A Story Collection Steeped in Colombia’s Troubled History

A review by Justin Taylor for The New York Times.

By Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Translated by Anne McLean

In an author’s note in his 2015 story collection “Lovers on All Saints’ Day,” Juan Gabriel Vasquez writes that his selection was informed by something he once heard Tobias Wolff say, that “a book of stories should be like a novel in which the characters don’t know each other.” “Lovers,” a master class in sustaining atmosphere and mood, ably meets Wolff’s standard. Vasquez’s haunting and beautiful new collection, “Songs for the Flames,” is likewise unified by tone and theme, but six of its nine stories are narrated in the first person by what seems to be the same character, a writer similar to Vasquez who doesn’t say much about himself but tells stories about people he can’t get out of his head. Even the three other pieces feel like tales this narrator might have gathered, and might implicitly be telling.

Has Wolff’s dictum been abandoned or upheld? Perhaps it has simply been stress-tested. The protagonists of these stories don’t know one another but the writer-narrator knows all of them, and he seeks, through their lives and his own acts of archival imagination, something crucial about himself and the long, troubled past of his homeland, Colombia. The title story, for one, unfurls two centuries’ worth of Colombian and trans-Atlantic history from the narrator’s purchase of an old grammar book, after an algorithm mines his online search history and recommends him to the seller.

The narrator is primarily a listener and observer, revealing himself to us through the quality and direction of his attention. “Autofiction” is at this point an intellectually and aesthetically bankrupt concept, so it’s the last thing I feel like talking about in the precious little space I have to advocate for this devastating collection, but I might as well mention that if you appreciate the intelligence and ambiguities of the genre’s best practitioners, you’ll have some affinity for what Vasquez is up to here. Still, his notion of a literature steeped in history, one that does not so much blur as obviate the line between fiction and nonfiction, and between scholarship and imagination, may owe more to Borges than anyone else. I have come to think of Borges as a stealth realist, and even (perish the thought!) a forerunner of autofiction, because his stories are usually as attentive to the process of their composition — to the contours of his own thinking — as they are to their fabulist conceits.

Borges provides “Songs for the Flames” with both of its epigraphs, one from his short story “The End” (itself a re-envisioning of the 19th-century Argentine epic “Martin Fierro”) and the other from his poem “All Our Yesterdays.” “I want to know who my past belongs to,” writes Borges; the “Songs” narrator wants the same.

The title of Borges’s poem, by the way, is from “Macbeth,” which we might recall is about how sometimes you get so much blood on your hands that you can’t wash it off even after you wash it off. “Songs for the Flames” is a book about war and imperialism, which in Vasquez’s view never really end, but rather mutate: devolving here into individual traumas paid out over generations, evolving there into state corruption and endless cycles of violence. I might have profitably compared “Songs” to recent collections such as Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” and Luke Mogelson’s “These Heroic, Happy Dead,” or even Tim O’Brien’s classic “The Things They Carried.” But those are American books, and for all their accomplished style and justifiable outrage are primarily concerned with the sullying of American innocence — another intellectually and aesthetically bankrupt idea that most of the world gave up long ago, if they ever had the luxury of believing it in the first place.

“Songs for the Flames” is finally a book about secrets and lies, which is to say speech acts: their tremendous power, but also the limits of that power and the wretched ecstasy of revelation. Or recognition. Because discovering a secret is not the same as being told one, which is something else again from having a secret to protect. “It wasn’t just the relief of the truth that he was going to reveal,” thinks an old soldier in “Frogs,” apropos a long-held secret that I will not spoil here. Rather, it was “something that could only be power: the power of taking others with him, of dragging them so they would go over the cliff with him.”

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