The past is among the “most powerful” forces that shape human lives Colombian author and journalist Juan Gabriel Vasquez
The past is among the “most powerful” forces that shape human lives, Colombian author and journalist Juan Gabriel Vasquez said regarding the long-lasting unrest in his homeland.
Colombia is now divided between those who want to remember and tell everything that happened during the armed conflict and others who are afraid and prefer to impose a certain view of the past, Vasquez said in describing the current situation.
The author spoke to Anadolu Agency about the political and social situation in his country, the importance of secrets in his literature and the problem of leaving a unique version of memory in the hands of the entities of power.
His remarks were prior to an event organized on Thursday by the Colombian Embassy in Turkey, in collaboration with the Spanish Embassy and the Cervantes Institute in Istanbul, where he had conversations with the Turkish public.
Vasquez is the author of six novels, two collections of short stories and four compilations of literary essays. His books have been published in 30 languages and in more than 40 countries.
In addition, he has been the recipient of numerous international awards, including the Royal Spanish Academy Award, the Alfaguara Prize, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Roger Caillois French Literary Award, Gregor Von Rezzori Award in Italy and the Colombian Narrative Library Award (2020).
Anadolu Agency (AA): In your novels –The Informers, The Secret History of Costaguana, The Sound of Things Falling, The Shape of the Ruins and Look Back — there is something in common: the importance of memories and the past. Why?
Juan Gabriel Vasquez: Well, because what we call the past may be the most powerful of the forces that shape human lives. It can be the collective past or the individual and private one — it doesn’t matter. Every decision, every mistake, every fault, every feature of our present moment is determined by what happened in that territory.
The problem is that the past has an annoying and fascinating characteristic, and is that we can only access it through stories, or, rather, the past is something that only exists when we narrate it. And of course, the political powers are constantly fighting for control over the past, trying to impose their narration or their version of things, well aware of what the most fearsome character of 1984, the [George] Orwell novel that everyone remembers, was saying: “Who controls the present, controls the past. Who controls the past, controls the future.”
This interests me a lot, especially now that Colombia is divided and confronted in just this way. On the one hand, those who want to remember and tell about everything that has happened during our long war. On the other, those who are afraid of free memory and prefer to try to impose a certain version of the past.
AA: The secrets of the characters are something that also runs through your work. Tell me about it.
Vasquez: It’s true. In a way, all my novels are investigations into the secret life of a person. And my stories too, if I think about it. That may be due to the relationship I have with my topics, which always goes through that curiosity about the lives of others, for that awareness that, as a story by Chekhov says, the most interesting part of a person is the one that never we reveal to anyone, the one that remains secret forever.
Literature can be understood as the only place where we explore the secret lives of others — the one that is not in sight, the one that occurs in the shadows or in the inaccessible places of others.
AA: You once wrote that “novelists are uncomfortable because they return to a public fact its individual, intimate and relative character.” In this sense, does the novel function as a narrative element that, unlike journalism, allows us to reveal the invisible spaces of history?
Vasquez: What I wanted to say when I wrote that is that the novel, as I understand it, works differently from how history or journalism works. The stories of history and journalism are essential, but there is something that escapes them. There are a number of things that they cannot tell, and without those things, our understanding is truncated or incomplete.
On the Napoleonic Wars, we have a wealth of information in the history books and in the military reports of the time; but in War and Peace, Tolstoy’s novel, we are in contact with a type of information that cannot be found anywhere else. It is the information about the small human lives that do not appear in the historical reconstructions, in the great stories. These small versions often contradict or expose the versions that we can call official.
AA: What is the danger of leaving the “legitimate facts” of memory in the hands of power, the state and entities such as the church?
Vasquez: The problem is huge because these institutions are great storytellers and they have very good reasons for trying to impose a single, monolithic version of the past. One of the possible definitions of totalitarianism is to be a system where there is only one version of the past. When memory is controlled or administered by institutions of power, or worse, when memory is manufactured, we are facing a totalitarian or authoritarian system.
