Songs for the Flames by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (transl. Anne MacLean): Stories within stories

Cover imageGiven that Juan Gabriel Vásquez has not only won the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award but has also been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, together with his translator Anne MacLean, I feel I really should have read something by him before now. Songs for the Flames is his first short story collection for sixteen years and comes garlanded with praise from the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa and Nicole Krauss. With settings ranging from his native Colombia to Europe, Vásquez’s collection comprises nine stories, a few short, some lengthy, all memorable.

Short story collections are never easy to review. My usual approach is to pick out a few favourites but Vásquez’s stories all have something which made them linger in my mind so I’ve chosen several more or less at random to give a flavour of their range. ‘Frogs’ sees two people realise that each knows the secret the other has been keeping for fifty years at a commemorative ceremony for the Colombian contribution to the Korean War. For one of them it may offer a path to liberation. In ‘Bad News’ ten years after a writer is told a story by a stranger, he discovers that there’s a different, shocking version of the events. The titular piece is a jigsaw of a story whose complications we’re warned of from the start. It takes us from the nineteenth century when the de Leóns emigrate to France to the twenty-first as our narrator reconstructs their story and that of their beautiful granddaughter.

Vásquez’s stories are complex, hard to encapsulate in such brief synopses. They need time to sink in, leaving much to be thought about. Most are framed as stories told to the narrator as if acknowledging they’re not entirely his to tell, sometimes long after the events described lending them a thoughtful, reflective tone. Often those who’ve shared them have suffered violence – the fallout of the Colombian drug cartels in ‘The Boys’ which sees the possibility of happiness snuffed out, the Manson murders – committed long before he was born – which haunts an extra on a Polanski movie in ‘Airport’ and the accident that befell a politician’s assistant which she inconveniently survives in the opening story ‘Welcome to Riverbank’.  The one that stood out stylistically for me was ‘Us’ which smartly captures the rumour, speculation and jump to judgment which characterises much of social media in its brief account of man’s disappearance. All share an economy of style; Vasquez succeeds in saying a great deal in fewer words than some writers expend merely on setting a scene. It’s an impressive collection. If you’re a Vásquez fan, suggestions for which of his novels to try would be welcome.

Maclehose Press: London 9781529405446 220 pages Hardback

18 thoughts on “Songs for the Flames by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (transl. Anne MacLean): Stories within stories”

  1. I read Reputations in 2017 and enjoyed it very much, but somehow haven’t picked up anything else by Vasquez since then, though my library owns two more. I think The Sound of Things Falling is the one that attracts me most, but if they acquire this story collection you’ve definitely sold me on reading it.

  2. I have a couple of his novels on my shelves, The Informers, and the Conrad-inspired one, but admit I’ve not read him at all. These short stories sound good, but I ought to read the books I have – ha ha!

  3. I’ve only tried The Shape of the Ruins and although I liked the premise and the quality of his prose, I felt it was far too padded and the structure made me lose interest – it kept jumping backwards in history. But these sound good – I might appreciate him more in short format.

  4. I admired rather than loved The Shape of the Ruins, but have The Secret History of Costaguana one on my shelves (it looks like fun), plus an earlier short story collection. The Sound of Things Falling did impress me.

  5. I loved The Sound of Things Falling but have read nothing else of his since then. (Not for any particular reason – just lack of time, I guess.) What impressed me most about it was the combination of the personal and the political, a sense of breadth in scope and intimacy in detail that also seems to be present here. Would that be fair to say, do you think?

    1. Yes, I’d say that was true of several of the stories – ‘Boys’, for instance, explores the devastating effect of the Colombian drug trade through a group of children, humanising it. Certainly a collection that leaves you with much to think about.

    1. It was The Sound of Falling Things, described as a literary thriller. I’ll definitely be reading more by him although I might try his first short story collection first.

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