PEN Atlas editor Tasja Dorkofikis talks to critically acclaimed writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, author of English PEN Award winning title The Sound of Things Falling, translated by Anne McLean. Vásquez visted the UK in November 2012 to promote his new book which is published by Bloombsury.

You wrote this book and many others when you lived away from Colombia. Do you live there now? Do you need that distance to write about your country and why?

 Yes, I do feel that I need the distance, or needed it in order to start dealing with my country in fiction. It took me six years of living abroad to understand how to write about Colombia, and I’ve said elsewhere that the problem was solved through distance, both geographical and chronological. It’s hard to say why, but I do know that in 1996, when I left Colombia, my city had just been through a long decade of harrowing violence, and one of the consequences of those years was, for me, a sort of alienation. My imagination (my literary imagination) rejected my country, or rather was rejected by it. That changed over the years of living abroad.

Antonio sounds like a voice of his generation. Do you feel that your generation is lost in some ways because of the Colombian drug wars and the violence that ruled Colombia and Bogota for so many years?

No, I don’t think my generation is lost, but my last novel is in part an exploration of that question: how did those years of extreme violence shape us? How were our lives affected by the fact of being born at the same time as the drug trade? My generation was born in the early 70s, as the first planes with marijuana left Colombia for the United States. We grew up at the same time as the cartels. Does that have an effect on you? These questions became important for me.

Bogota seems to me one of the main characters in your novel. Do you feel as strongly about that city as Antonio?

I feel strongly about the city that lives in my memory. It’s not the whole city, but a sort of enclave in which I moved during my university years: the city centre, where some of the most important events in the history of my country took place, was also the area where I spent most of my time as an adult, before leaving Colombia in 1996. The city of the book is the city I remember. It might not be the city that exists right now. But that doesn’t really matter.

What is, for you, the role of novels when dealing with the past?

Well, novels do tend to be places where we remember things that would otherwise be forgotten. Literature tends to do this: to resist the world’s tendency to move on, to forget. Whether it’s our individual past or that collective past we call history, the novel preserves things. Furthermore, we all know how the passing of time makes us see historical events in a general, collective light. When novels deal with the past, those events recover their particular, individual quality: they become, once again, things that happened to individuals. 

Do you believe that the role of the writer is to ‘bear witness’ and to explore traumatic events? Do you see this attempt to get to the dark places of one’s memory as healing or destructive?

I don’t believe writers have a role. Writing fiction is a very strange thing to dedicate your life to, and the motivations are diverse and not always conscious. I can speak about me and only me, and say that my motivation is simple: to understand. WG Sebald, a writer who is important for me, says somewhere that “memory is the moral backbone of literature”. And I agree: remembering is a moral act.

Antonio jeopardises his family life to find out the truth about Ricardo. He does not ultimately find out why Ricardo was killed. Why did you decide to leave the ending open?

Because the other option would have changed the genre of the book: in the Colombia of the 90s, finding out the reasons for a murder would have been almost like science fiction.

Ricardo Laverde is introduced to the drug trade by a volunteer from American Peace Corps. Is that role of Peace Corps in starting the drug trade a fact or pure speculation?

It was one of those unspoken truths that exist in every society. I grew up “knowing” (please notice the inverted commas) about those episodes, but I wasn’t able to find the proof while writing the novel. Of course, novels are not just about things as they happened, I thought, but also about things as they might have happened. So I decided my novel could be the place where that piece of unspoken truth could be spoken. After publication of the book, all the witnesses I needed, all the people who saw it happen just as I tell it, came up to me to confirm that things did happened as they are told in the novel. Which gave me a strange satisfaction, even if I insist on the novelist’s privilege of imagining probable realities as much as factual ones.

What is happening in Colombian literature at the moment? Which Colombian writers would you like to see introduced to the British audience?

There’s an extraordinary writer, a contemporary and a friend of García Márquez, who died in the 70s. His name is Álvaro Cepeda Samudio and he wrote two short books, a novel and a short story collection, which deserve to be known all over the world. I should also mention R.H. Moreno-Durán, author of two or three of the best Colombian novels of the last decades. He died in 2004.

About the author

Juan Gabriel Vásquez was born in Bogotá in 1973. He studied Latin American literature at the Sorbonne between 1996 and 1998, and has translated works by E. M. Forster and Victor Hugo, amongst others, into Spanish. He was nominated as one of the Bogotá 39, South America’s most promising writers of the new generation. His previous books include The Informers, which was short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and The Secret History of Costaguana, which won the Qwerty prize in Barcelona. His books have been published in fifteen languages worldwide. After sixteen years in France, Belgium and Spain, he now lives in Bogotá.

About the editor

Tasja Dorkofikis is the editor of the PEN Atlas as well as a freelance editor and publicist. She used to work as Publicity Director at Random House and most recently at Portobello Books as Associate Publisher and Commissioning Editor. Tasja shares her time between London and a small village in Vaud in Switzerland.

Additional Information

Álvaro Cepeda Samudio (March 30, 1926 – October 12, 1972) was a Colombian journalist, novelist, short story writer, and filmmaker. Within Colombia and the rest of Latin America, he is known as an important and innovative writer and journalist, largely inspiring much of the artistically, intellectually and politically active climate for which mid-century Colombia has become known.  His books in English are currently out of print. 

Rafael Humberto Moreno-Duran  (1945 – 2005 ) was a novelist , short story writer,  essayist and playwright. He is considered one of the most important 20th century Colombian writers.   Books in English are not available. 

The Sound of Things Falling is translated by Anne McLean. Annehas translated Latin American and Spanish novels, short stories, memoirs and other writings by authors including Hector Abad, Carmen Martín Gaite, Julio Cortázar, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Enrique Vila-Matas and Tomás Eloy Martínez. She has twice won the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction: for Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas in 2004 (which also won her the Valle Inclán Award), and for The Armies by Evelio Rosero in 2009. She lives in Toronto.