‘The Storm Waiting To Happen’: A Colombian Writer Watches His Home From Outside

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

“Things were different now in some lucky places: the violence was receding and people were starting to recognize something like peace again,” she thinks. However, when he encounters a local woman again, he realizes that the horrors of the past – repressed memories, if not corpses – lie just below the surface.

“The story shows you how fast Colombian reality moves,” Vásquez said in a video interview from Berlin, where he has been teaching a series of lectures on fiction and politics (“my usual obsessions”) at the Free University since the beginning of April. “In fiction, we try to cope with the present, and reality is outpacing us.”

Of course, he refers to late April, when Colombian reality suddenly changed once more: After the government of President Iván Duque attempted a tax revision in response to the economic fallout of the pandemic, mass strikes and demonstrations erupted across the country. In the weeks that followed, the protests intensified and expanded to include issues of social inequality and police reform. Images of clashes with the police spread all over the world. The country burned once again.

Vásquez, 48, who has novels such asThe Sound of Falling Things” and “The Shape of the Ruins” chronicled Colombia’s turbulent history viewed in horror from afar. He said it was “frustrating and infuriating”, especially as the country’s fight against the epidemic, police brutality, and the distinction between rich and poor have long been evident.

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

“Songs for the Flames,” which Riverhead released in English on August 3 and translated from Spanish by Anne McLean, feels particularly timely due to the turmoil in Colombia. But when it was released by Alfaguara in Colombia in 2018, it felt like a precursor. “A year later, we held demonstrations against police brutality where 13 people were killed,” Vásquez said. “And now we have what we witness every day. Colombian reality has an incredible ability to fulfill bad omens.”

The book includes four previously published stories and five new stories that relate to what he describes as “echoes and common themes.” Many are driven by narrators who resemble previous incarnations of Vásquez – writers wandering around Europe, unsure of their future and whether they will return home. In “The Last Corrido,” a young novelist takes on the role of a magazine touring with a Mexican band in Spain, and ponders illness, mortality, and his uncertain destiny along the way. In “The Boys,” the rituals of a group of teenagers in Bogota reflect a world where judges and politicians are shot in broad daylight, and the drug cartels of Cali and Medellin are “starting to speak out”. The story, he said, is “a metaphor for my own adolescence.”

After 16 years in Paris, the Belgian Ardennes and Barcelona, ​​Vásquez returned to Bogotá in 2012, where he frequently commented on current political and literary issues. Now the father of twin girls radiates warmth and thoughtfulness, he is as passionate about writing as he is about football in conversation.

Increasingly in his mind since the 2016 peace agreements between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Vásquez believes in the power of literature to open new spaces for dialogue about his country’s full past and present. “I realized that one of the most important things to negotiate is a version of our past,” he said. “We were trying to determine what was going on in Colombia during this 50-year war, and of course the only way to know is to tell stories. This is where journalists, historians and novelists come into play.”

Indeed, Colombia’s literary landscape is flourishing today thanks to writers like Laura Restrepo, Jorge Franco. Pilar Quintana and Pablo Montoya, to name a few. This is not surprising, according to Vásquez, because “places in conflict produce fiction: Fiction is where all the worries and discontents, discontents and fears of a society filter through.”

Ricardo Silva Romero, a Bogota-based novelist and journalist, echoed Vásquez’s sentiments in an email exchange. “All of Colombian literature was made in the middle of the war, it’s all from ‘La Vorágine’. [‘The Vortex,’ a 1924 novel by José Eustasio Rivera] To Songs for Flames,’” Silva Romero said. “Our literary tradition, like our life, is driven by internal conflict.”

For him, there is even room for cautious optimism: “We have great writers who describe what happens to us and what happens to us so vividly, so boldly, that we can live with the hope that we can get over that hope. The logic of violence.”

Not everyone shares such a rosy view. Héctor Abad, based in Medellin “state of unawarenessA memoir about his father’s murder by paramilitary forces in 1987, among other work, said in an email, that recent events had darkened his perspective.

“Maybe the reality is too real around us. “It’s hard to get out of under it: it strains your imagination even if you don’t want to.” “I think we tried to help as writers, but I’m very discouraged these days. We live in a very sick society. Even the literary society is sick.”

Vásquez’s own mood is tense: he said peace deals, which both he and Silva Romero think represent the best chance to “free ourselves from a spiral of violence”, are politicized and in danger. “And to me, the social unrest we see today is inseparable from the failure of our leaders to deliver on the promise of agreements.”

However, he still managed to draw something positive out of this difficult year. “One of the weird things about the pandemic was that I went into this period of solitude and concentration that I never knew existed,” he said. “I wrote a 480-page novel in nine months. It was unheard of.”

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