Friday, July 10, 2015

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s “Lovers on All Saints’ Day”

Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez gained considerable critical notice (and a number of literary awards) in 2013 for his novel The Sound of Things Falling, which explores the impact of Colombia’s recent violent drug culture on people’s individual lives, even years after the old drug regime has been overthrown (a similar novel was written in 1975  by Peruvian and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa – Conversation in the Cathedral – about the impact of military dictatorship).

Later this month (July 21, to be precise), Gabriel Vasquez is publishing a collection of short stories, Lovers on All Saints’ Day, that were first written when he was living in Belgium and Barcelona. Describing them, he quotes the writer Tobias Wolff: “a book of stories should be like a novel in which the characters don’t know each other.”

And that is exactly how this collection of stories reads.

Six of the seven stories are set in Belgium, mostly in the Ardennes Forest region but also including Brussels and smaller towns (one story is in Paris). Each is about relationships, and mostly husband-wife relationships. Each is about deterioration of those relationships. And each is about time, and how the past is never really past but always a part of the present, and the future.

In “Hiding Places,” a freelance writer visits friends in Brussels, and walks into a family tragedy. In “The All Saints’ Day Lovers,” a marriage is evaporating; the husband spends the night with a café owner who lost her husband in a plane accident, and each relationship becomes a kind of metaphor for the other. “The Lodger” concerns what happens with a couple more than 20 years after the wife has an affair with the husband’s best friend.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez
In “The Return,” a woman paroled after spent 45 years in prison for killing her sister’s fiancé comes home, and past and present become intermingled. “At the Café de la Republique,” a couple recently separated meet so they can visit the husband’s dying father. In “The Solitude of the Magician,” a woman has an affair with a magician, ultimately leading to a family tragedy. And “Life on Grimsey Island” describes two people, she a veterinarian and he the reluctant owner of his father’s stables, both trying to escape their pasts.

These are somber stories, filled with loss and tragedy, with people trying to cope with intense personal loss with little to guide them. The writing is spare; nothing in these stories is gratuitous. The impression is always clouds, rain and cold. Each story has a sense of inevitability, as if the characters can’t really prevent what is going to happen. Or not happen.

Lovers on All Saints’ Day is a commentary on contemporary relationships. And little of what Gabriel Vasquez sees is good.

Photograph: Rue Goossens in Brussels, which plays a role in one of the stories in Lovers on All Saints’ Day. « Schaerbeek Rue Goossens 001 » par Varech — Travail personnel. Sous licence Domaine public via Wikimedia Commons.

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