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On Thursday, Juan Gabriel Vásquez became the first Latin American writer to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, one of the world's most valuable literary prizes. Worth €100,000 (about $135,700), 75 percent of the prize money goes to Vásquez and the remaining 25 percent to his translator, Anne McLean. Vásquez's novel The Sound of Things Falling is set amid the violence and chaos of the Colombian drug wars. Photos of a dead hippopotamus escaped from drug lord Pablo Escobar's zoo ("the great dark, wrinkled mass, a recently fallen meteorite") bring the book's narrator, a law professor named Antonio, back to the day he and an acquaintance were gunned at in the street. His friend died, and Antonio was drawn irrevocably into the man's past. In her review for NPR, Marcela Valdes writes, "Vasquez gives us delicate renderings of a sonogram ("a sort of luminous universe, a confusing constellation in movement"), of insomnia ("the dew accumulating on the windows like a white shadow when the temperature dropped in the early hours"), of a famous, abandoned car ("the bodywork cracked open, another dead animal whose skin was full of worms"). He gives us the decomposition of a young man's family in the 1990s and the ripening of a young woman's first love in the 1970s. He gives us the birth of the war on drugs and the disillusionment of a generous Peace Corps volunteer. He gives us the sound of planes falling, of bodies falling, of lives falling inexorably apart. He gives us the most engrossing Latin American novel I've read since Roberto Bolaño's 2666." Vásquez, in Dublin to accept the literary prize, spoke with NPR by email:
First of all, congratulations! What impact will this prize have on your life and writing?
Thank you very much. I don't think this wonderful prize will have any impact on my writing. No prize does: you're still by yourself, facing the blank screen, trying to make sense of language, the characters and the story. Those anxieties and uncertainties don't go away. On the other hand, life may change: for a writer like myself, these prizes mean I get to write future books worrying less about keeping an income while I write. Lastly, there's the tremendous honor of making a part of that list of winners. And that's something to be grateful for.
How do you begin to write a novel? What was this novel's genesis?
Novels evolve very slowly for me before I get down to write them. First there is a sort of fascination with different materials I find and collect over many years --stories people tell me, documents I find in unexpected places — and I slowly begin seeing strange relationships between them. Then I see a character that interests me, and I discover that those documents and this character are part of the same web... The Sound of Things Falling began with my exploration of this pilot who had smuggled marijuana into the US in the early '70s. But 10 years before I started writing his story, I'd found the transcription of the black box recording of an American Airlines plane that crashed in the Colombian mountains in 1995. Later, I found the letters of an American Peace Corps volunteer who writes home telling his family about that strange place, Colombia. Before that, a friend had told me about her grandmother who was present at an aerial exhibition in the 1930s, which ended in disaster. And in 2009 I found, in a Colombian magazine, a photo of a dead hippo... Things started coming together, or rather writing the novel was the art of putting together things that didn't necessarily belong together.
Though drug wars are an explosive and dynamic topic, inner dramas are the real core of this novel. Was this a conscious choice?
Well, this is a Colombian novel and it explores a period of Colombian recent history, but it tries to explore universal feelings and emotions — as all literature does, I guess. I'm not interested in topics. I write first about characters and their predicaments, and slowly I realize that I'm actually writing about such and such topic. With this novel I discovered at some point that part of my motivation to write came from the fact that we had grown up used to the public side of the drug wars, but there was nowhere to go to explore the inner dramas you talk about: the moral, emotions, psychological side of that public violence. So it was then — halfway through the novel — that the choice became conscious.
You left Colombia for many years and then returned. Why did you leave, and why did you come back?
I left because I wanted to become a novelist and I thought leaving was the way to do it. I also left because my relationship with my country (my attachments to it) had deteriorated over a decade of extreme violence. I came back because of family reasons and because the place had changed so much it now seemed strange to me, and I need this feeling of strangeness to feel comfortable.
And in other book news...
- For The Millions, Alix Ohlin writes about the Swedish author Tove Jansson and her hippopotamine, sometimes melancholy character Moomin: "Childhood, as I knew it, was rife with secrecy and weirdness, with actions that made sense to you but not anybody else. It's no wonder that I fell in love with Moomin. ... The universe of Moomin is sometimes magical, with a hobgoblin hat that can change Moomin into an ugly version of himself, but it is also cozy, a paracosm where danger is slight and the next meal of pancakes is never far away. Yet despite the hominess, the key feature of the Moomin books is a thrumming note of melancholy. Wistfulness colors many of the scenes, as well as a sense of restlessness that undercuts the security of the family, the valley, the home."
- Charles Wright, the next U.S. poet laureate, asked by NPR's Melissa Block what he'll do in the position, answered, "Well, I'll probably stay here at home and think about things."