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In 'Lovers,' There's A Lot To Like — And Plenty Of Self-Pity To Go Around

Juan Gabriel Vasquez opens Lovers on All Saints' Day with a line that's almost a thesis statement.

"I didn't leave Belgium much during that season," says the narrator at the start of "Hiding Places," the first story in the collection. "I spent the time observing the people of the Ardennes and participating in their activities, and then learning to write what I'd seen in such a way that as little of it as possible would be squandered."

So situated in the book, and so near to Vasquez's own experiences, it's tough not to hear the line as a declaration of his own almost anthropological aims. A Colombian writer much like the narrator, Vasquez, too, spent a season in Belgium — a year, in fact, in the late '90s. He then left for Barcelona, where he wrote all but one of these stories, published Spanish in 2001. It has taken nearly 15 years, and one internationally celebrated novel, for them to finally get an English translation.

With few exceptions, the seven stories that compose the collection dwell with hunters, journalists, disgruntled heirs to stately property — but, whatever their occupations and interests, Vasquez searches them out in details that might otherwise have gotten squandered. The way a host removes his thick-framed glasses before a hug; the thin, feminine wrists of a visiting magician; a single leaf shed from an old, dry cigar. Vasquez prizes tiny moments like these, offhand gestures and all-but-forgotten objects, as precious clues to his characters.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez's previous books include <em>The Sound of Things Falling</em>, <em>The Informers</em> and <em>The Secret History of Costaguana</em>.
Hermance Triay / Courtesy of Riverhead Books
Courtesy of Riverhead Books
Juan Gabriel Vásquez's previous books include The Sound of Things Falling, The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguana.

For the most part, though, these clues all lead back to the same end: a deep, pervasive loneliness. In this sense, the Ardennes, a favorite setting for the stories featured here, is a fitting place for the characters to make their homes. They move about as if in deep forests, lost and distant, lonely but defined more by the struggles — and, usually, the failures — of their romantic relationships. A mist seems to hang over these stories, a sadness sodden with regret and mislaid longing.

This parade of self-pity and reckless hurt from the mostly male leads can make for depressing reading, which, in itself, ought be no knock against the book. At times it takes darkness — literally, in the case of the long night in "Life on Grimsey Island," the collection's final story — to arrive at searing illumination.

In that story a young man tries to escape his inheritance by leaving France for Portugal, but stops first for a one-night stand along the way. Finding a map on his stranger-lover's wall the morning after, he muses: "France, where he still was, was saffron red. Portugal was green, an intense green similar to the color of [his] van. Abandoning a country was child's play. Swapping colors and not life. Rootlessness had no color, however."

In a moment like this, Vasquez deftly uncovers the story's hinge, turning it sharply on the force of a lesson learned.

Many of the other stories collected here try to follow the same model, but the results turn out spotty. Often, these revelations feel unearned, like bland aphorisms unsuited to the quiet, self-centered actors at hand. These moments stand out starkly — as when a hunter, who's cowardly prolonging a broken relationship, fails to put a shot pheasant out of its misery. Or when an abandoned lover, in the heat of an argument, somehow says, "You are not made to be with me. In fact, you're not made to be with anybody." In stories otherwise so suffused with subtlety, these scenes seem like clumsy tools for a job that requires more care; they're graces granted to characters that have shown none themselves.

In this way, the collection threatens to drift from the exquisite despair it aims for, and into a more mundane dreariness — or, from melancholy into melodrama.

Perhaps that's why All Saints' Day seems to shine brightest in the stories that deviate most from this mold. In "The Return," Vasquez dispenses with the angst of rocky romance, leaping full bore instead into a Gothic parable. He borrows a creepy estate — and a creeping sense of dread — from Edgar Allan Poe, weaving a brief, brutal story of murder and unconventional revenge that reads so little like the rest of the stories, it feels as if it wandered onto the press by mistake.

It's useful, then, to return to the first line and recall the collection's long history. Written just after two novels Vasquez prefers to forget, and years before his smash success, All Saints' Day is a record of a young writer finding his footing — at times leaping and slogging at others, but always moving forward in darkness.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.