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The Shape of the Ruins interview

The Shape of the Ruins interview

‘It’s a privilege to immerse yourself in someone else’s imagined world and recreate a work of art.’ Author Juan Gabriel Vásquez tells us what it’s like to make the longlist again, while translator Anne McLean tells us what she’s working on next in this Man Booker International Prize 2019 longlist interview.


Juan Gabriel Vásquez, author of The Shape of the Ruins

What has it been like to be longlisted again?

It’s an immense satisfaction (and I won’t even apologize for the cliché). On both occasions, what has come to mind before anything else is the power of tradition: the names and titles that came before in the history of this prize and with which, astonishingly, my book now shares something. For someone like me, who learned to read and write fiction with English-language books as much as with books in my own language, this nomination evokes moments of pleasure, discovery and apprenticeship.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book The Shape of the Ruins?

Well, it’s a novel about past violences written at a time in which my country was trying to find some form of present peace. It turns around two political murders that shaped Colombian history in the twentieth century, and it uses them to think about the ways in which violence can be inherited: an act committed half a century ago can influence and even determine our private lives in the present. Deep down, how does political violence work? How does it change our private lives? These are some of the questions that the book is concerned with. Two characters lead these investigations into the past: the narrator, called Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and Carlos Carballo, a man obsessed with hidden truths. Oh, yes: the novel is also about conspiracies and the place they have among us (published, mind you, before 2016); therefore, it’s also a novel about history and how it is handed down. To try to do all this simultaneously, it uses autobiography, detective fiction, historical fiction, journalism and documents.

How does the character of Juan Gabriel Vásquez in the book differ from Juan Gabriel Vásquez the author?

I probably shouldn’t say this, but they are not all that different. (I know this will come back to haunt me.) The real Vásquez is perhaps much more aware of the ways in which his obsession with his country’s legacy of pain may harm his private life, and behaves accordingly. But they share the sense that remembering a violent past and trying to tell it accurately has a beneficial effect. They also seem to believe in fiction as a place where citizens meet to try to come to terms with what has happened to them. Finally, they are not completely embarrassed to defend literature as a way of engaging with the world.


Anne McLean, translator of The Shape of the Ruins

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It’s very exciting to be longlisted, and it’s great that it brings fresh attention to the book. It’s the kind of prize that even readers who don’t have a huge interest in fiction notice, so it’s a chance for the novels to reach a much wider audience.

What did you most like about translating The Shape of the Ruins?

It’s hard to single out one thing. Rewriting something as personal as a novel is such a complex process. It’s a privilege to immerse yourself in someone else’s imagined world and recreate a work of art. I learned a lot about Colombian history and politics, but also about fatherhood, friendship, deceit and betrayal, memory, obsession, and much more. I’ve been translating Juan Gabriel’s prose for a dozen years now, and I always find it intellectually and emotionally challenging and stimulating and richly rewarding.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m working on a selection of Julio Cortázar’s letters to other writers and to his translators, and hope I’ll soon be staring work on Juan Gabriel’s brilliant new collection of stories, Canciones para el incendio.