Juan Gabriel Vásquez: By the Book
The author, most recently, of “Lovers on All Saints’ Day” says the toughest thing about translating is being unfaithful to the original: “Doing a little violence to a sentence you love is hard, and many sleepless nights can be caused by it.”
What books are currently on your night stand?
Right now I have about 20 feet of books waiting their turn on my bookshelf. Six or seven of those will make it to my reading table — not my night stand, because I don’t usually read at night when I’m home. At this moment, the shortlisted books are Antonio Muñoz Molina’s “Como la Sombra Que Se Va”; Patrick Modiano’s “Pour Que Tu ne Te Perdes Pas Dans le Quartier”; Lorrie Moore’s “Bark”; Héctor Abad’s “La Oculta”; Mark Doty’s “Still Life With Oysters and Lemon”; Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”; and “The 20th Century in Poetry,” an anthology by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae.
Who is your favorite novelist of all time?
Yes, who indeed? The post of Favorite Novelist has been filled in my world by Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, Conrad. . . . Right now it’s probably a creature of my invention called Tolstoyevsky: a great Russian who is able to write battle scenes as well as conflicts of the soul, whose astonishing eye for detail is matched by his great gift for making people talk, and who is second to none in describing the crossroads between the public life (history, politics) and the private existence of individuals.
Whom do you consider the best writers — novelists, essayists, critics, journalists, poets — working today?
I can’t speak about the best writers, but there’s a list of living classics who have shaped my books in such a way that I can’t imagine my writing without them. It’s a kind of dream team that includes Philip Roth, Mario Vargas Llosa, Javier Marías, Milan Kundera (in the essay category), V. S. Naipaul, Alice Munro, Don DeLillo, John Banville. . . .
What is your favorite Colombian novel?
My favorite Colombian novel is still “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I try changing my mind every year and fail miserably. The silver medal goes to “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.”
You’ve translated the work of John Hersey and Victor Hugo, among others. What’s the most challenging aspect of translation for you? Has translating changed your approach to reading fiction in translation?
The most challenging aspect of translation, particularly when working with a book you love, is learning to be unfaithful to the original. Doing a little violence to a sentence you love is hard, and many sleepless nights can be caused by it. As for the second question, the answer is yes. Knowing firsthand how translation works, I’m unable now to read just any Chekhov or Kafka: I have my favorite translators too. Also, I try to read in languages that are closer to the original. I read German literature in English (Sebald by Michael Hulse) but Italian literature in Spanish (Claudio Magris by J. A. González Sainz).
What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I swear, I have really tried to care about genres or categories, but I find myself sadly unable to do so. I will enjoy anything, anything, as long as it comes written in language that is personal to the point of idiosyncratic, euphonious, revealing and precise. I avoid any kind of writing that doesn’t fill these requirements. I don’t care which genre it belongs to.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
There are some that might surprise you, but only if you don’t know me that well: books about soccer. Some have been written by novelists I admire, such as “Dios Es Redondo” (“God Is Round”), by Juan Villoro, or “Salvajes y Sentimentales” (“Savages and Sentimentalists”), by Javier Marías; others fulfill one of my reading vices: the relationship between soccer and politics. In this field, no book I know matches “The Ball Is Round,” by David Goldblatt.
How well do you remember what you read? And the circumstances in which you’ve read a book? What do you remember most?
I’m very bad with faces and names, but I do remember words, either spoken or written. (Sometimes, for instance, I recognize people only when they start talking.) So I do remember very well what I read. The books I read give a sense of structure to my life as much as the books I write, so I can look at any one of the volumes in this room and remember the exact circumstances in which I read it for the first time. “Mr. Sammler’s Planet”? While on a trip to Sweden, during a wonderful summer in which it rained in the rest of Europe. “Notes From the Underground”? While recovering from surgery in 2004. I read “Lolita” in the corridors of a Bogotá hospital, while waiting for my daughters to be born. I read Emmanuel Carrère’s “Limonov” in a hammock at a friend’s farm in the middle of Colombia. The farm was called, inscrutably, Alsacia.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” which I read (except for some comedies) between the ages of 18 and 21. And no, I really don’t think this is cheating.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
It’s one book in three volumes: Bertrand Russell’s “Autobiography.” There are many lessons to be learnt there, but one of them is of great urgency at a time in which the Colombian government tries to negotiate peace with the FARC guerrillas. How to confront warmongers? How to deal with the lies, the calumnies and the disinformation that, coming from the opposition, are right now the biggest threat to a negotiated peace? How to use reason to be a courageous pacifist? Russell knew something about that.
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
I’m sure Miguel de Cervantes was fun to be around: He had stories to tell and a sense of humor, and must have been one of the most decent, humane people around. I would sit him next to Borges and let them argue about “Pierre Menard.” I think my friend Javier Cercas would kill me if he weren’t invited.
What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
This one is easy, because I have them right here: I decided some time ago that I would keep those books behind my desk to avoid standing up and leaving the room every time I need (crave) them. Among them are Flaubert’s “Letters”; Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”; Joyce’s “Ulysses” and “Dubliners”; Jorge Luis Borges’s three volumes of complete works; Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”; Orwell’s “Essays”; Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel”; Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” and “American Pastoral”; Julio Cortázar’s “Hopscotch”; Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The War of the End of the World”; García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”; Carlos Fuentes’s “Terra Nostra.” . . .
What do you plan to read next?
I’m writing a novel about two conspiracies, so my desk is covered by books that might help me understand the phenomenon. Not sociology, mind you, but other kinds of truths: moral, emotional, psychological. So I’m looking forward to Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Corneille’s “Cinna” and many others. Whether they will help me write a decent book, that’s another matter entirely.
Vásquez won the 2014 International Dublin Literary Award, for The Sound of Things Falling. Biblioteca Cosio Daniel Villegas in Mexico City had nominated the book. Vásquez was the first South American writer to emerge victorious from the contest in its history. His translator Anne McLean took some of his money as is customary.
Though he recognizes a debt to Gabriel García Márquez, his work is a reaction against magical realism, saying this with regard to The Secret History of Costaguana: "I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvellous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics. Let me be clear about this quote, which I suppose refers, in a caringly sarcastic tone, to One Hundred Years of Solitude. I believed that with this novel, and I can say that reading One Hundred Years ... in my adolescence contributed much to my vocation, but I believe that all of the side of magical realism is the least interesting part of this novel. I propose to read One Hundred Years like a distorted version of the Colombian history. That is the interesting part; in what makes One Hundred Years ... with the massacre of the banana workers or the civil wars of the 19th century, not in the yellow butterflies or in the pigs' tails. Like all grand novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude requires us to reinvent the truth. I believe that this reinvention is to make us lose ourselves in the magical realism. And what I have tried to make in my novel is to recount the 19th Century Colombian story in a radically distinct key and I fear to oppose what Colombians have read until now.
Vásquez, who collaborates in diverse reviews and cultural supplements, also writes essays and is a weekly columnist in the Colombian newspaper, El Espectador. He has had critical success including the three cited novels. His stories have appeared in anthologies in different countries and his novels have been translated to various languages. Furthermore, he himself has translated works of John Hersey, Victor Hugo, and E. M. Forster, among others. He was part of the jury of 81 Latin American and Spanish writers and critics who in 2007 elected for the Colombian review, Semana, the best 100 books in the Castilian language in the last 25 years.