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Juan Gabriel Vasquez Courtesy Penguin Random House
Courtesy Penguin Random House

Understanding Colombia through the books of Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Both his novels and nonfiction books focus on the political situation in Colombia.

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In October 2016, Colombian film director Sergio Cabrera attended a retrospective of his films in Barcelona. It is a difficult time: his father, Fausto Cabrera, has just died, his marriage is in crisis, and his country has rejected peace agreements that would have ended more than 50 years of war.

Over the course of a few revealing days, Cabrera will recall the events that marked his life and that of his father. From the Spanish Civil War to the exile of his republican family in America, from the China of the Cultural Revolution to the armed movements of the 1960s, the reader will witness a life that is much more than a great adventure: it is a picture of half a century of history that shook the whole world.

In Volver la vista atrás (Alfaguara, 2021), Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez paints a devastating portrait of a family dragged by the forces of history, a "nonfiction" account of the relationships between parents and children marked by political ideas and fanaticism. 

"It is written from the same obsession that has animated almost all my books. That obsession to tell the space where private lives, intimate lives, collide with the mysterious forces of history and politics," Vasquez told the newspaper El Tiempo in a recent interview. 

"In this book there is nothing invented, but there is my interpretation of a biographical reality. What I hope is that the reader extracts these suggestions that the story makes by itself. While I was discovering and exploring the passionate story of Sergio Cabrera, my challenge as a novelist was to put aside all my previous intentions, my preconceptions, my own convictions, to tell it from the characters," added Vasquez about his latest novel, winner of the Vargas Llosa 2021 Biennial Prize.

Defined as the successor to García Márquez "as Colombia's great literary master," according to literary critic Ariel Dorfman in The New York Review of Books, Vasquez is the author of eight novels, mostly translated into English. The most notable is El Ruido de las cosas (The Sound of Things Falling), winner of the 2011 Alfaguara Novel Prize, and translated into English. 
 
"I write because there is something I don't understand, that seems obscure to me, and fiction writing is a way of interrogating that reality and one of my obsessions is the relationship we have with our past," explained the Colombian writer in a recent interview with El País on the occasion of the publication of his latest book, Los desacuerdos de paz: artículos y conversaciones (2012-2022), a compilation of nonfiction texts in which he reviews the political situation in his country. 

The book reviews the peace negotiations with the FARC, a process that has brought so much hope and polarization to Colombia. The views span opinion columns in media around the world, to conversations with former President Juan Manuel Santos, with the head of the Colombian government's negotiating team in Havana, Humberto de la Calle, and with sculptor Doris Salcedo.

According to the critics, Los desacuerdos de paz not only documents the events of the last 10 years, it also proposes a reflection on the lies and violence that have degraded citizen coexistence.

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