In the opening story of his new collection, “Songs for the Flames,” Juan Gabriel Vásquez writes about a war photojournalist who returns to a stretch of the Colombian countryside where, 20 years earlier, the casualties of the bloody conflict between paramilitary and guerrilla forces floated in a nearby 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 a local woman, she realizes that the horrors of the past — the suppressed memories, if not the bodies — remain just below the surface.
“The story shows you how fast Colombian reality moves,” Vásquez said in a video interview from Berlin, where he’s been delivering a series of lectures on fiction and politics (“my usual obsessions”) at the Free University since early April. “We try to deal with the present time in fiction, and reality leaves us behind.”
He is referring, of course, to late April, when Colombian reality abruptly changed once again: After the government of President Iván Duque attempted a tax overhaul in response to economic fallout from the pandemic, mass strikes and demonstrations erupted across the country. In the following weeks, the protests grew in intensity and expanded to encompass issues of social inequality and police reform. Images of clashes with the police flashed across the world. The country was inflamed once again.
Vásquez, 48, whose novels such as “The Sound of Things Falling” and “The Shape of the Ruins” have chronicled Colombia’s turbulent history, watched in horror from afar. It was “frustrating and infuriating,” he said, especially since the country’s struggles with the pandemic, police violence and the divide between rich and poor had long been apparent.
“It was very sad that some of us — many of us — were able to see it, but not the government,” he said 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. 3, translated from Spanish by Anne McLean, feels particularly timely. But it arrived as something of a harbinger when it was published by Alfaguara in Colombia in 2018. “A year later, we had demonstrations against police brutality in which 13 people were killed,” Vásquez said. “And now we have what we are witnessing every day. Colombian reality has an incredible talent for fulfilling bad omens.”
The book includes four previously published stories and five 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, unsure about their future and whether or not to return home. In “The Last Corrido,” a young novelist takes on a magazine assignment touring with a Mexican band in Spain, pondering illness, mortality and his uncertain destiny along the way. In “The Boys,” the rituals of a circle of teenagers in Bogotá reflect a world where 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 said, is “a metaphor for my own adolescence.”
After 16 years in Paris, the Belgian Ardennes and Barcelona, Vásquez moved back to Bogotá in 2012, where he has been a frequent commentator on contemporary political and literary issues. Now the father of twin girls, he radiates warmth and thoughtfulness, as passionate in conversation about writing as he is about soccer.
Vásquez believes in the power of literature to open new spaces in the dialogue about his country’s fraught past and present, something that’s been increasingly on his mind since the 2016 peace agreements between the 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 said. “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.”
Indeed, Colombia’s literary landscape is thriving today thanks to writers such as Laura Restrepo, Jorge Franco, Pilar Quintana and Pablo Montoya, to name a few. It is not surprising, according to Vásquez, because “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 email exchange. “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 said. “Our literary tradition, like our lives, runs along internal conflict.”
For him, there is 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 everyone shares such a rosy view. Héctor Abad, the Medellín-based author of “Oblivion,” a memoir about the murder of his father by paramilitary forces in 1987, among other works, said in an email that recent events 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 said. “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 own mood is tense: The peace agreements, which both he and Silva Romero feel represent the best chance “to free ourselves from the spiral of violence,” have been politicized and are in danger, he said. “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 nevertheless managed to wrest something positive out of this difficult year. “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 said. “In nine months, I wrote a 480-page novel. It was unheard-of.”