Colombian fiction writers today have to confront two shadows when facing the blank page: the culture of drug-trafficking and the legacy of García Márquez’s magical realism. Juan Gabriel Vásquez has managed to dodge both in his last two novels. I became aware of him when he published Historia secreta de Costaguana (Secret history of Costaguana) in 2007. By using Joseph Conrad’s fictive South American country in the title, Vásquez was distancing himself from the omnipresent tropes confining Colombian men of letters. I heard of Vásquez again this past summer, when an earlier novel of his, The Informers, appeared in English translation.
The Informers is about Colombia’s German and Jewish émigré populations—at times the two converged—during World War II. By telling the story of Sara Gutterman, a German Jew who arrived in the country in the late 1930s, it unveils a secret past, one of the many unresolved stories of Colombia’s collective memory. A law passed by President Eduardo Santos in support of the Allied forces called for Nazi sympathizers to be imprisoned and for their property to be confiscated. Listening to Wagner or speaking German was considered enough evidence for someone to be sent to a mountain prison “retreat.” People were encouraged to be vigilant and inform on friends and family, and, predictably, a witch hunt not unlike McCarthyism ensued. The novel is told in the voice of a writer who discovers that his very father was one of such informants, but to say more would be to give the plot away.
Reading The Informers is like peeling an onion, removing layer after layer, each one revealing the complexity of the human condition and tracing surprising historical parallels. The similarities, for instance, between the lootings of Kristallnacht and those during Colombia’s Bogotazo—the assassination of the populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 that marked the beginning of the gruesome period of La Violencia—are impressively woven together. Carlos Fuentes has written that this novel offers the reader that “gray area of human actions and awareness where our capacity to make mistakes, betray, and conceal creates a chain reaction that condemns us to a world without satisfaction.” I agree, yet in The Informers there is also a place for forgiveness.
Last October, I sat with Vásquez in a conference room at his publisher’s office in New York to talk about his books; inevitably, we lamented Colombia’s unending violence. In such a neutral, nondescript room, Colombia felt as unreal as Joseph Conrad’s fictional Costaguana. In our conversation, as in life, fiction and politics converged: storytelling, like the one he masterfully displays in The Informers, is a peace offering.
Silvana Paternostro Up until The Informers there was no book about the Jewish community in Colombia.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez There were some books, sure, but no novels about these events. Not only the Jewish community, but the blacklisted Germans, the reclusion of enemy citizens. We novelists are terribly conceited, you know. We think the world is incomplete until it has been explored in a novel.
SP There used to be a Pastelería Alemana (a German bakery) in Barranquilla when I was growing up. As I was reading your book I saw myself in that dimly lit bakery that women with an accent ran from their house. I’d walk into it and immediately feel I was no longer in Colombia—their pastries smelled different. I hadn’t put together Nazism and the Pastelería Alemana before. Like so much about our country’s history, that all Germans were suspect and victims of a witch hunt had totally eluded me.
JGV People don’t like to remember those days. When the Colombian government decided to actively participate in World War II as an Ally against the Axis, one of the first measures it took was to protect coasts and borders. German, Italian, and Japanese citizens were removed from those areas. Barranquilla, being the most important port on the Atlantic, had a huge immigrant population. Imagine all those people having to move from their homes to the interior, after decades of having lived there, all because their passports said they came from certain places.
SP Isn’t it interesting that reading fiction is the best way to understand history? Now I wonder if the bakery owners weren’t informed upon by their neighbors, and if that wasn’t the reason why they kept strange hours and their lights were mostly off. Of course my memories are from the late ’70s and not from the ’40s, when one of the narratives in your book takes place.
JGV Barranquilla comes into play in another way—the Colombian Nazi Party was based there. Journalists Silvia Galvis and Alberto Donadio have found amazing photographs of their sessions, with all those swastikas and German flags and lifted arms in the middle of the Caribbean coast. For a novelist, they’re an incredible sight. They also prove that the government’s reaction was not paranoid—there was cause for concern. That’s why the situation described in The Informers was interesting to me, because it falls into a gray area.
SP The Informers pulled back a curtain for me. I didn’t have many friends with German-sounding last names in Barranquilla; the ones that did must have gone to the German School. Instead, I had many Jewish classmates at the American School. My best friend in elementary school was a Jewish girl named Debbie Schwartz—her Shirley Temple curls and freckles and blue eyes fascinated me, but it was her household that intrigued me. Why didn’t they have a Christmas tree and a nativity scene in December? Her parents spoke with accents and going to her house was like going on a trip to a different, better city.
