Interview: Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Daniel Peña

Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez is at the forefront of decentering Colombian literature as it's commonly known: the magical realism, the polite political allegories, the associated orientalist gaze that threatens to broad-stroke all of Latin America (and its literature) with Gabriel García Márquez' legend. While some might say Juan Gabriel Vásquez is actively working against that burden, I think it’s apparent by now that he’s in a league of his own. The realism of his most recent work, rooted in historical fact, is a fresh lens through which we might digest the very real bizarro world of our own 21st century—political fact-skewing and spin and botched peace deals, etc. Juan Gabriel Vásquez looks at Colombia’s historical distortion of reality—the violence of it, the horror if it—in the eye and conveys it to us in the flesh of his own characters. Gabriel Vásquez’ newest novel, Reputations, does just that. 

Reputations centers on Javier Mallarino, a political cartoonist whose pen is so powerful it destroys political careers. After four decades as the moral compass of his nation, his life and his work are very much crystallized at the end of a long career but everything comes unraveled as he helps a woman in her search for the truth surrounding her sexual assault. I talk with Juan Gabriel Vásquez about Reputations, the first FARC peace deal, and how to caricaturize a politician who caricaturizes himself. 

Daniel Peña: In Reputations, Javier Mallarino is a political cartoonist whose pen could end the political career of anyone. There’s even a character who commits suicide at one point because he’s been characterized by Mallarino. Do you believe opinion is now, or has ever been, that strong in Colombia? What are the origins of Reputations and its protagonist, Javier Mallarino?

Juan Gabriel Vásquez: There is a strong tradition of political cartoons in Colombia. In fact, the first idea for the novel was an exploration of the life of one of the most influential cartoonist of our history: Ricardo Rendón, who killed himself for unknown reasons in 1931. But this is not what my novel is about. Reputations shouldn't be read as a study in the Colombian tradition of opinion, but as an exploration of our universal tension between the fragility of our public image and the power of those who can shape it. You mention that character who commits suicide, but the novel doesn’t state that this is a direct consequence of Mallarino’s cartoon. In fact, he himself says that cartoons cannot cause a man to kill himself. Each reader must figure out the truth on their own. 

DP: In both Reputations and your last novel, The Sound of Things Falling, the narratives are both driven by a certain desire for catharsis through confronting the past. In Reputations, Samanta says, “Not knowing is not hell. The hellish thing is not knowing whether I want to know.” Does the quest for confronting truths about the past (or the anxiety behind that) hold a kind of gravity in the Colombian psyche?

JGV: No, I think it hold a kind of gravity in anyone’s psyche anywhere around the world. Our difficult relationship with the past is prominent in all of my books because it’s a big part of our lives as human beings. There are many things in my books that address directly a part of the Colombian experience, but this is not one of them: this is (again) universal. Samanta needs to have some certainty about a past event that shaped her life, and this idea of the past as mystery, as a dark place full of secrets, is very much one of my obsessions. And this is where the other big theme of the novel kicks in: memory and its fallibility.

DP: Could you talk about weaving fact and fiction in your work?  What are the certain responsibilities (or pressures) of writing about the nuanced trauma that has afflicted Colombia?

JGV: Well, my novels always have one foot firmly set in fact. This is because they’re interested in the crossroads between private life and public life. So my characters act like investigators in the dark areas of my country's past... In this sense, Reputations is perhaps the least public of my books. It deals almost exclusively with an intimate conflict, a conflict that takes place in memory and in the private lives of two people. But the rest of my books seem to think that there is something important in turning our facts into a story, because that way you understand them, they gain meaning. Fiction is the transformation of information into knowledge. And sometimes there is no better way to know what has happened to us than turning it into fiction. 

DP: Mallarino feels like a metaphor for Colombia at large.  Though he’s survived the turmoil and death threats of his career, even in his old age he’s still haunted by Samanta’s earlier trauma and he has to make a decision about what lengths will he go to maintain the dignity of Samanta by destroying the dignity of someone else?  Someone has to pay for this trauma to resolve.  Do you think Colombia is still in that same search to find resolve in 2016?  And if so, is that resolve attainable?

JGV: Is Mallarino a Metaphor for Colombia? I’m not sure about that. In an exploration of his life, Reputations gets to explore many traits of the Colombian recent past--its violence, its political tensions—but the conflict is private: Mallarino has to face his past and present, his relationship with his life’s work and also with the people he loves, to understand his place in the world. My country... well, my country has been living in violence during the last 50 or 60 years, and we do have a lot of soul-searching to do about out common past. Part of that is story-telling: our great novels, before and after One Hundred Years of Solitude, have always tried to explore the story of our conflict: that search you mention in your question.     

DP: In light of that last questions, what are your thoughts on the recently failed peace referendum between the Colombian government and the FARC?

JGV: It was a sad day for me, not just because we failed at the simple task of ending a 52-year old war that has hurt the lives of 8 million people, but because so many people rejected the agreements under the influence of lies and misinformation. The worst thing is that this was accepted by the leaders of the right-wing party that rejected the agreements: they openly spoke about manipulating the truth to have the voters “go out and vote angry.” We still have a long way to go in terms of democratic culture, tolerance and the responsibility, as citizens, of being well informed. I think we failed miserably in terms of solidarity, magnanimity, political intelligence and economic foresight.    

DP: Reading this novel amidst an American Election, I can’t help but consider our own American trauma in 2016. What does an opinion critic do with a man who characterizes/caricatures himself?

JGV: I write this after Trump has been elected. I’m horribly disappointed and, honestly, quite afraid at what this means. An ignorant narcissist has been elected on lies and fear-mongering; extreme, reckless populism has arrived to the most powerful office in the world. On the other hand, the system was not rigged. He lied in that aspect too. 


Juan Gabriel Vásquez will be reading on Monday, November 21 at 7:30 PM at the Alley Theatre along with Rabih Alameddine as a part of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series