Transcript of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Speech

Lord Mayor of Dublin, Christy Burke, Chief Executive of  Dublin City Council, Mr Owen Keegan, Dublin City Librarian, Ms Margaret Hayes, dear members of the jury,

There are mysterious ties between the novels that have shaped our worldview and the cities we love. In 1996, when I arrived in Paris driven by the single obsession of becoming a novelist, the first thing I did was cross the river from my chambre de bonne in the 8th arrondisement and look for number 12, rue de l’Odéon: the place where, in 1922, an expatriate called Sylvia Beach took it on herself to publish, under her bookstore’s name, Shakespeare and Co., an impossible novel by an Irishman that was already a legend of sorts. I had read Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time in 1993; no other discovery, except reading One Hundred Years of Solitude when I was 16, played such a definitive role in my decision to brush everything else aside (including my Law degree and my place of residence) and giving in to the fact that reading and writing fiction was the only thing that interested me in life. During my three years in Paris I studied Joyce’s books intensely while I spent my free time looking for the places where the writers I loved had lived and worked: the park where a passerby told Joyce, in Latin, that he was a terrible writer; the house where Flaubert wrote A sentimental education; the café where two characters from Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch met for the first time.

So yes: I’ve always been guilty of what Mario Vargas Llosa calls literary fetishism. On April 16 2009, when I landed for the first time in Dublin, this international city of words, I felt a shock of recognition: I knew the place well, I could find my way in it, and I knew why: because I had walked around it with Bloom and Stephen. After an interview, I asked Cormac Kinsella (or perhaps it was his idea instigated by my fetishism) to take me to the Davy Byrnes, where Bloom sits down to eat; later in the day I asked him to take me to the house where The Dead is set. Cormac complied with the tolerance one shows towards the games of children, maybe because he knew well that children take them very, very seriously. For admittedly there is something childish in that cult of places whose importance comes from what never happened in them. But serious readers of fiction, people like me for whom novels and short stories have taken over the years the place of religion, people like me for whom works of fiction are not just somewhere to live in but also lessons in life —we know this: the great virtue of things that never happened is that they will go on happening forever. Forever my namesake Gabriel Conroy will look out that window and see the snow falling on the living and the dead. Forever Stephen will walk on the Strand thinking about Berkeley, Samuel Johnson, Aristotle and Dante in the same paragraph, and forever will that walk happen at 11 am, that is, exactly 110 years minus 4 days ago.

These events are part of my memory and, dare I say it, part of my biography too. They are part of my experience as much as the things that have actually happened to me, and I remember them distinctly. I remember the massacre of the banana plantation workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude and I remember José Arcadio Buendía had a boy on his shoulders when the soldiers began shooting. I remember distinctly how Anna Karenina wanted to throw herself under the wheels of the first carriage, but the little red handbag that she was carrying got entangled in her sleeve and she had to wait for the next one. I remember distinctly how Juan Dahlmann, in Borges’s The South, is about to walk out of a barroom brawl when an old man dressed like a gaucho throws him a knife and forces him to fight. You may have heard of Korsakov’s syndrome. People afflicted by it tend to replace real memories with fictitious ones, or make up memories to fill up the gaps left by memories that have disappeared. I’ve always felt this is, in a manner of speaking, a great metaphor of how fiction works, and that is why serious readers of fiction are formed —morally, emotionally— by those things that never happened.

It is in this spirit that I wrote the novel you have so generously distinguished today. I wrote it to remember in fiction what I had forgotten in real life. I wrote with the arrogant feeling that it would allow other Colombians to remember the same forgotten feelings, the feeling of fear, the feeling of unpredictable violence, the feeling of a country falling apart, really falling apart. I wrote this novel, as all the writers I admire have written the books that I love, out of dissatisfaction: because we had heard too much over the years about the political and social consequences of the drug wars, about its external and all-too-visible manifestations, but there was no place, at least that I knew of, where I could go to find out about the internal manifestations, the moral and emotional consequences of having lived through those years which left no one unscathed. I wrote this novel, as E.L. Doctorow once said to me, to redistribute pain. Recently, Danish novelist Jens-Christen Grondahl called my attention to a wonderful quote by Logan Pearsall Smith: “The great art of writing is to make people real to themselves with words”. Giving them through language and imagination, a deeper sense of how they are built, helping them understand the myriad ways in which we are determined by the world outside us. I wrote this novel to try to fulfil this mandate.

Having said this, I would like to remind you of an important fact: that the words you have read and appreciated are not mine: they where chosen by Anne McLean. In awarding this prize to a novel in translation, you are also recognising the role translators play, not only in our civilisation, but in our private lives. I don’t know, for instance, how I could live in my country today without two words imported for the Greek: politician and idiot. Translation is what allows me to say that my understanding of what we are as human beings has been shaped by Tolstoi, Chekhov or Kafka, even though I don’t speak a word of Russian or German. Anne McLean had to deal with a writer obsessed with sound, with rhythm and with detail, and she survived—for the third time. I would like to thank her for her words. I would also like to remember that she is a Canadian who was living in England at the time she met me, a Colombian living in Spain, and now we are being presented with this award in Dublin. So when I called Dublin an international city of words, I wasn’t joking.

To dedicate your day and night, to invest all your intellectual and emotional energies in these characters that never existed, in the accurate and true depiction of what they think and feel and experience, is also to believe in the idea that our thirst for knowledge does not end with what really happened, nor is it quenched with mere information. What could have happened, the borderless realm of human possibility, the dark corners of our human condition that we cannot and could never reach through other means: that is the stuff fictions are made of. And to my mind there is no better vehicle to explore these dark areas than this strange invention we call the novel, so young still at just 450 years of age. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing the idea that it is important, for recognising its pertinence, and for supporting with such commitment those of us who think that it is something worth dedicating your life to.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, 12th June 2014, Round Room, Mansion House