Don’t expect the scent of guava. There’s none of Gabriel García Márquez luxuriant Latinamericanism in this collection of stories by Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Indeed, there’s hardly any reference to the region in these narratives, which for the most part take place in Belgium. Not that Vásquez has not tackled his native environment elsewhere. The Secret History of Costaguama aimed to set straight the history of Colombia and Panama fictionalized in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, with the Polish-born writer assigned a role in Vasquez’s novel.
The boom of Latin American narrative that swept the literary world in the second half of the past century has quite literally died out. Mario Vargas Llosa, these days tabloid fodder as his marriage crumbles over his relationship with Julio Iglesias’ ex, Isabel Preysler, is the last man standing. Realism, minimalism and quirky hipsterism have emerged as alternatives to the magical realism that to some readers and many writers had become as wearisome as geezer heavy metal. That some contemporary narratives are served dry and chilled is not surprising. The quest for national and regional identity, so feverish in writers like Alejo Carpentier and Carlos Fuentes, is reduced in this collection to something like insignificance.
In the first story, Hiding Places, the narrator runs into the central characters on his way to Paris from Liège, because “a Colombian magazine commissioned me to write an article about a certain Parisian bookshop,” a passing identification with Vásquez in his years as an expat. Then, in the tense scene at the home of a child killed in an accident, when the narrator is barely introduced to the grieving family, he comments, “This was not the moment to go into details about nationality . . .”
Identity matters in other, more intimate, ways. One character is intent in erasing himself as his father’s son, even if it means turning down a substantial inheritance. Others find themselves trapped in family resentments or a brief but intense love affair that appeared to have ended until many years later, when the characters are old, the tragic consequences come to fruition.
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As in Madame Bovary — the book the doomed lover gives to the married woman he doesn’t yet know he will never have — love in these stories has bad endings. Sometimes a sad coupling will have no direct consequence but instead will reflect the sadness that haunts another, more important relationship. And a brutal realism stalks romance, often in bucolic scenes where the bloodletting and pain of fishing, hunting and horsemanship eclipse any possible rapture. In one scene, the pair that will end up in bed that night meet as the woman is performing castration on a horse.
The weather is rainy and cold, and there’s not a whiff of tropicalismo. Skillfully translated by Anne McLean, these stories read as if written originally in English or translated from one of the languages of the region, likely French. Vásquez has a realist’s way with details: he is knowledgeable about all the customs and gear of provincial life in the zone. But those very details tighten their grip on the plot and mood of the stories. Like the waitress at a café wondering if the truckers who have stayed late at night are rapists or killers, a sense of threat is palpable. The truckers do no harm and leave. But violence seems to lurk nearby, even if it’s only accidental or self-inflicted.
An exception is The Return, in which there is an actual murder and a revenge plot so calculated that the story reads like something from the pen of a 19th century master. Otherwise, these are if not ordinary at least not monstrous people, unable to avoid extraordinary and even monstrous turns of events, turns they themselves have sprung as they try to live their lives.
And let it not be said that there is no magic. But the eponymous character in The Solitude of the Magician is “just an amateur magician, a mere weekend apprentice” whose day job is so minor that “his office didn’t even have a window.” So much for wizardry from this Colombian writer who not only ignores magical realism but also, in his rewriting of Conrad, goes as far as to challenge the ethics of fiction itself, relegating it to a fakery no worthier than flimflam.
Yet Vásquez is no minimalist. His prose is rich in detail and sparkles with poetic lushness, as well as echoing the realist canon in the superb control of plot, setting and characters. Without truculence, he delivers a tense and exciting read.