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A childhood in dangerous Colombia inspires...

Juan Gabriel Vásquez grew up in a Bogotá rife with violence, and a drugs trade beginning to take off. His experiences inspired his IMPAC-winning novel.

1280px-Bogotá_de_noche Bogotá at night Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons

IN THE SOUND of Things Falling, his IMPAC Award-winning novel, Juan Gabriel Vásquez brings us to a Bogotá where violence is an everyday occurrence, where an assassination raises barely an eyebrow, and where men turn to drug trafficking to help their family survive.

Vásquez (41), is a Colombian writer, translator and journalist who spent many years living in Europe before recently returning home to Bogotá. He initially discarded his first attempts at the novel after feeling “too removed” from it, but told how a personal epiphany led to him turning it into a multi-layered story about family, violence, and mystery, and draws on his personal experiences.

Winning the prize to write books

Winning the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award- which comes with a €100,000 prize, of which Vásquez will receive €75k and his translator, Canadian Anne McClean, €25k – is important to the author for many reasons, not least because of his fellow nominees.

“It’s a very distinguished shortlist,” he acknowledged. “It really is an honour to be there.  And the fact that books are nominated by libraries is very important to me.”

What does he plan to do with his share of the prize money? “Write books,” he said simply, before jokingly adding: “And not let my girls starve.”

The ‘girls’ are his twin daughters, who recently moved with him and his wife back to Bogotá. It’s an interesting decision, given that Vásquez said a number of years ago that he had no plans to move home.

That had much to do with the period explored in The Sound of Things Falling, which brings the reader to the Bogotá of the 1980s, when Colombian drug lord and cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar was at the height of his powers.

Bringing history into fiction

Pablo_Escobar_graffitti Pablo Escobar graffiti Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons

In The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez takes Colombia’s recent history and uses it to show the impact that violence has on a person.

He tells the story of Antonio Yammara, a young law professor (Vásquez himself studied Law before moving to Paris to work as a novelist) who becomes fascinated by the older, curious Ricardo Laverde, and what happens after they are affected by the same cataclysmic event.

Yammara’s mission to find out more about Laverde, his dark secrets, and his fractured family necessitates a look at Colombia’s violent past, introducing the reader to a country where one man – drug kingpin Escobar – used his role to wield ultimate power over citizens and political figures alike.

Protagonist Yammara reflects on a childhood in Bogotá where violence was ever-present, and where Escobar’s Robin Hood reputation charmed many.

It was an era that Vásquez also lived through, and the book is his way of exploring its impact on his life and others.

Bringing the personal into the story

The key to the novel coming together was injecting this personal side into it. “This book started as a story of Ricardo Laverde and I worked at it for about a year and a half and just lost all enthusiasm for the stories, it felt removed, it felt like I was really writing in too much in the third person,” recalled Vásquez.

But one day he opened a magazine and found a photograph of a dead hippo, which made him remember “for the first time in many years”, the times of terrorism and the drug wars in Bogotá when he was growing up.

That dead hippo reminded him of Escobar’s reign, when the drug lord had his own zoo at his Hacienda Nápoles complex.

Vásquez realised that somebody from his generation “had to tell this story”; someone who had lived through it and “suffered the consequences”.

From that point on, the book became “the most difficult book I ever wrote and the easie[st] one” for him.

Because everything came from my own experience and my own memories, but at the same time they were really hidden and suppressed memories that I had to drag out.

Looking at this period through the eyes of an adult, he discovered how difficult it must have been to live through those years.

“I really understood many of the attitudes my parents had at the time,” said Vásquez.

I understood how much those years had an impact or left an imprint on us our relationship with fear, with the idea of unpredictable violence, I really hadn’t realised up to what point we lived with the intuition that something bad could happen at any moment of the day. I began to understand some of my own attitudes, my own paranoid feelings sometimes.

Vásquez wryly describes the process as “very cheap psychoanalysis”, but it’s clear that dredging through these memories helped him re-assess his own childhood.

This isn’t a ‘history book’

1280px-Centro_empresarial_St_bárbara_Bogotá Bogotá today Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons

He realised that at some point, he had grown used to the public side of the drug trafficking, the blood-splattered crime scenes on TV, the dead bodies pictured in newspapers.

Approaching the topic the way he did, and exploring these issues through a personal story, makes Vásquez stand out in his field. He won’t necessarily say that himself (though McClean does), but he acknowledges that he doesn’t know other Colombian authors of his generation who have dealt with this particular subject this particular way.

“In that generation, many people are dealing with the impact of politics or social conflicts on the individual,” he said.

What Vásquez deals with is the “crossroads” between the public life and private life. He doesn’t see his book as a means of educating people about Colombian history, but readers will find themselves fascinated by the country.

“It’s a private exploration on the side of the writer which will eventually shed some light on dark places for serious readers.”

Returning to Bogotá

Bogotá is very hostile in many ways, “but no more so than any other eight million [population] big city in the world”, said Vásquez.

It’s a big, complicated city in a country that is still violent, but it’s not the same thing. There’s no terrorism, except for a couple of things in the 14 years we have lived through this century. It’s very energetic, its very it’s electric, it’s a very interesting place. And at the same time, very difficult.

He moved for family reasons, and said the move isn’t permanent. But it has had some unforeseen consequences for his writing – mainly, realising how easy it is to live next door to his subjects.

“I had never written about Colombia while living in Colombia,” said Vásquez, to whom realism is hugely important. “I had to write about Bogotá [by] calling my parents, calling my friends, asking them to go to such-and-such a corner and ‘tell me if you go to that corner could you see that park’.”

Now, being back in his home city is infusing his work with a new, exciting energy. He used to say that he was able to write about Colombia because he was removed from it. “But now I realise that if I’m reasonably comfortable with the idea of moving back, it’s because Colombia has become different, it’s because Colombia has become unfamiliar to me.”

After nearly two decades abroad, he has realised “I don’t fully belong there”, and it is this tension that allows him to go on writing about Colombia.

Things that are unpredictable, things that are surprising – these are what fire up his creative drive, and he is now finding them at home.

The influence of James Joyce

Revolutionary_Joyce_Better_Contrast Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons

Next up for Vásquez is a book of short stories, which was first published in 2001 and is being translated into English.

“It’s really interesting to see that they hold up to scrutiny,” he said of his older work. “I had published two novels before but I have completely disowned them.” Will he be returning to these? It’s unlikely.

One thing he would love to translate is our own James Joyce’s Dubliners, which celebrates its centenary this year. He is particularly inspired by the book’s closing story The Dead, whose last paragraph provided “almost a blueprint” for the ending of one of his own short stories.

But it’s Ulysses that he really holds most love for – it was, along with 100 Years of Solitude, by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of two books that made him want to become a writer.

I read Ulysses when I was 20. It was perfect for me… I didn’t understand a single word, I think. But just realising those things could be done with language and with structure, it was really an epiphany.

First published 1.10pm

Read: €100k IMPAC award goes to author of Colombian thriller>

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