Juan Gabriel Vásquez


Juan Gabriel Vásquez (1973) was born in Colombia where he acquired a law degree. After completing his studies he went to Paris where he acquired a PhD in Latin American literature at the Sorbonne. He then lived in the Belgian Ardennes for a time before settling in Barcelona. After living abroad for sixteen years, he returned to Colombia with his family in 2013.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez is one of the key figures in a new generation of Latin American writers. Mario Vargas Llosa described him as ‘one of the most original new voices in the region’. Gabriel Vásquez has published novels, short stories and essays that have been translated into various languages. He also writes regularly for magazines and newspapers and has a weekly column in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. Finally, he has also translated the work of E.M. Foster, Victor Hugo and John Hersey into Spanish. In 2007 Vásquez was included in Bogotá39, a list of the thirty-nine most promising South American writers under the age of thirty-nine.

In 1997 he published his first novel, Persona, followed by short stories, a biography of Joseph Conrad, a collection of essays and four novels of which three have been translated into English. In his writing, Juan Gabriel Vásquez returns to dark periods in Colombian history, in which corruption, violence and opportunism are rampant. In The Informers (2004) he writes about the harsh treatment the Germans received in Colombia during WWII and in The Secret History of Costaguana (2007) about the construction of the Panama Canal and the bloodshed that accompanied it. In his most recent novel, The Sound of Things Falling (2011), he looks back, in a language that is beautifully atmospheric, at the rise and success of the Colombian drug trade in the seventies and eighties and the impact drug terrorism has had on his generation. For this novel, Gabriel Vásquez received the prestigious Spanish Premio Alfaguara.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez will be staying in Brussels for three weeks to work on a new manuscript in peace and quiet. Apart from this he will also participate in the first Passa Porta Seminar.


Authors' text

Getting Poems from the News

In 2009, I was in the middle of a very serious literary crisis; in other words,
I was writing a novel. I had spent the previous year trying to shape the story
of a retired pilot, a middle-aged man who has just been released from
prison after serving twenty years for drug trafficking. The story was mostly
set in the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon's War on Drugs was turning the
private vice of marijuana into one of the most lucrative illegal industries on
the world, thus creating the first small Latin-American mafias; those
mafias, as everyone knows, would subsequently turn into the drug cartels
that forever changed the history of my country. The early years of drug
trafficking had never been deeply explored in fiction, and I was intent on
filling that void; but the effort was going nowhere. After a year's work, all I
had to show was 150 pages of prose that seemed distant and unconvincing,
although I had put into them everything I knew about writing. Any novelist
knows the feeling: you work away at your paragraphs, you incessantly

polish your sentences and chisel your adverbs, you go back to your Tolstoy
for characterization and to your Flaubert for structure, but somehow the
novel still seems far away from you: it seems alien. And you start wondering
why it is absolutely necessary that you tell this story; and you begin
dreading the moment in which the revelation comes: it is not. It is not
necessary, for that story could have been written by anybody else. Lose it,
and the world remains unchanged; what's worse, you remain unchanged.
You discover you were never invested (morally, emotionally) in these
anecdotes, in these characters; you discover the story had never belonged to
But the gods of literature can sometimes be merciful. One day in
June, I opened up a magazine and stumbled upon the photograph of a dead
hippo. According to the text, he had belonged to Pablo Escobar's former zoo
in the Magdalena Valley. Escobar, the most violent drug lord in the history
of the trade, had enjoyed spending millions of dollars on exotic animals;
when he was killed in December of 1993 (after leading a war against the
Colombian state that left at least 6,000 dead and many more traumatized
for life), the zoo was seized by the state and the animals, all but forgotten,
began slowly to die or escape. The hippo was one of them; after two years
spent destroying crops and terrifying peasants, the army hunted him down.
And there they were, in the picture: a bunch of soldiers with rifles
surrounding the dead mass of the hippo's body. At first, I didn't realize
what it was that made me so uncomfortable; but after a while I noticed that
the image of the hunters surrounding the hippo was strikingly similar to the
one of the policemen surrounding the dead body of Pablo Escobar himself,

