This wonderful collection of nine short stories is the latest work from Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez and powerfully explores familiar themes and ideas in new and varied settings. Bookended by two stories arising from different historical conflicts in Colombia, several stories show lives touched by violence. Issues of historical veracity are explored too, the porous boundary between fiction and reality, memory and the creation of identity, themes which we saw in his last novel The Shape of the Ruins. But here he’s reaching out beyond Colombia to include stories set in Europe, referencing a globalised world, a world where film and social media contribute to the interplay between truth and fiction and provide a lens through which we see things.
The first story, Mujer en la Orilla, Woman on the bank, is set in post conflict Colombia. Photojournalist Jota, well known for her frank images of conflict, is invited to the Las Palmas ranch in the eastern plains area of Colombia- Las Llanuras Occidentales. She recognises one of the other guests as someone she met on her previous visit, twenty years earlier, to Las Palmas- Yolanda, an assistant to the politíco Don Gilberto, who turns up with his coterie. Jota tells our narrator what happened on that first visit, insisting he tells the story exactly as she tells it to him-but she’s not above manipulating the truth to achieve the result she wants for her stories and photos. The power of this story lies in its atmospheric description-the exotic capybaras and caimans by the river, the heat, the drinking into the small hours, all contribute to the tension of the night they’re waiting for news of Yolanda. And the presence of the conflict in both time frames is evoked just briefly: Don Gilberto’s men say the body floating down the river must have got what it deserved, while Jota now in the posguerra still checks the roads with the police before returning to Bogotá.
We see lives touched by violence in Los muchachos: a group of lads from a barrio in Medellin meet regularly to fight. We learn that their barrio is cut off from the town centre by a concrete wall topped with barbed wire- images of Belfast in the Troubles come to mind. As violence and assassinations escalate in the town beyond the barrio- a judge is murdered by sicarios amongst other acts- so their fighting becomes more serious and they graduate to fighting with bicycle chains in the shopping centre beyond the barrio. This theme of youth wasted and destroyed by violence appears again in El Doble. Here, the narrator’s friend, Ernesto Wolf, is selected for military service instead of him in the random ballot selection system they employ for school leavers at that time. He’s drafted into the Ayacucho company, which doesn’t mean much to him: as the grandson of immigrants, he feels no particular pride in the decisive victory at Ayacucho for the Independence forces. Just before the end of his service, Ernesto is randomly killed in an accident. The narrator discovers years later that Ernesto’s father has been keeping a dossier of news cuttings of his developing career as a writer- he is El Doble, the surrogate son.
The idea of the double is picked up again in El Aeropuerto, but this time in the sense of parallel worlds. The narrator finds himself selected to work as an extra on a film directed by Roman Polanski. The scene is to be filmed at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris and depicts the protagonist, played by Johnny Depp, arriving at Barajas Airport in Madrid- so the Paris airport is a kind of simulacrum of the Madrid airport, which is self evident as airports are fairly anonymous non-lieux anyway. But the parallels get darker when the narrator recollects the dreadful murder of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, and we read and visualise these dreadful events as if watching a film. When the narrator finally sees the film months later, he doesn’t know if he’s feeling sympathy for the fictional character played by Johnny Depp or for Roman Polanski.
Las malas noticias also explores the idea of experience mediated through the fiction of film. The narrator meets an American, John Regis, in a Paris bar. He says he’s a helicopter pilot, stationed in Rota, near Malaga, where the Americans have their biggest base in Europe. Their families live in a recreated American world, with perfectly tended lawns, drive in cinemas, golf courses and pizza and hamburgers available 24/7. Sadly, his best friend, Peter Semones, also a helicopter pilot and married to Laura, an ex-beauty queen, recently died in an accident while putting out forest fires. When it fell to him to break the news to Laura, he was tempted to put off the dreadful moment by diving into a cinema to see Armageddon with Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler singing I’m leaving on a jet plane. Years later, when the narrator happens to be in Malaga and decides to look John Regis up, he finds that John’s Hollywood film-scene account of breaking the news to Laura was remembered differently by her.
Gabriel Vásquez’s stories often have layers of narration. He himself appears as an unsettled character in a bar in Europe, or somewhere on his travels, where he meets someone who tells him a story-often with different degrees of reliability. The unreliable narrator is forefronted in Las Ranas when Salazar meets up with some other Colombian veterans of the Korean war at a centenary event. He trained with one or two of them, if you can call their abysmal preparation training- their superiors had no idea where Korea was, and assured them they were to be an army of occupation only. At the event, Salazar suddenly realises he met one of the wives fifty years previously in Bogotá and the two narratives of this meeting and the veterans’ military reminiscing interweave cleverly until the denouément. Nosotros is a group narration. A group of friends are talking on social media. Their friend, Sandaval, has disappeared, and what we learn about his character, his past and his disappearance, is entirely through the comments, predictions and revelations on social media.
My favourite story is the eponymous Canción para el Incendio, Song for the Flames, and the last in the collection. Many of the themes, ideas and narrative techniques contained in the collection come together here in this moving story set in the first half of the 20th century. The story refers back to the novel, The Shape of the Ruins, in that the assassinations of Uribe and Gaitán, pivotal events in Colombian history, feature here. But it’s also linked in that the narrator, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, is sent a book while researching that novel, which forms the basis for this story. The book is a grammar book, written by Uribe while briefly caretaking a coffee plantation in Antioquía, which has a dedication in it A nuestro héroe. It’s the background to the book and dedication which form the first arm of the story ( and a photograph of the dedication page can be seen at the end of this story). The second arm of the story arose when Juan Gabriel Vásquez was told about the Cemeterio Libre de Circasias by his friend, the photojournalist, Jota. This is a real cemetery, originally built for the burial of non Catholics, atheists, Jews, prostitutes and suicides, in fact anyone who isn’t allowed a burial in a Catholic cemetery. Juan Gabriel Vásquez finds there a plaque dedicated to Aurelia de León, with a quotation from the poet Léon de Grieff. Aurelia’s story then becomes the focus of the second arm and I loved the account of this lively, attractive young woman in 1930s Bogotá, challenging norms of expected behaviour for young women, becoming a journalist, taking a lover and then returning to the coffee plantation in Antioquía to have her child, Gustavo.
This is a rich collection of stories indeed and the combination of themes- history, memory, fiction, reality- with Juan Gabriel Vásquez’ superbly elegant sentences, make this, for me, a near perfect book. It’s due to be published in English translation by Anne Mclean in early September 2020 from MacLehose, though with Covid-19 that date might no longer apply. So pre-order it now from book shops and your library and look forward to an enriching and powerful read.