KLASSEN ON BOOKS - JUNE 2018 (Reviews)


John Klassen


Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (1973-) is a Colombian writer, translator and
journalist. He studied law in the University of Rosario in Bogota and then
moved to Paris,1996-1999, and received a doctorate from the Sorbone in
Latin American Literature. He lived for a year in the Ardennes, in Belgium,
followed by about ten years in Barcelona. He has lived in Bogota since

Vásquez is the author of four “official” novels (he choses to ignore two
novels that he wrote in his 20s) and a collection of short stories, all listed
below and all translated into English. His novel, The Sound of Things
Falling won the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Vásquez
recognizes a debt to Gabriel Garcia Márquez, but he sees his writing as a
reaction against magical realism.

I have reviewed two of Váquez’s novels on JustOttawa, and have read two
more of his books since the last review: Lovers on All Saints’ Day and
Reputations. (I have yet to read two of the books listed below: The Secret
History of Costanguana, and The Shape of Ruins; both are on order). So
why another column on Vásquez at this point? Because I think he is a very
fine writer who offers considerable pleasure for those who make his

Lovers on All Saints’ Day (short stories, 2001)
The Informers (2004) (Reviewed in JustOttawa, May, 2015)
The Secret History of Costaguana (2007)
The Sound of Things Falling (2011) (Reviewed April, 2018)
The Shape of the Ruins (2015)
Reputations (2016)

Unlike the three novels I have read by Vásquez, the seven short stories in
Lovers on All Saints’ Day are set in Paris and Belgium. They cover a wide
range of emotions, hopes, fears, and relationships that are strong, fading,
and failed, all of which Vásquez describes and dissects with subtlety and
clarity. No histrionics, just observations and descriptions that make you
pause for a moment and think: yes, this is true, this is how people react in
themselves and in relationships, these are the lies and fantasies that
people tell themselves and others. These are hallmarks of Vásquez’s
writing in all of his books.

In The Informers a man named Gabriel Santoro writes a book about a
longtime family friend, a Jewish German immigrant, who escaped to
Colombia during the 1930s. Gabriel thinks the book is an innocent attempt
to capture a time in Colombian history, and he is devastated when his
father publishes a scathing, dismissive review. Gabriel begins to look more
deeply into the past and after his father’s death he begins to disinter even
more sinister secrets, including his father’s role. In The Sound of Things
Falling, Antonio Yammara is wounded during the murder of an
acquaintance/friend on a street; he begins to investigate his friend’s past,
and that of his friend’s family, going back to the 1960s, before the drug
wars began to determine so many lives in Colombia. In Reputations, Javier
Mallarino is the most famous and the most influential political cartoonist in
Colombia; an incident from more than twenty years earlier threatens to
unravel his life and the certainties that have structured his life. This lengthy
quote from Reputations, highlights themes that animate all three novels:
“Was it not incredible, and also fascinating, that they were talking about
the past? What was not known now...was something that in the past had
been known, something about which there had been certainty at some
point; so certain had Mallarino been that he’d drawn a cartoon about it.
Was what appeared in the press not true beyond all doubt or uncertainty?
Was a page in the newspaper not the supreme proof that something had
happened? Mallarino imagined the past as a watery creature with
imprecise contours, a sort of deceitful, dishonest amoeba that can’t be
investigated because, looking for it again under the microscope, we find
that it’s not there, and we suspect that it’s gone, but we soon realize it has
changed shape and is now impossible to recognize...So certainties
acquired as some moment in the past could, in time, stop being
certainties: something could happen, a fortuitous or deliberate event, and
suddenly all evidence is invalidated, the truth ceased to be true, the seen
ceases to be have been seen, and the occurrence to have occurred; all
lose their place in time and space, are devoured and passed on to another
world, or to another dimension of our world, a dimension we don’t know.
But where is it? Where does the past go when it changes? In which folds
of our world are they hiding, cowardly and ashamed, the events that had
been unable to remain, to keep being true in spite of the wear and tear of
time, to win their place in human history.”

Vásquez is an imaginative, introspective, and detailed observer of the
human condition and the malleable nature of memory in shaping what we
think we know of the past that has determined our present, but which may
simply not be ‘true’ or is just unknowable, and what does that mean for
the present and the future?

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