just minutes after he was shot down on the rooftops of Medellín. Within
seconds, that hippo had become a sort of surreal madeleine, and I began,
for the first time since I had fled Colombia in 1996, remembering that
decade in which terrorism -bombings in shopping malls or commercial
airplanes, shootings in restaurants or in the streets- became commonplace
for my generation. And this was my epiphany: that my novel was not about
that pilot and his life in the 1970s, but about my generation and its legacy;
that it was not about the past wars, but about the present scars and
memories. The news of a dead hippo published in a 2009 magazine gave me
the key to my novel. And so the past, which has always been my obsession,
in this novel turned out to be nothing more than the hidden manifestation
of a piece of breaking news.
My point is that the novelist's relationship with the ghosts of the
present, at least as they appear in the media, is uneasy and unpredictable,
and can't be wrapped up in the comfortable cliché stating that actuality is
for journalists, whereas literature always needs time. Of course literature
needs time, if for no other reason than the fact that novels take so long to
write. A deep, comprehensive and thoughtful investigation into a subject,
composed in careful language and enriched with a carefully considered
outlook on life, will consume several months and quite likely several years-
by which time the world has already changed, your original impulse has
receded in the distance and the opinion you had on it has gained new
nuances, new gradations of colour, new tinges. The opposite impulse, the
instinctive and immediate attack on a contemporary subject, can have
terrible consequences. Colombian novelists know a little about that. In the

1950s, while a young Caribbean writer called Gabriel García Márquez was
trying to publish his first books, the country was succumbing to a civil war
that would eventually leave more than 300,000 dead. It was the period we
call La Violencia, The Violence, with a (dreadful, appalling, ominous)
capital V. The daily massacres, as they appeared in the papers, proved very
stimulating to emerging as well as established novelists, who began writing
about the dead almost before they had time to mourn them. But the novels
were not good; in fact, they were a failure. García Márquez was perhaps
alone in realizing where the trouble lay.
It is understandable, therefore, that the only national literary
explosion we have ever had -the so-called "Novel of the Violence"-
should represent an awakening to the reality of a literally frustrated
country. Without a tradition, the first national drama we were
conscious of surprised us unarmed. In order for the complete
literary digestion of political violence, a series of pre-established
cultural conditions was necessary which would have supported the
urgency of artistic expression at a critical moment.
Elsewhere he argues that Colombian novelists not only didn't enjoy
a solid tradition on which to start building their own books, but they didn't
even have the ingenuity or basic cunning to realise that they should have
taken the time to learn to write novels before trying to use novels to explore
what they saw in the news. Newspapers were too much with them; their
novels became books with a thesis, pamphlets, a mere -this is García
Márquez again- "inventory of deaths". Their fictions, though full of good
indignation and humanitarian purposes, are utterly lacking in art. By art I
mean, besides the simple values of style and structure, that kind of deeper
perception that is born when the novelist lets the novel think by itself

instead of making it a vehicle for his own, limited opinions. Dealing with a
news item in fiction is different because fiction tends to think for itself.
Novels are more intelligent -smarter, more comprehensive- than their
authors, who are irredeemably tied to prejudices, feebleness, ideology, and
even faith. To my mind, the incident that best describes this process is the
writing of one of my tutelary books and perhaps the best political novel of
all time: Dostoevsky's Demons.
On 21 November 1869, while spending some months in Dresden,
Dostoevsky came upon a piece of news. His routine during his German
season included rising at one in the afternoon, "because I worked at night",
having a walk after lunch and another one in the evening, and then coming
back home to tea and seven hours of work. "During my evening walk" he
explains in a letter, "I stop at the reading room where there are Russian
newspapers and read the St Petersburg Gazette, the Voice and the Moscow
Gazette". One of those afternoons, through one of those newspapers, he
learned about the murder of a certain Ivan Ivanov, a student at the
Petrovsky Agricultural Academy, by a twenty-two-year-old nihilist leader
called Sergei Nechaev. Ivan Ivanov had been a member of Nechaev's
clandestine revolutionary group, but had recently quit; fearing he might
turn informer, Nechaev and his accomplices killed him -a shot to the
head- and threw his body, weighted with bricks, into the icy waters of a
This small fait divers made a strong impression on Dostoevsky. He
was at the time working on a huge project, a mammoth of a novel he
referred to as "my religious poem", originally called Atheism but now

