia is full of dark places, and I try to shine a little light on those dark places.”

The mysteries of Bogotá

Bogotá seems a mysterious city, high up in the clouds where the air is thin and mystery multiplies: "There is no coast; most of the other South American capitals are built on ports." Vásquez recalls having written about 150 pages of the book in the third person before he stopped and realised that it needed a narrator: "It was too removed." He was perturbed, not panicked – it is hard to imagine him panicking – and he came to a stop. Then he saw the image of the dead hippopotamus, "and it reminded me of the photograph that was everywhere when Pablo Escobar was shot. It happened on December 2nd, 1993."

Escobar, the most notorious drug baron in South America, was for some a kind of Robin Hood figure. More than 25,000 people attended his funeral. Although rumours persist that he shot himself through the ears rather than be captured, history maintains that Colombian police killed Escobar, having cornered him on a roof during a final shoot-out.

Vásquez says the novel took two years to write, “but it took 10 to put it together”. McLean pauses and points out that, although she took a year to translate it – “and don’t forget I wasn’t starting with a blank page” – she was translating two other books at the same time. Vásquez writes in plain, precise, unadorned Spanish, devoid of baroque flourishes. The text is rich in metaphors for falling, and chance dictates the action. There are shades of Melville, and Conrad, who is so important to Vásquez. In ways, this is a 19th-century novel written in a modern idiom.

Latin-American writers of an earlier generation needed magical realism, says Vásquez. “For some of them it was the technique they had to use. But it was not for me.” He points out that literary influences are not bound by national borders. Vásquez, with his love of Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov, is a European writer. Bogotá is almost a European city, albeit enclosed by the Andean landscape. He looks to a different kind of writing. Various pieces of information came to him by chance; he found the letters of an American Peace Corps worker in one of the many bookshops in Hay-on-Wye; the transcript of the black box of the doomed American Airline flight 965 that crashed into the mountains in Colombia appeared to have been waiting for him in a bookshop in Brussels.

Vásquez, who is working on a new novel, lets a story lead him on a journey. He takes his time over the path. McLean is completing the translation of his first collection of short stories. There were two novels before he wrote The Informers, but he has chosen to leave them behind. Clues, forgotten histories, telling details and fragments of possible narratives hover and flutter just out of reach. Vásquez is sufficiently patient to wait before assembling the facts.

The Sound of Things Falling is published by Bloomsbury