You and I both left Colombia. You went to Paris. Did you decide you wanted to be a writer before you left?
JGV The decision came halfway through my law studies. I began flirting with fiction—or, as R. L. Stevenson says in a poem, “playing with paper”—through writing a shameless imitation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Taking something you know well and doing it all over again is a great way to learn how paragraphs and sentences work. One day I began to copy, word for word, Joyce’s “The Dead” and Borges’s “The Circular Ruins.” I did this because I’d started writing my own stories. I’d been writing for a long time, but these stories were the first written toward publication. I’d become utterly uninterested in anything that was not about mastering the art of storytelling.
SP Did you confess that to anybody?
JGV I told my family that I had absolutely no intention of working as a lawyer after graduating from law school. I had discovered what I wanted to do and didn’t think of writing as a weekend activity, a thing on the side.
SP Had you written in secret, a escondidas, before?
JGV I wrote my first short story when I was eight; it won this school prize. I don’t think there’s been a period in my life when I wasn’t writing.
SP What’s the story about? But first tell me how your father reacted to the news; did he want you to follow a family tradition?
JGV I wish I had some Kafkaesque stories about the clash between my family and my métier, but I don’t. After all, they had been feeding me novels forever. At one point in my life soccer was all that interested me. The World Cup in Spain was approaching, so it must have been 1981. My father gave me this slim biography of Pelé, the Brazilian player, in English. He wanted to read the book in Spanish, and asked if I would translate it for a small fee. I did. I now understand what he was doing: he managed to nourish my relationship with books and the English language. I had a great time and earned some side money.
About the story . . . Strangely, it foreshadows the major themes of most of my fiction. Not to draw cheap psychological conclusions from this, but I can’t help noticing it. It’s the story of a small boy who gets trapped by accident in this ship that’s going to London: he gets lost in the city, buys a hot dog, and finds his way back to Colombia; everything in a page and a half.
SP So at eight you were already fantasizing about leaving. We Colombians have always had such a sense of inferiority—or is it curiosity, a sense of adventure? For us in Barranquilla, Miami is better. For you in Bogotá, it’s London. In The Informers, the protagonist, who is provincial, really values Sara Gutterman and Enrique Deresser’s European backgrounds. Is this related to our fascination with the outside world?
JGV Bogotá is no different than any other third-world capital; that fascination with the metropolis is something you will find everywhere, from Naipaul’s Trinidad to Carey’s Australia. I don’t think it comes from an inferiority complex, which, in any case, would be the reason why people don’t leave. Anyway, Colombia is special in that it has two coasts and its capital is inland. Caracas is a coastal city. So are Lima, Santiago, and Buenos Aires. Before airplanes, it took anywhere between five days and two weeks to get from Barranquilla to Bogotá. Bogotá was a hidden city and I think the cultural elite felt the need to go and look for the world; otherwise they would die of provincialism and boredom.
SP People wear more tweed in Bogotá than in London, and there’s Victorian and Tudor architecture all over the city.
JGV An uncle of mine lived in London for some years during the ’50s, and, during that time, he took my father, barely an adolescent, to spend three years or so at a boarding school near London. Since then my father developed an incurable Anglophilia that I seem to have inherited. Anyway, my uncle was one of those people you talk about, with his hat and his gloves and his cane. All that has disappeared, obviously, not only because times have changed and the world is closer now to Bogotá, but also because the city is at least five degrees warmer than it was in those days and nobody wears gloves anymore. “Global Warming and the British Influence in Colombia,” there’s a title for a nice essay.
SP So it’s no coincidence that much of your novel Historia secreta de Costaguana is set in London at the turn of the century, when the upper-class bogotanos traveled to London. At that time Joseph Conrad was also there, writing Nostromo, which takes place in an imaginary Latin American country he named Costaguana. Your novel is based on the three days Conrad spent on the coast of Colombia, as well as on conversations he had with a Colombian in London. Do you know if Conrad ever met a bogotano?
JGV He did meet a Colombian, Santiago Pérez Triana, who was the son of a former liberal president who’d fled Colombia after persecution by the conservative government. He wound up in London, and after some time, after reconciling himself with the country, he became an ambassador. Conrad met him through their common friend, the Scottish adventurer Robert Cunninghame-Graham, when he was writing Nostromo. This period coincided, too, with the time in which Panama was separating from Colombia.
