Given 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