The Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, best known for the novel The Sound of Things Falling (originally published in 2011), recipient of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2014, was one of the guests of the seventh edition of the International Literature Festival in Timișoara (FILTM), Romania. He was interviewed by a high school student, Luca Dragu, during the festival (that took place between the 23rd and 27th of October), and, through the organizers of the festival, Bookaholic.ro is publishing that dialogue now. They talked about Colombia, travelling and living in other countries and how that influences the writing process, about real people who appear as characters in Vásquez’s novels, about politics, drugs, and many other interesting subjects, which you can read below.
Pentru versiunea în limba română a interviului, click aici.
You are a Colombian writer who lived in several cities and countries. How did that affect your work?
The experience of living in my country was very important for me. I left in 1996, when I was 23, and the reason I thought I was leaving was that I was going to become a writer. And there is this condition between Latin American writers, in which writers leave their country in order to become writers. This seems to be the better way to write about their country. Garcia Marquez, the best Colombian novelist, wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude in Mexico. So, we have this idea that we have to leave in order to become writers. In my case, I think the three years I’ve spent in France and the thirteen years I’ve spent in Spain shaped my understanding of my work and they gave me a certain removal that was necessary to exploit in fiction. And also, they allowed me to develop a certain relationship with my work. A relationship of discipline, of worth, of solitude, which is necessary for writing novels. So, I cannot think of my work separated from the fact that I love my country. I think it was absolutely necessary that I leave my country in order to write the books that I have written.
I know that you have moved back to Bogota some years ago. How did you find your hometown two decades after you left it? Why have you decided to move back now?
Well, I decided to move back to Columbia for family reasons, personal ones, that had to do more with my wife’s family and my own. But I thought it was a great moment to go back, because I have young daughters and I wanted them to experience childhood in Columbia in the same way I had experienced childhood in Columbia. What I didn’t foresee was the fact that just after arriving in Columbia, in 2012, something very important for the history of the country would happen and it was the beginning of the peace negotiation between the Colombian government and the Marxist Guerrilla, to end a war that has been going on in Columbia since 1964. So, I went back to Colombia for personal reasons, but I have stayed out of a sense of responsibility. Not only to participate in this public conversation about the peace negotiation, but to defend the peace negotiation, to defend the idea of negotiating a way out of the country. And it has been very important for me, to support the efforts that our beings carried out by a group of people to end the war in Columbia, through this negotiation.
Is it true that in every book you insert a character based on someone you know, someone from your everyday life? If yes, how do these people feel about that?
Yes. They always know about it. In my last novel, The Shape of Ruins, I inserted myself as a character. So the book is narrated from the point of view of a writer called Juan Gabriel Vásquez, whose biography is the same as mine, and this character needs this doctor and that doctor in the novel is based on a real doctor I really met and, of course, I asked permission to use his life and use his personal stories and things that happened to him in my fiction, I was not so reckless. So, every time I use a character to build a novel, every time I use real-life people to build characters around them, I talk to them, I interview them even, and so they know they will end up in the book. And I think that most of the time they like it.
You stated that you are for the legalization of drugs. In Romania and not only, people are consuming drugs from a very young age. What is your message for these youngsters?
What I think is important to know is that drugs mean two different problems. One is the public health problem, because, obviously, the consumption of drugs is a very serious thing and a very serious problem and leads to absolutely nothing good. Not only it can destroy your body, your life, but also the lives of those who surround you, right? The problem is that when you make something illegal, you don’t stop it from existing in life, and you don’t stop people from paying money for it. You only lose control over where the money go, so if something is illegal, the people who earn money and power are criminals, and this is what leads to problems of public order, and to corruption, and to violence. The fact that drugs are illegal is what creates violence in countries, in my case, a country that produces drugs. So, you realize that drugs have two problems: the ones related to drug consumption and the problems related to drug trafficking. If you legalize drugs, you only have one problem, the problem related to health issues, to drug consumption, and you get rid of the other problem. You get rid of the mafia, you get rid of the corruption, of the violence, because the thing is done through legal work. What I find absurd about the war on drugs is that we already went through the same thing with alcohol. Alcohol was declared illegal in the United States in the 20’s and immediately a whole criminal industry was created. Nobody stopped drinking, but the selling and distribution of alcohol fell in the hands of mafias and criminals and Al Capone and the whole thing. So for ten or twenty years, America had two problems: one problem was alcohol consumption and a different problem was corruption and criminality. As soon as alcohol went back to being legal, Al Capone disappeared, and the Chicago mafias disappeared, and the violence and the corruption disappeared, so there was only the other problem left. This is what happened. So, my advice, however, is don’t take drugs.
Having a political voice and message in and through your books, have you ever considered going into politics?
No, never. No, we have the stable example in Latin America of Maria Vargas Llosa, who is a Peruvian writer that I admire, whose novels have had a huge influence on me, and whose novels are among the best written in Latin America in the 20th century. He tried to become a president. And the only memorable thing about that is that he stopped writing for ten years. He failed miserably in politics and lost a whole decade of his life. There are no two visions of the world more different than novelists’ and politicians’. Novelists are always trying questions and politicians are always trying to answer them. Novelists are always trying to look at the complexity of the world and politicians are always saying “The world is simple, the world is black and white, the world is the good here and bad over there”. So, there are two very different ethics and very different ways of understanding the world, and even in their languages, they are very different. Novelists trying to go into politics is a very bad idea.
There is a saying, that every book is a failed murder. How would you comment on that, referring to your work?
Ha ha ha. I think books are a way of living lives you didn’t get to live. As a novelist, I think I behave more or less in the same way as a reader of novels. I read novels for the same reason I write them, to try to live lives that I can’t live, to try to be someone else, to try to see the world from the point of view of someone else, to be in the skin of someone different from me. In real life we have all these fixtures, we have all these one point of views, we are prisoners of our own circumstances and experiences and writing novels gives you the freedom to be somebody else and that includes doing some things that you could not do in real life.
You haven’t released any novels since 2016. Do you have anything scheduled?
Well, I did publish one book of essays in 2017, a book of essays on the art of the novel, on the reason why we write novels and why we read novels and on what the novel has done to us as human beings, as civilization. But I haven’t published any new fiction. The next thing is a book of stories that I have just finished and that will come out next month. So it’s a book of short stories, which is a genre I love, I love reading short stories. Short stories are important in the Latin American tradition, some of the greatest Latin American writers have been writers of short stories – from Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges, for example. So this is what I’m doing, this is the next thing, a book of short stories called in Spanish Canciones para incendios, which means Songs for the fire, more or less like that.
Well, I can’t wait to read it. Thank you very much for your time.
In the main picture, Luca Dragu and Juan Gabriel Vásquez during their dialogue.