Anyway, there was also a very strong relationship with France—Colombians were always traveling to Paris to study: José Asunción Silva, the great Colombian poet, for instance.
SP On the coast we didn’t have a fascination with England, but we did have the influence of the French, and the Italians, and the Lebanese, and the Syrians.
JGV And the Germans. Foreign cultures and immigration came naturally to Barranquilla.
SP Sure. Being the main port city, Barranquilla was a total bazaar. Everything that came in there then was taken to the interior through our own heart of darkness, our Magdalena River. You refer to the river as the “muddy Magdalena” in Costaguana. I write about it in My Colombian War. If the Congo was the heart of darkness for Conrad, to me the Magdalena is the open wound of Colombia. To this day, everything floats through the Magdalena: the drugs, the arms, the soldiers, the rebels, the paramilitaries—but also the medical supplies, the teachers, and the priests.
Back to writing and leaving Colombia: many of the writers of your generation seem to spend time in Europe. They go to Paris first, then Spain.
JGV It’s almost a tradition, isn’t it? For me, the decision to leave for Paris was the immediate consequence of the decision to become a writer. The Latin American tradition dictated that I had to leave, and Paris was the place to go.
SP You’re talking about the Boom writers.
JGV Yes, they were all expatriates and they were all obsessed with reinventing their countries in literature. Take Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes. The great novels about Peru were written in London and Paris. The great novels about Mexico were written in Paris and New York. One Hundred Years of Solitude was written in Mexico. It’s a Latin American cliché. Obviously, the Boom writers didn’t invent this: in the 19th century Rubén Darío was the first to believe that being in Paris would make him a poet. He more or less found the same thing that I found, that the literary world in Paris didn’t want him to write about modern life, about life in the boulevards. They wanted Darío to write about the Latin American landscapes. The exotic. Local color, that’s what they wanted. This tension has always existed. For my generation in Colombia, it’s magical realism.
SP There’s not much of that in your books. Was that a conscious decision? Did Alberto Fuguet and Edmundo Paz Soldán, the founders of McOndo, the movement against magical realism, influence you in any way?
JGV Not really. Mine wasn’t a rebellious decision. It was conscious in the sense that my working materials were not the same as García Márquez’s, so it was evident to me that it’d be useless to lean on his method. Literature is a question of method. Your job as a writer is to find the method that is best suited for the story you want to convey, the characters you want to conjure up. When García Márquez started to write, he was bored to death by the provincial, shortsighted, engagé realism that was the accepted form for Latin American novels. He wanted to retell the stories that his grandfather, a colonel in the great civil war of 1899, had told him. When he discovered Faulkner, he knew what his novels should read like. So he had absolutely no problem in, so to speak, hiring Faulkner in order to write The Leafstorm. After that, he gets rid of Faulkner, hires Hemingway, and works on No One Writes to the Colonel. He’s just copying their methods. I faced a similar situation when I was trying to write my novels—the method of The Great Colombian Novelist was of absolutely no use to me.
SP García Márquez claims to have merely transcribed the way of speaking of his mother and grandmother. You didn’t really speak that language—magical realism is not something you hear in a household in Bogotá.
JGV That’s it. My stories were at odds with the prevalent method, so I had to look for the method elsewhere. A series of novels had lessons for me in them: Roth’s American Pastoral, Banville’s The Untouchable, Bellow’s The Dean’s December.
SP So did you drop out of law school or are you actually a lawyer?
JGV I graduated with a very strange thesis about revenge as a legal prototype in The Iliad. I don’t even understand how I got that accepted as a project. Before finishing law school I began studying French.
SP Because you had chosen Paris? You’d studied at the American School, so why Paris and not New York?
JGV Someone once said to me that I have a hidden tendency to make things difficult for myself, but I don’t think that’s it. I chose Paris because of what I thought Paris did to writers or writer wannabes. The writers responsible for my vocation had something to do with Paris at one point or another.
SP Are you talking about figures other than the Boom writers?
JGV The Lost Generation, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. But most of all I’m talking about James Joyce. Ulysses and One Hundred Years of Solitude are the books that made me want to become a writer. Ulysses was written in Paris and García Márquez lived in Paris for a while. Almost all Latin American Boom writers, at some point or another, had lived in Paris: Julio Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes. And so Paris was, for me, the right city for somebody who wanted to become a writer. How naive, no?
I spent three years there and learned very valuable things. The first year was great. The second one, not so great. The third one, I just knew I wanted to leave and go somewhere else.