carrying the working title of The Life of a Great Sinner: the book that would
confirm his reputation and put him, he thought, in the same league as
Tolstoy and Turgenev. But he was in desperate need of money, and the
piece of news about the murder provided him, he thought, with an easy
subject with which to earn quickly and ventilate certain political
resentments. "I have tackled a rich idea," he wrote to a friend. "Like Crime
and Punishment, but even closer to reality, more vital, and having a direct
relevance to the most contemporary issue." In December he began taking
notes about the two young men and their conflict. The situation seemed to
provide him with a metaphor of the Russian confrontation between
Westerners and Slavophiles: Ivan Ivanov represented the "New Russian
Man", an embodiment of the Slavic character; Sergei Nechaev, the nihilist,
was the quintessential enemy, the depraved and distorted inheritance of the
liberals and the idealists of the previous generation - the people who, in
Dostoevsky's mind, were succeeding in selling the Russian soul to the
influences of Western thought. He was going for the polemical: "What I'm
writing is a tendentious piece," he explained. "I wish to speak about several
matters even though my artistry goes smash." His opinions on the matter
were so strong that he began talking about a "novel-pamphlet". But in July
1870, some sort of creative accident took place. "Two weeks ago," he writes
to Sofia Ivanova, "getting back to work, I suddenly saw all at once what the
trouble was." And then: "Everything had to be radically changed; not
hesitating for a moment, I struck out everything I had written, and I began
again on page 1. The work of a whole year was wiped out."
What happened? The new project that had sprung out of the Russian

newspapers began mixing up with The Life of a Great Sinner. The pamphlet
novel got mixed up with the deep, novelistic exploration of the subject that
intrigued and fascinated Dostoevsky his whole life: belief in God. The main
characters that enact this essential point of conflict come, as it were,
imported from the serious novel. Dostoevsky discovered, little by little, the
impossibility of writing only a pamphlet. Stavrogin, one of Dostoevsky's
richest creations, has taken over as the centre of the novel, and displaced
both the Nihilists and the Slavophiles; the political satire has turned into a
deep moral exploration of the darkest corners of our being, of good and evil
working within the always difficult terrain of politics and father-and-son
conflicts. To his publisher, Mikhail Katkov, he writes these often-quoted
One of the major events of my story will be the murder of Ivanov by
Nechaev, which is well known in Moscow. I hasten to make a
reservation: I do not know and never knew either Nechaev or
Ivanov, or the circumstances of this murder, except from the
newspapers. And even if I knew, I would not have started copying. I
only take the accomplished fact. My fantasy may differ in the highest
degree from the actual reality.
I would not have started copying: these are the words that
Colombian writers from the time of The Violence did not know, even
though in previous decades (the decades of Joyce and Proust and Virginia
Woolf) the idea had become common knowledge: novelists do not -should
not, on pain of artistic death- limit themselves to reproduction of the
But in recent years, a series of novelists from different traditions

