Maya Jaggi interviews Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
There is a museum in downtown Bogotá, Colombia's drizzly capital set high in the Andes, where a lawyer's pinstripe suit stands on display in a glass case – pristine, but for two bullet holes in the back. It belonged to Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a liberal presidential candidate whose assassination in April 1948 sparked the Bogotázo, riots that set the city on fire. The riots ushered in 10 years of blood-letting between liberal and conservative sympathisers and, as peasants formed guerrilla movements, spawned the ensuing decades of South America's longest-running civil war.Click to read the full article
For Juan Gabriel Vásquez, among the most inventive and erudite of Colombia's emerging generation of novelists, the assassination was the "defining episode of our history – our own JFK". Those gun shots were "our coming of age – when Colombia was welcomed into the cold war. And we still haven't got to the bottom of it; nobody knows who killed Gaitán."
Novelists leapt into the breach, "while the bodies were still falling" in the 1940s and 50s. But Colombia's most famous writer, Gabriel García Márquez – in the capital during the riots – dismissed them as a crude "inventory of dead people", crafted without art. "He complained writers hadn't taken the time to learn how to write novels," Vásquez says. "It's not enough to have the material; you have to have the narrative strategy, or you fail."
Vásquez, aged 37, has taken that lesson to heart. His talk bristles with quotations from writers he has ingested, rather as, in his words, the Nobel laureate from Aracataca "hired and fired" Faulkner and Hemingway. Good writers, Vásquez believes, "control their own influences – it's not involuntary". Hailing from an urban landscape of skyscrapers and mountain mist, he found the ruses that conjured the sweltering Caribbean plantations of Macondo were no use to him. He chose mentors in Joyce, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow. Joseph Conrad was key, particularly "his obsessive idea that novels go into dark places and come back with the news. It's not necessarily geographical," he says, "but shedding light on dark places of the soul."