SP So did you arrive, look for an apartment, set down your computer, and start to write the next day? How does one do that?
JGV The pretext was a master’s degree at the Sorbonne. All I wanted was to be in Paris and write there, so when the moment came to begin writing this big thing, a thesis at the Sorbonne; I couldn’t do it. I had to choose between writing a novel and writing that thesis. It wasn’t hard to choose the novel.
SP So you didn’t go to Paris with an idea for a novel already in mind?
JGV I brought an almost-finished novel with me.
SP Was it actually written?
JGV I finished it two months after arriving in Paris, and it was published in 1997. I’m fond of it, but it’s not a mature piece of writing, so I’ve disinherited it along with my second novel—that’s why The Informers says that it’s my first novel. I’m responsible for that bit of disinformation.
SP In The Informers you address the ambiguous nature of truth and the dilemma of being a storyteller—you call writers “parasitic.”
JGV The actual origin of the novel was a conversation I had in 1999 with a German Jewish woman who had arrived in Colombia in 1938. She told me the story of her last years in Germany and her life as an immigrant in Colombia. The material slept in boxes for three years, waiting for me to learn how to handle it. In the meantime, my father-in-law underwent heart surgery. I’d sit outside his hospital room, waiting until he was well enough to describe his operation to me so that I could use that in a story. That’s why I think of novelists as parasitic: you feed upon the bad things that happen to other people and to yourself with an astonishing lack of guilt. Everything is material for fiction; I have no qualms when it comes to this. I love the idea that Dostoyevsky took the inscription on his mother’s tombstone and used it for one of his least lovable characters.
SP Identity is another big theme in The Informers. You describe Enrique Deresser as being “of mixed blood and no fixed nationality.” I can relate to that, having stayed in New York ever since I left Colombia at 15. Are you describing yourself a little bit there?
JGV I suppose I am. I’ve lived abroad more than a third of my life, in France, Belgium, and Spain. When I moved to Barcelona ten years ago, it was the third time I had left a country. I write in Colombian Spanish and the scene of my novels is Colombia, although I don’t live there. Also, the countries I’ve lived in have not shaped my cultural and literary ideas as much as America or England have. So it’s unavoidable that I think about nationality, and nationalisms of any kind, with a lot of skepticism.
SP So after Paris you moved to Barcelona instead of back home. What did Colombia represent?
JGV I had left in ’96, when Bogotá had just come out of the most violent decade in its history since the period we call La Violencia.
SP That’s when I decided to go back. I returned in 1999. Back then, Colombia was a record holder: it had the highest numbers of kidnappings and homicides. Everyone was afraid to leave their homes, and yet I would read in magazines that Colombians were the happiest people in the world. There was an incredible disconnect that I wanted to experience.
JGV I decided not to go back because Bogotá was still, in my mind, the city I had left behind in ’96, with the wars between the drug cartels and the government, the bombs, the kidnappings. But just as violence was only one of the reasons that made me leave in the first place—but not the reason, which was literature—it was only partially because of violence that I didn’t go back. The main reason to not return was actually abstract: I feared that if I went back I wouldn’t become the writer I wanted to become.
I’d finished a second novel by the time I left Paris, but I wasn’t satisfied with either of my two novels. The fact that the second one, Alina suplicante (Supplicating Alina), was about to be published and I was already unhappy with it threw me into a deep crisis. During my time in Paris I had met a wonderful couple of 70-year-olds, Suzanne and Francis Laurenty. They lived in a big house in the Belgian Ardennes. Their children had already married and left, so there was a lot of room in their home. At the end of 1998, I visited them over a weekend (something I did quite often) and told Francis about my crisis. He said, ”Well, why don’t you come and spend the week with us and just figure it out?” At the end of the week they said, “No luck? Okay, stay for the whole month.” At the end of the month they said, “Stay for as long as you like until you figure out what is going on.”
SP It’s a writer’s dream; you didn’t have to apply for a writers’ colony. You think they’re still taking Colombian writers?
JGV It was a writers’ colony, all right, only—
SP Only you had it all to yourself.
JGV Yes, I led a sort of parallel life for ten months. In the mornings we went out and hunted, say, a pheasant, then we would go back home and Suzanne would cook it for dinner.
SP And which story was cooking in your mind at the time?
JGV No stories. I was just trying to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be, and what kind of readings would help me find that out. I’ll never be able to read as much as I read that year. After my year in Belgium, I knew Truman Capote’s claim to read a book a day was possible. So I discovered some essential writers for myself, like Conrad.