have established, willingly or otherwise, a different relationship with
documents in general and newspapers in particular. It is a kind of
relationship that amounts to a new poetics; it has, to my mind, opened up
interesting possibilities for novelists, which means only one thing: novels
now go to places which were before unreachable.
I'm referring to those works that W. G. Sebald, one of the great
practitioners of this approach, calls documentary fiction. Dostoevsky or
Flaubert used the news as raw material, as part of the creative impulse at a
stage before the creative writing begins; documentary fiction uses pieces of
news as plot points, narrative devices, or even symbols. Look, for instance,
at the narrator of Sebald's novel Vertigo, who takes a train from Vienna to
Venice and then becomes obsessed with the years Casanova spent
imprisoned in the Doge's castle. He describes Casanova's disarray and,
finally, his escape. Days later, the same narrator is spending his time in the
bar of an Italian hotel, trying to write. Luciana, the woman behind the bar,
asks him if he is a journalist or a writer. "When I said that neither the one
nor the other was quite right, she asked what it was that I was working on,
to which I replied that I did not know for certain myself, but had a growing
suspicion that it might turn into a crime story." At some point the writing
becomes difficult ("the most meaningless, empty, dishonest scrawl"), and
the narrator is hugely relieved when somebody arrives bringing
newspapers. "Most of them were English and French," Sebald writes, "but
there were also two Italian papers, the Gazzetino and the Alto Adige." As he
finishes reading them, an article calls his attention. As well it should: it
announces a play, put on stage at the local theatre, about Casanova's days at

the Doge's. What does this mean? The narrator includes a photograph of
the article, presumably so that we know he is not lying; and the effect is
indeed strange, halfway between an objet trouvé and a coincidence.
Vertigo was published in German in 1990. In 1998, a Spanish false
novel -thus described by its author, Javier Marías- used photographs and
press clippings in much the same way. Javier Marías, the narrator of Dark
Back of Time, meets a couple of old bookshop owners, Mr and Mrs Stone. A
magazine interviews them; its pages are reproduced in the novel with
enough quality so that we can read the text. "We even appear in a Spanish
novel by Xavier Marías," Mr Ralph Stone says, speaking about Marías's
sixth novel, All Souls; and we become aware that we are reading another
novel by Marías in which the characters we meet speak within an interview
about being included in a book by the author who includes this interview. In
a complex narrative built as a house of mirrors and dealing with, among
other things, the relationship between fact and fiction, the decision to use
this press clipping -and let it condition or contaminate everything that
comes- is not, could never be, gratuitous. In Soldiers of Salamis, by Javier
Cercas, the narrator is a journalist who publishes an article in the Spanish
press that enables the whole plot to unravel; in The Adversary, by
Emmanuel Carrère, the narrator begins by telling us that on Saturday, 9
January 1993, while he was attending a school meeting with his family,
Jean-Claude Romand was murdering his own. Four days later he opens the
journal Libération and reads about the murder. That is the beginning of
this extraordinary non-fiction novel. Question: Is The Adversary a novel?
Answer: It must be, since it asks the kind of questions novels ask. Question:

And what are those? Answer: Moral questions. It is as simple as that.
So you see, the novelist's relationship with the news is not as
predictable as we may think. It can manifest in many different ways, and
our task as novelists is to look closely at these manifestations, understand
how they work and take what profit -literary profit- we can from them.
What is valuable in them, whether a piece of news works from outside or
from within the novel, is the transformation of that material (as García
Márquez used to say) through the redeeming power of poetry; or through
the virtues of language, pattern and structure; or through that indefinable,
magical shift of perspective that may have been in Nabokov's mind when he
said the writer should be a storyteller and a teacher, but particularly an
enchanter; or, finally, through that underappreciated weapon that is moral
imagination, the ability to fill that newspaper clipping with people and
actions larger and more complicated than the ones we know. Complication
is essential: newspapers are soothing in the sense that they give answers;
but fiction is unsettling, because all it does, as Chekhov once wrote, is try to
find the most interesting questions possible. "Literature is NEWS that stays
NEWS," said Ezra Pound. I will retort with the help of a few verses by
William Carlos Williams:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack of what is found there.

Passa Porta
3.03.14 > 24.03.14

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