A trilingual reader who likes to mix it up

The Columbian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been hailed as a leading voice in Latin America’s new generation of writers. His “The Sound of Things Falling” won several prestigious international literary awards and became a bestseller in the United States after its release here in 2013. In his new book, “The Shape of the Ruins,” the narrator is a novelist named Juan Gabriel Vasquez who untangles a history of political conspiracy and brutal assassinations. He’ll talk with novelist Claire Messud about his book at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28 at Porter Square Books. 

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

VASQUEZ: I’m reading Jonathan Yardley’s “Misfit,” a biography of the novelist Frederick Exley, and Claire Messud’s novel “The Burning Girl” because I’m meeting them in a couple of weeks, and I like to talk shop. Also the Columbian novelist Laura Restrepo’s “Los Divinos” and a wonderful memoir by the human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, “East West Street.” 


BOOKS: Do you often read that many books at the same time?

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VASQUEZ: Usually I concentrate on one book, but this time I’m kind of letting them mix depending on the time of day and my mental acuity, which diminishes as the day goes on. We all have favorite genres depending on what we are doing. For example, for flights I love good literary interviews and a certain kind of novel that feeds the work I’m trying to do myself. I’ve accepted invitations just to take a long international flight to read and solve a problem of the book I’m working on. 

BOOKS: How much nonfiction do you read?

VASQUEZ: I recently read the book in “The Last Interview” series that contains the interviews that Hannah Arendt gave at the end of her life. She’s a thinker I go back to all the time.

BOOKS: What is the last classic work of literature you read?


VASQUEZ: Probably Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” which I was fascinated by. This is the kind of novel that my novel tries to have a dialogue with, the kind of novel that mixes genres. I wish I had read it sooner.

BOOKS: Which language do you read in the most?

VASQUEZ: I can read in Spanish, English, and French, and they get even treatment. I always read a book in its original language if I can. Right now I’m reading a lot of literature in English translation. I was about to start “Flights” by Olga Tokarczuk in English because the Spanish one hasn’t come out. 

BOOKS: Have you read a book in two different languages?

VASQUEZ: I gave a course on Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” in Switzerland, so I had to teach it from the excellent English translation by Edith Grossman, which was weird and fascinating.


BOOKS: Did it change the reading experience?

‘I always read a book in its original language if I can.’

VASQUEZ: Yes, because one of the things that pushes Spanish language readers away from the book is the early 17th-century language. If a translation is well done, the reading experience is much more natural. 

BOOKS: Is there a Latin American writer who you wish was better known to English readers?

VASQUEZ: That wonderful generation of Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes had an older [literary] uncle who I revere, Juan Carlos Onetti. He was Uruguayan and wrote some of the best fiction of the 20th century.

BOOKS: Did moving to Europe in your 20s change you as a reader?

VASQUEZ: I read many writers for the first time. Marcel Proust and the French 17th century tragedians, such as Jean Racine. I had read Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in high school and had not understood one single page. And then in ’98 when I was 26 I connected with him and read everything he wrote.

BOOKS: Do you think students are taught Conrad and the classics too young?

VASQUEZ: Teachers think that since you are probably not going to become a serious reader that they have to force-feed you the classics. I think that is a mistake. They should seduce you with literature that could fascinate teenagers. Then you would become a reader and look for the classics on your own. Reading should be this territory of absolute freedom, even a subversive place. If we transmitted that idea to young people we would create more readers than by saying it is good for them, like taking vitamin A.

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