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A truer picture of Colombia’s recent history

A review of Juan Gabriel Vásques' new novel Volver la Vista Atrás

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Nick Caistor reviews Juan Gabriel Vásquez’ new novel Volver la Vista Atrás, which will be published in English as Retrospective by Maclehose Press in September 2022, translated by Anne Maclean.


A childhood in Mao’s China being educated in revolution; early manhood in the mountain jungles of Colombia trying to put theory into practice; growing disillusionment with the revolutionary struggle, and escape to London and the start of a career as one of Colombia’s foremost film-makers.

These are the elements of Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s new novel Volver la vista atrás, based on the extraordinary life of director Sergio Cabrera, perhaps best-known internationally for the film The Strategy of the Snail.

In his novels, Vásquez ambitiously uses fiction to tell important stories from Colombia’s recent past. From the two camps of German immigrants in Colombia during the 1930s and 1940s (in The Informers), to the killing of Eliecer Gaitan and the start of La Violencia in the 1950s (The Shape of the Ruins), as well of course as Pablo Escobar and his infamous hippopotamuses (The Sound of Things Falling).

Every contemporary Colombian author is necessarily compared to Gabriel García Márquez. But where Márquez gave a mythical dimension to historical events such as the Thousand Day War or La Ciénaga massacre of banana workers, Vásquez is much closer to his Nobel-prize winning predecessor’s reportage books such as The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor or News of a Kidnapping.  

Both authors are intensely focussed on Colombian reality,with a keen eye for the most telling details, and a supple prose that propels the story forward.

In Vásquez’s latest novel, to be published in Spanish by Alfaguara, the occasion for Cabrera’s trip into his own past is a retrospective of his films held in Barcelona in 2016. This coincides with the death of his father Fausto back in Colombia.  These events prompt him to reconsider the trajectory of three generations of his family.

This begins with his grandfather, who was opposed to General Franco and his nationalist coup, and left Barcelona at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. His wanderings led him to the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and eventually Medellín in Colombia, his political views becoming increasingly radical as return to his home country became increasingly impossible.

Sergio’s parents, Fausto and Luz Elena, inherit these radical ideas, and become embroiled in the debates on Colombia’s far left as to which revolutionary faction they should support. There is the Marxist ELN (led by another Spaniard, Camilo Torres), the Cuban-inspired FARC, or the EPL (the Ejército Popular de Liberación, grandiosely known in Spanish as the Partido Comunista Marxista-Leninista Pensamiento Mao-Tse-Tung).

Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Photo: leereslomejor.com

Fausto is so convinced that Mao’s revolution is the way forward for rural societies such as Colombia that he takes his family, including Sergio and his younger sister, to live in China, where they are brought up without privileges in a revolutionary society. Vásquez’s descriptions of the strangeness and alienation of life in China for Sergio and his sister are brilliantly done.

The revolutionary training is merely the prelude to the family’s return to Colombia to help spearhead revolution there. Sergio’s parents settle in Medellín to work with the urban guerrilla, while Sergio and his sister enlist with the EPL rural guerrilla fighters in the mountains of central Colombia.

Here again, Vasquez’s description of life in the guerrilla is fascinating. His depiction of Cabrera’s gradual disillusionment with the struggle to win over hearts and minds, and the tensions and rivalries within revolutionary group, the growing feeling that this is not getting anywhere, ring entirely true, and make the novel an important political novel without being propagandistic in any way.

Sergio and his sister do eventually succeed in breaking free of the EPL, but in a further twist, their father encourages them to return to China, both to avoid reprisals and to participate in what is now Mao’s ‘cultural revolution’. Yet again, they both feel lost, and cannot properly grasp what is going on around them. Eventually, thanks to a meeting with the legendary film-maker Joris Ivens, Sergio has the chance to leave China behind, to take up a place at the International Film School in London. Amazingly after all these experiences he is still in his mid-twenties, and is able to make a totally new life for himself.

In this novel, even more forcefully than his previous books, Juan Gabriel Vásquez is using all his skills as a writer of fiction to give the reader a truer picture of aspects of Colombia’s recent history than can be found in history books. By concentrating on the lived experience of individuals, he brings into focus what is often dealt with in terms of bland generalities that add little to the debate: in this case the forty or more years when many militants on the left in Colombia thought that revolution was the only answer to the country’s chronic inequalities.

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