SP You wrote an entire homage to him.
JGV I don’t think of La historia secreta de Costaguana as homage. If anything, I tried to humanize the character of Conrad.
SP But humanizing him is such an homage. So why Conrad?
JGV Through his writing I learned what fiction is, what it should do, how it works. Things that you don’t get only from his fiction, but also from his prefaces, his letters, his few essays, etcetera. These are huge and abstract concepts, but I can’t tell you how concrete and necessary they were to me.
Actually, both Conrad and Naipaul taught me to look at my country as an area of darkness. They taught me that it was all right, even desirable, to have a tense relationship with my birthplace; that loyalty to a country is hugely overrated. They taught me to see history in terms of individuals, which, incredibly, is something we forget every now and then. What is more, they taught me to see physical displacement as a source of creative energy.
SP In both of your books, the issue of displacement and the search to understand what Colombia means are very strong. You must be familiar with Borges’s story “Ulrica,” where the main character pretends to be Colombian. When the object of his desire asks him what it means to be Colombian, he says, “It’s an act of faith.” Colombians quote that endlessly; I disagree completely with their misuse of Borges. He was using that phrase as a pick-up line, not as a nationalistic motto! I feel the same about the new government’s campaign slogan “Colombia es pasión.” Passion and faith belong in the bedroom and have nothing to do with a citizen’s responsibility.
JGV Where do I sign? That’s exactly it. Part of my crisis back in 1999 was this inability to write about Colombia. I didn’t understand my country, its history, or its politics.
SP Neither did I. It makes me feel better to hear you say this. Among my friends there is a huge void in how much we know, or care, about our history—maybe it’s because we went to the American School, where there was a portrait of JFK in the classroom instead of one of Simón Bolívar. We have cycles of violence every 50 years. Would you agree that an explanation for that is our lack of interest in each other, our regionalist rivalry? Have you traveled extensively through Colombia? I surely haven’t.
JGV Yes. The year I spent in Belgium, I realized that the prospect of writing about Colombia had been too daunting for me. I had grown up with Hemingway’s idea that you should only write about what you know, but I had also grown up with the image of Borges, who was the first one to challenge the very Latin American idea that its writers have an obligation to write about their countries. Novelists as ambassadors, right? Borges took that silly prejudice apart in a little essay, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” and life has been easier for all of us ever since. I didn’t feel any kind of obligation to write about Colombia, but it bothered me that I couldn’t.
I was becoming obsessed with some gray areas of our history, of our geist as a people. But, thinking I should understand something before writing about it, I felt incapable of taking on these subjects. It was a terrible moment of paralysis. Talk about the blank page; I was facing a blank world.
SP I did the reverse: I embarked on an education by writing. What about the country didn’t you understand?
JGV I’ve always hated people talking about the spirit of their country and all those well-intentioned esoteric patriotisms. But that’s what comes closer to what I didn’t understand: the soul, the abstract quality that makes Colombia what it is. It has a lot to do with the violence, obviously, but it goes beyond it.
SP Was our violence becoming clearer in the Belgian countryside? Did you feel that through your writing you could open our eyes to the chain of events happening in Colombia?
JGV No. If anything, I felt I could open my characters’ eyes. Any reader of my novels should feel by the end that he’s learned something, sure, but novels have never been only about information, you know? The knowledge that can be derived from them is indirect, ambiguous, and therefore enriching. Novels make us aware of the relationship between the individual and history, of how that strange marriage works.
SP The same can be said of good nonfiction. The Informers underscores how there are two sides to every story, the ambiguous nature of truth, and the need to know both sides for reconciliation to happen.
JGV Countries and governments are the best storytellers! Their ability to convince, their recourse to the best metaphors, their power—which novelists seldom have—to eliminate any discordant element, anything that questions their narrative. History is a tale told by power; there’s nothing new in this. So one of the possible justifications of novels—not that they require any—is contradiction. It’s not about telling what happened, but what could have happened. What we call the past, public or private, is just a fixed narrative told for the first time by someone with certain interests, prejudices, and biases. Novels remind us of that; there’s not one truth, one history, one past.
—Author of In the Land of God and Man: Confronting Our Sexual Culture and My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind, Silvana Paternostro has earned a nomination for the PEN PEN /Martha Abrams Award for First Nonfiction and a place among Time/CNN’s 50 Latin American Leaders for the New Millennium for her vigilante writings.