Juan Gabriel Vásquez is a Colombian writer. That much is solid and irrefutable. That is also roughly where clear an unquestionable categorizations end with him. While his Colombian heritage is plainly and deliberately evident in his writing, the choice of his subjects, even to some degree in the style of his prose, Vásquez is a versatile writer who for the past ten years has been rocking the literary landscape, not only in the Spanish-speaking world.
Born in Bogotá in 1973, Vásquez shares with so many other Latin Americans of his generation (and I’m not talking exclusively about writers) a knack for moving around: he studied in Paris, graduating from the Sorbonne in 1999; he spent a year in Belgium following his three-year stint in France; he lived in Barcelona for close to ten years, before moving back to Bogotá in 2013. Multifarious and resourceful, Vásquez made a living as a literary translator (E. M Forster, Victor Hugo, etc.) long before becoming a novelist, also penning a biography of Joseph Conrad—a figure who would become central in his second mature novel.
Following an early period of production in the late ’90s, which he has publicly disowned, Vásquez broke into the literary landscape in 2004, with The Informers—a novel that clearly announces not only his coming of age in narrative terms but also the general lines that would govern his literary interest for the next decade. Rooted in an episode of Colombian history, Vásquez dexterously weaves a tale of personal conflict and loss within the larger context of the country’s social history and the specific behavior of certain sectors of society whose past actions cast a negative shadow on the novel’s present. In these vague terms, Vásquez’s foray into Colombia’s social history seems unadventurous. But as soon as you think of it in terms of specifics, locating it in the days of the Second World War, as Vásquez does, and placing it within the social ramifications triggered by Colombia’s decision to declare war on Germany and persecute a portion of its immigrant population, then the novel becomes more problematic, which in many senses is the goal of any modern novel.
Almost reversing the most prominent trend in Latin America in the last quarter of the XX century, Vásquez does not lay claim to events away from his country but rather takes possession of a major international affair to place it in an unusual and often disregarded context: in the domestic arena of his natal Colombia. This move is similar, if less radical, than the one that shapes his second novel: The Secret History of Costaguana.
It is often said that the best Latin American novel is Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, which tells the story of the revolution of a fictitious country in Central America, Costaguana, shaped by Conrad around the events that led to the independence of Panama from Colombia. Quite apart from the obvious symptoms of Eurocentric arrogance that place Nostromo (1904) at the top of the list of Latin American creations, Conrad’s novel is remarkable for a number of things, not least the astonishing sensibility with which he captured a suitably implausible junction in the country’s political life. Uncannily, he also preempted the evolution of South American literature by close to a century, appropriating a portion of the continent’s history to write a foreign novel (doubly foreign, since Conrad was a Polish émigré writing in English).
Vásquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana thus re-claims this episode of Colombian history on behalf of Colombian literature and, further, incorporates the lore that comes with Conrad and Nostromo into his creation. Part historical fiction, part meta-literary text, The Secret History is—needless to say—not a simple book, but it is a rewarding read on so many levels that it almost guarantees partial satisfaction.
Set at the beginning of the XX century, it recreates an imaginary conversation between Joseph Conrad and the novel’s narrator, José Altamirano, a Colombian exile in London with considerable emotional baggage and faint literary ambitions. In his own mind, by providing an accomplished author such as Conrad with the sort of material he is ready to divulge about his country he would be inflicting the ultimate revenge on the nation whose infamous and bloody History (with capital H) claimed his youth, his wife, his father, even his. Naturally, however, Conrad takes what he wants, adds a whole lot, removes Altamirano from the narrative altogether and comes up with Nostromo.
Vásquez evidently feels there is another side to the story, the local side, which merits telling, and hence uses his character, José Altamirano, as a mouthpiece to explain the effects of “Big Events” in the day-to-day life of the “little people.” Like in his previous novel, The Informers, Vásquez is interested—obsessed, almost—with the junction where individual stories and major historical events cross over. This subject also features prominently in his third mature novel, The Sound of Things Falling, set against the violent backdrop of Colombia’s problematic affair with drug cartels in the 1980s and ’90s, in which a personal journey of remembrance leads the protagonist through a labyrinth of coincidences and misfortunes that acquaintances him directly with the history of drug production and trade in Colombia, triggering a moral dilemma that affects him at a profoundly personal level.
But often with Vásquez the structure and narrative strategy used in the novel tells as much about his work as the historical side does. This is certainly the case in The Secret History of Costaguana, where he places Altamirano before an imaginary jury to whom he defends his decision to betray his country and exact revenge from it. The allusion to Conrad in the title is immediately mirrored by echoes of Nabokov’s Lolita in the protagonist’s voice, in Vásquez’s use of footnotes. This sets off a game of intellectual interplay that takes us from Moliere and Racine to Engels, Gaugin and beyond. Hence, The Secret History of Costaguana is also a catalog of works and influences that have shaped Vásquez’s vision, Panama’s history, or both.
Most importantly, however, The Secret History of Costaguana is a tale of boats. Chronicling the most significant moments in the XIX century in the isthmus of Panama inevitably takes Vásquez through a litany of armed conflicts (hence, The Secret History of Costaguana is also a tale of war) but instead of traveling the path indelibly opened by Gabriel García Másquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Vásquez consciously and expressly avoids any strain of magic realism (in the measure that such thing is possible in South America) and chooses instead to narrate his tale—a tale in which the Canal features prominently, of course, a tale which takes place quite literally in between two oceans, in the port city of Colón—through the enumeration of boats.
Thus you have the Falcon, which in 1849 brings the first gringosto start building a passage across the isthmus; and the Isabel, which features prominently in the tale of the narrator’s conception; and you have the Nipsic, which embarks on a fateful exploration of the Darien Jungle in 1876; and the Helena, which is the harbinger of a new revolution; and the Bordeaux, which in 1881 brings the yellow fever; and the Galena, which together with the Shenandoah and the Swatara and the Tennessee come to put an end to another revolution in 1885; and the Iris and the Marietta and the Tribune and the Philadelphia among others, which were there to broker the deal that ultimately led to the independence of Panama from Colombia and to the canal being fully in control of the United States for 100 years. The list goes on.
Vásquez’s use of quirky, clever devices such as this, or the appearance of a hippopotamus in the Colombian jungle in The Sound of Things Falling, not only works as a sign of identity in his prose, it also work wonders in diversifying stories that often could come across as laborious or tedious—as plain history. That they do not is perhaps the greatest testament to Vásquez’s talent: an elegant, thoughtful and contained storyteller who deliberately requires from his readers to relinquish control, to hold their judgment until the end, and then to do some thinking. Placing him firmly in a category isn’t easy, but my best guess would be, not historical or literary, but “ambitious” fiction instead. And in my book, that counts as a plus.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on January 25, 2014.