‘A Storm Waiting to Happen’: A Colombian Writer Views His Home from Afar

In the opening story of his new collection, “Songs for the Flames”, Juan Gabriel Vasquez writes about a war photojournalist who returns to a part of the Colombian countryside where, 20 years ago, a conflict between paramilitary and guerrilla forces There were casualties of the bloody conflict. Swim in a nearby river.

“Things were different now in some fortunate places: violence was retreating and people were finding something like peace again,” she thinks. Yet when she meets a local woman, she learns that the horrors of the past – buried memories, if not bodies – live just below the surface.

“The story shows you how fast Colombian reality moves,” Vasquez said in a video interview from Berlin, where he’s been attending a series of lectures on fiction and politics (“my common passion”) at the Free University since early April. is giving. “We try to deal with the present moment in fiction, and reality overtakes us.”

He’s referring, of course, to the end of April, when Colombian reality suddenly changed once again: after President Iván Duque’s government attempted a tax overhaul in response to the economic fallout from the pandemic, massive nationwide There were attacks and demonstrations. In the weeks that followed, the protests grew in intensity and expanded to include issues of social inequality and police reform. Pictures of clashes with police surfaced around the world. The country was on fire once again.

Vásquez, 48, whose novels such as “The Sound of Things Falling“And “The Shape of the Ruins” has looked at Colombia’s turbulent history with horror from afar. It was “disappointing and infuriating”, he said, especially since the country has been plagued by pandemics, police violence and conflicts between rich and poor. The divide between had long been evident.

“It was very sad that some of us – many of us – were able to see it, but not the government,” he said with a sigh. “It was all a storm waiting to happen.”

Due to the turmoil in Colombia, “Songs for the Flames”, which Riverhead is releasing in English on August 3, translated from Spanish by Anne MacLean, seems particularly timely. But it came as a harbinger when it was published by Alphaguara in Colombia in 2018. “A year later, we demonstrated against police brutality, in which 13 people were killed,” Vasquez said. “And now we have what we see every day. Colombians have an incredible talent for fulfilling omens in reality.”

The book includes four previously published stories and five new stories, which he describes as “echoes and common threads”. Many of them are inspired by storytellers who resemble Vasquez’s earlier incarnations – struggling writers wander Europe, unsure of their future and whether or not to return home. In “The Last Corrido”, a young novelist takes on a magazine assignment while on tour with a Mexican band in Spain, contemplating illness, mortality, and his uncertain fate along the way. In “The Boys”, the rituals of a group of teenagers in Bogota depict a world where judges and politicians are shot in broad daylight and the Callie and Medellin drug cartels “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, ​​Vasquez moved back to Bogotá in 2012, where he has been a frequent commentator on contemporary political and literary issues. Now the father of twin girls, he exudes warmth and thoughtfulness, is as passionate in conversation about writing as he is about football.

Vásquez believes in the power of literature to open new spaces in conversations about his country’s horrific past and present, something that has been on his mind since the 2016 peace agreements between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC. is growing rapidly. “I realized that one of the most important things that was being negotiated was a version of our past,” he said. “We were trying to establish what happened in Colombia in these 50 years of war, and for sure the only way to know is by telling stories. That’s where journalists and historians and novelists come in.”

Indeed, thanks to authors such as Laura Restrepo, Jorge Franco, Colombia’s literary landscape has flourished today. Pilar Quintana and Pablo Montoya, to name a few. According to Vasquez, this is not surprising, because “places in conflict create imagination: narrative is where all the anxieties and dissatisfaction, resentment and fear of a society are filtered out.”

Bogota-based novelist and journalist Ricardo Silva Romero echoed Vasquez’s sentiments in an email exchange. “All Colombian literature is created in the middle of the war, it’s all from ‘La Voragine’ [‘The Vortex,’ a 1924 novel by José Eustasio Rivera] For ‘Song for the Flames’,'” Silva Romero said. “Our literary tradition, like our lives, is accompanied by internal conflict.”

For them, there is also room for secure optimism: “We have wonderful writers who describe what has happened to us and what is happening to us, with so much courage, that we can live with the hope that we It can be shaken by the logic of violence.”

Not everyone shares such a rosy outlook. Medellin-based author Hector Abad”oblivion, ” A memoir about the murder of his father by paramilitary forces in 1987, among other works, states in an email that recent events have darkened his outlook.

“Maybe reality is too real all around us. It’s hard to get out from under it: it imposes on your imagination, even if you don’t want it to,” he said. “I think we have helped as writers. Tried it, but nowadays I am very disappointed. We live in a deeply ill society. Even the society of letters is sick.”

Vasquez’s own mood is tense: the peace agreement, which both him and Silva Romero think is the best chance to “free themselves from the spiral of violence”, has been politicized and is under threat, he said. “And to me, the social unrest we are seeing today is inseparable from our leaders’ failure to deliver on the promises of agreements.”

But still he has been able to extract something positive from this difficult year. “One of the strangest things about the pandemic was that I went into this period of solitude and concentration like I’ve never known,” he said. “In nine months, I wrote a 480-page novel. It was unheard of.”

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