‘A Storm Waiting to Happen’: A Colombian Writer Watches His Home From Afar

In the opening story of his new assortment, “Songs for the Flames,” Juan Gabriel Vásquez writes a couple of conflict photojournalist who returns to a stretch of the Colombian countryside the place, 20 years earlier, the casualties of the bloody battle between paramilitary and guerrilla forces floated in a close-by river.

“Now things were different in certain fortunate places: Violence was retreating and people were getting to know something like tranquillity again,” she thinks. Yet when she re-encounters an area girl, she realizes that the horrors of the previous — the suppressed recollections, if not the our bodies — stay just under the floor.

“The story shows you how fast Colombian reality moves,” Vásquez stated in a video interview from Berlin, the place he’s been delivering a sequence of lectures on fiction and politics (“my usual obsessions”) on the Free University since early April. “We try to deal with the present time in fiction, and reality leaves us behind.”

He is referring, in fact, to late April, when Colombian actuality abruptly modified as soon as once more: After the federal government of President Iván Duque tried a tax overhaul in response to financial fallout from the pandemic, mass strikes and demonstrations erupted throughout the nation. In the next weeks, the protests grew in depth and expanded to embody problems with social inequality and police reform. Images of clashes with the police flashed internationally. The nation was infected as soon as once more.

“Songs for the Flames” is out within the United States on Aug. three.

Vásquez, 48, whose novels corresponding to “The Sound of Things Falling” and “The Shape of the Ruins” have chronicled Colombia’s turbulent historical past, watched in horror from afar. It was “frustrating and infuriating,” he stated, particularly because the nation’s struggles with the pandemic, police violence and the divide between wealthy and poor had lengthy been obvious.

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

Because of the turmoil in Colombia, “Songs for the Flames,” which Riverhead is releasing in English on Aug. three, translated from Spanish by Anne McLean, feels notably well timed. But it arrived as one thing of a harbinger when it was revealed by Alfaguara in Colombia in 2018. “A year later, we had demonstrations against police brutality in which 13 people were killed,” Vásquez stated. “And now we have what we are witnessing every day. Colombian reality has an incredible talent for fulfilling bad omens.”

The ebook contains 4 beforehand revealed tales and 5 new ones, linked by what he described as “echoes and common threads.” Several of them are propelled by narrators who resemble earlier incarnations of Vásquez — struggling writers adrift in Europe, uncertain about their future and whether or not or not to return house. In “The Last Corrido,” a younger novelist takes on a magazine project touring with a Mexican band in Spain, pondering sickness, mortality and his unsure future alongside the best way. In “The Boys,” the rituals of a circle of youngsters in Bogotá replicate a world the place judges and politicians are gunned down in broad daylight and the Cali and Medellín drug cartels are “starting to be on everyone’s lips.” The story, he stated, is “a metaphor for my own adolescence.”

After 16 years in Paris, the Belgian Ardennes and Barcelona, Vásquez moved again to Bogotá in 2012, the place he has been a frequent commentator on up to date political and literary points. Now the daddy of dual women, he radiates heat and thoughtfulness, as passionate in dialog about writing as he’s about soccer.

Vásquez believes within the energy of literature to open new areas within the dialogue about his nation’s fraught previous and current, one thing that’s been more and more on his thoughts because the 2016 peace agreements between the federal government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. “I realized that one of the most important things that was being negotiated was a version of our past,” he stated. “We were trying to establish what has happened in Colombia in these 50 years of war, and of course the only way of knowing that is by telling stories. That is where journalists and historians and novelists come in.”

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, whose earlier novels embody “The Sound of Things Falling” and “The Shape of the Ruins,” is at the moment instructing in Germany and has watched the turmoil in Colombia from afar. “It was all a storm ready to occur,” he stated.Credit…Andrew White for The New York Times

Indeed, Colombia’s literary panorama is flourishing at the moment thanks to writers corresponding to Laura Restrepo, Jorge Franco, Pilar Quintana and Pablo Montoya, to title a number of. It isn’t a surprise, in accordance to Vásquez, as a result of “places in conflict produce fiction: Fiction is where all the anxieties and discontent, the dissatisfactions and fears of a society, filter down.”

Ricardo Silva Romero, a Bogotá-based novelist and journalist, echoed Vásquez’s sentiments in an electronic mail change. “All Colombian literature has been made in the middle of war, all of it, from ‘La Vorágine’ [‘The Vortex,’ a 1924 novel by José Eustasio Rivera] to ‘Songs for the Flames,’” Silva Romero stated. “Our literary tradition, like our lives, runs along internal conflict.”

For him, there may be even room for guarded optimism: “We have wonderful authors who tell what has happened to us and what is happening to us with such vigor, with such courage, that we could live with the hope that we can shake off the logic of violence.”

Not everybody shares such a rosy view. Héctor Abad, the Medellín-based writer of “Oblivion,” a memoir in regards to the homicide of his father by paramilitary forces in 1987, amongst different works, stated in an electronic mail that current occasions have darkened his outlook.

“Maybe reality is too real around us. It is difficult to get out from under it: It imposes on your imagination even if you don’t want it to,” he stated. “I think we’ve tried to help as writers, but I am very discouraged nowadays. We live in a deeply sick society. Even the society of letters is sick.”

Vásquez’s personal temper is tense: The peace agreements, which each he and Silva Romero really feel symbolize the perfect probability “to free ourselves from the spiral of violence,” have been politicized and are at risk, he stated. “And to me, the social unrest we see today is inseparable from the failure of our leaders to fulfill the promise of the agreements.”

But he has however managed to wrest one thing optimistic out of this troublesome yr. “One of the strange things about the pandemic was that I went into this period of solitude and concentration like I have never known,” he stated. “In nine months, I wrote a 480-page novel. It was unheard-of.”