Democracies, when they work best, not only tolerate but encourage the existence of various perspectives on the past. Which is not meaning that the truth does not exist. The truth exists, what happens is that we cannot cover it with a single story from a single narrator. The story of a guerrilla victim in Colombia is different from the story of a paramilitary victim, and we will have to find a way in society for the two versions to coexist. This, which seems so obvious on paper, is deeply unsympathetic to many. You just have to look at the efforts being made in Colombia to delegitimize the Truth Commission.
AA: One month of a national strike in Colombia. Dozens of dead and missing. What is the duty of writers, if they have one, in these times?
Vasquez: Writers’ duty is to write their best. What happens is that the writer is also a citizen, and as a citizen, he/she can bear witness to what he/she sees and feel challenged with a special force. But, where does it lead? I don’t see that it leads anywhere. At most, this citizen can use the tools of the fiction writer — memory, imagination and experience — to understand or try to better understand a chaotic moment. It is what I try to do, of course, from my modest possibilities.
I have never believed that writers have a privileged point of view on anything, nor that the fact of writing fiction gives them special clairvoyance, although there is more than one proof to the contrary. And in any case, you always have to separate the novelist from the author of opinion columns. They are two ways of seeing the world that are in the antipodes. The author of opinion columns, even if he/she is a novelist before and after writing them, at that moment is a journalist: and journalism is indeed a profession of immediate relevance, capable of certain influence and capable of assuming certain obligations. For example, to control power. There is nothing so sad as a medium surrendered to power and in Colombia, there are some examples of that.
AA: The political discourse — not the action — of all sides in Colombia seems to be loaded with certainties. Why in that rhetoric there is no room for doubt, for uncertainty?
Vasquez: There is an easy answer: because doubt doesn’t win votes. This is the ABC of political life, and that is why political rhetoric impoverishes our perception of reality. Human life is terribly complex, ambiguous, contradictory and paradoxical. But in political discourse it is clear, univocal, without shadows or folds.
Political discourse should be reassuring, even when trying to spread fear: “Things are much easier than you think,” the politician tells the people. “So don’t worry, because I have the answer to these concerns that overwhelm us.” Literature generally sails in the opposite direction: “Things are more complex than you think,” it says. There is nothing that is black or white. There is nothing that does not have more than one face. And worst of all, there are big questions to which no one can give a definitive answer, and whoever claims to have one, is lying. But our societies are fearful and anxious, and they are also credulous and misinformed. In the face of political lies, come from politicians or from the citizens themselves, nobody can defend themselves.
AA: On the other hand, you have spoken of the relevance of Latin American literature and French classics in your life. Do you have an important space in your library for Turkish writers too?
Vasquez: For many years I read Orhan Pamuk very carefully. My name is Red, The Black Book and Snow were novels that dazzled me when I read them. On the other hand, I know that Gabriel Garcia Marquez or [Jose Luis] Borges were important to Pamuk, in addition to [Marcel] Proust. These dialogues between traditions, those back and forth paths between languages and worlds have always been fruitful for me.
AA: Beyond Orhan Pamuk, which Turkish author has surprised you and why?
Vasquez: Translations limit us, of course. But I read Elif Safak’s novels and essays with great pleasure, and always with the feeling that I can orient myself better afterward.
– Books by Vasquez
The Informers: Describes the effects of World War II on Colombia through a family reckoning with the past.
The Secret History of Costaguana: Tells the story of the first attempt to build a canal in the Panamanian province of Colombia, in the 1880s, drawing a picture of Colombia and US relations in history.
The Sound of Things Falling: Explores the Colombian drug trade in 1990’s Bogota where everything is falling apart amid the drug wars.
The Shape of the Ruins: The author puts himself as the main character that searches deeper crimes in Bogota’s history with digging some conspiracy-theories
Look Back: Story of events that marked lives of Colombian film director Sergio Cabrera and his father Fausto, including Spanish Civil War, the exile of Cabrera’s republican family in America, Cultural Revolution in China and armed movements in 1960’s Colombia.