Q&A: Juan Gabriel Vásquez on vanity, politics, and the disappearing borders of public and private lives in “Reputations”

Juan Gabriel Vásquez is a rising international literary superstar, with his last book The Sound of Things Falling taking the US by storm. In his latest novel, Reputations, Vásquez explores the intimate moral dilemma a powerful Colombian political cartoonist faces when he is confronted by the repercussions of his work. Vásquez examines the construction of public identity, the burden of memory, and the intersection of the personal and the political, all within the bounds of a taut, electrifying page-turner.

  1. This is the first novel you’ve written since moving back to Colombia after many years living and writing abroad. You’ve also mentioned in past interviews the feeling of estrangement being an important one in your writing. How did it feel being back in Colombia and writing Reputations?

Well, Reputations is very different from the other novels I’ve written. Over the years I’ve discovered that my writing comes from a certain feeling of surprise, although this is quite a sweet word for what really goes on. I write about my country’s past (whether it’s the drug wars or German immigrants during World War II) because in those periods I have discovered stories that throw me off balance, that give me a glimpse into human realities I know nothing about. Reputations is very different in that it doesn’t deal with those large public realities of the other books, but concentrates on a very intimate story. I think it has to do with the fact that I had never seen my characters or my themes from such a short distance before.

2. How does this novel intersect with or reflect your understanding of or your relationship to Colombian politics?

This story about a very powerful political cartoonist is inseparable from Colombian reality. I know very few countries where an Opinion column has such a strong repercussion in politics, and I’m sure I know even fewer places where a drawing, a caricature, can actually make waves and affect a politician’s life. This doesn’t always happen in the public eye, but it’s there. I just tried to explore the private implications of such a power, and the facts about human beings (for instance, our terrible relationship with memory) that make it vulnerable and even dangerous. Of course, it’s not a book about Colombian politics. It’s about certain moral conflicts, and that’s that.

3. This book explores, among other things, the fickle nature of reputations. What were some of the reasons you were drawn to this dynamic?

I think we’ve grown more anxious about our reputation than we have ever been. The reason is very simple: the old borders between our private and public lives are no longer there. They have become porous or have completely crumbled. In the age of social networks, of cellphone cameras and instant sharing, we are all public figures. This anxiety might have seeped into the novel and shaped its preoccupations, although in a pre-social networks scenario. Anyway, I have been a political columnist for a little under a decade and have seen from the inside the tense relationship between those who talk about others and those who are talked about. That also went into the novel: every tension, every conflict I have experienced writing political columns ended up on poor Mallarino’s head.

4. The protagonist in Reputations is a political cartoonist who has an interesting relationship with the public. On one hand he is rather removed from society and serves as a cultural commentator to those in power, but as we see early on, he has also been widely accepted and adopted by the mainstream establishment. Counter-cultural movements are frequently co-opted by the establishment over time. Do you think this is inevitable? Is it possible to preserve rebellion and independence or will they always be absorbed into the mainstream?

I don’t think it’s inevitable, no, but it was immensely interesting for me to discover the key element of vanity in all this. Vanity makes things move! Mallarino, my cartoonist, is not safe from that little affliction, nor should he be if he is to be human. But how do you deal with that? How do you deal with that particular kind of power, and that particular relationship with the powerful? These questions are an important part of the conflict in the novel.

5. Speaking of reputations, you’ve been very keen on distinguishing yourself from other Colombian greats — like Gabriel Garcia Marquez for example — and have been hailed as “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature” by Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. How do you envision the future of Latin American literature?

Well, I’ve been keen on moving on from magical realism as a way of exploring and understanding Latin America. But the wonderful works of García Márquez are a constant presence for me — they shape certain aspects of my trade, as do Vargas Llosa’s novels and Borges’s short-stories. The future of Latin American literature? Let me put it this way: my generation has a definite advantage over that of Borges, García Márquez and Vargas Llosa: we began writing in a tradition that had already produced Borges, García Márquez and Vargas Llosa. They did not. It’s amazing they managed to write as they did.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s book Reputations is on sale September 20th from Riverhead. You can pre-order a copy here. Join us in the Rare Book Room to celebrate his book on 9/20 at 7pm.

For more literary content delivered to your inbox each week, sign up for the Strand Insider Newsletter and let the bookish goodness come to you.