The Spanish Riveter: From RETROSPECTIVE by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean

The Colombian film director, Sergio Cabrera, is in Barcelona for a retrospective of his work. It’s a hard time for him: his father, famous actor Fausto Cabrera, has just died; his marriage is in crisis; and his home country has rejected peace agreements that might have ended more than fifty years of war. In the course of a few intense days, as his films are on exhibit, Sergio recalls the events that marked his family’s unusual and dramatic lives: especially his father’s, his sister Marianella’s and his own.

According to what he told me himself, Sergio Cabrera had been in Lisbon for three days when he got the phone call telling him of his father’s accident. The call reached him in the Praça do Império Gardens, a park with wide paved paths where his daughter Amalia, who was then five years old, was trying to tame the rebellious bicycle she’d just been given. Sergio was sitting beside Silvia on a stone bench, but at that moment he had to walk over to the park gates, as if the proximity of another person would prevent him from concentrating on the details of what had happened. Apparently, Fausto Cabrera had been in his apartment in Bogotá, reading the newspaper on the sofa in the living room, when it occurred to him that the door might not be locked properly, and he stood up suddenly and fainted. Nayibe, his second wife, who had followed him to ask him to sit back down and not to worry, the door was locked and bolted, caught Fausto in her arms before he hit the floor. She immediately called their daughter Lina, who was spending a few days in Madrid, and it was Lina who was now giving Sergio the news.

‘She says the ambulance is on its way,’ she told him. ‘What should we do?’ 

‘Wait,’ Sergio said. ‘Everything’s going to be alright.’

But he didn’t really believe it. Although Fausto had always enjoyed enviable good health and the strength of someone twenty years younger, it was also true that he’d recently turned ninety-two, and at that age everything is more serious: illnesses are more threatening and accidents more harmful. He was still getting up at five in the morning for his sessions of t’ai chi ch’uan, but with ever dwindling energy, making increasingly noticeable concessions to the erosion of his own body. Since he hadn’t lost a sliver of his lucidity, that irritated him enormously. Living with him, from the little Sergio knew, had become tense and difficult, so nobody had objected when he announced that he was going on a trip to Beijing and Shanghai. It was a three-month visit to places where he’d always been happy, and on which his old students from the Foreign Languages Institute would pay him a series of homages: what could go wrong? Yes, taking such a long trip at such an advanced age might not seem like the most prudent idea, but nobody had ever convinced Fausto Cabrera not to do something he’d already set his mind on. So he went to China, received the homages and came back to Colombia in time to celebrate his birthday. And now, a few weeks after returning from the other side of the world, he’d had a fall in the space between the sofa and the front door of his own home, and was clinging to life.

It was not just any life, it has to be said. Fausto Cabrera was a renowned figure of whom theatre people (but also television and cinema people) spoke with the respect due to pioneers, in spite of being always surrounded by controversy and as many enemies as friends. He’d been the first to use the Stanislavsky method to interpret poems, not just to perform dramatic characters; he had founded experimental theatre schools in Medellín and Bogotá, and once dared to turn the Santamaría bullring into a stage for a Molière play. At the end of the 1940s he made radio programmes that changed the way people understood poetry, and then, when television arrived in Colombia, he was one of the first directors of television drama and one of its most acclaimed actors. Later, in more agitated times, he used his reputation in the dramatic arts as a cover for his engagement in Colombian communism, and that earned him the hatred of many until those years began to be forgotten. Younger generations remembered him mostly for a role he’d played in a film: The Strategy of the Snail, Sergio’s best-known film, and perhaps the one that had brought him the most satisfaction, in which Fausto played Jacinto, a Spanish anarchist who leads a small popular revolution in the heart of Bogotá. He embodied him with such naturalness, and seemed so comfortable in the skin of his character, that Sergio, when talking about his father’s role in the film, usually summed it up this way:

‘He was just playing himself.’

Now, coming out of the park with Silvia at his side, walking between the Jerónimos Monastery and the waters of the Tagus, watching Amalia who, up ahead, was struggling with the handlebars of her bicycle, Sergio wondered if he shouldn’t have made more of an effort to visit him more frequently. It wouldn’t have been easy, in any case, since in his own life two things were happening that consumed his time and attention, and barely left him space for other preoccupations. On the one hand, there was a television series; on the other, the attempt to save his marriage. The series told the story of the journalist Jaime Garzón, his friend and accomplice, whose brilliant political satire programmes ended in 1999, the morning he was shot dead by right-wing hit men while waiting for a traffic light to change to green. The marriage, for its part, was going off the rails, and the reasons were not clear to either Sergio or his wife. Silvia was Portuguese and twenty-six years younger than him; they’d met in 2007, in Madrid, and they’d managed to live happily together for several years in Bogotá, until something stopped working the way it should. But what was it? Although they hadn’t figured it out with certainty, separation seemed the best possible option, or the least damaging, and Silvia travelled to Lisbon not as one returning to her country and her language, but as if she were coming home to shelter from a storm.

By Juan Gabriel Vásquez 

Translated by Anne McClean 


By Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Translated by Anne McLean 

Published by Maclehose Press (2020)

Retrospective by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, is now out in hardback (MacLehose Press, £20).

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter page.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez is a Colombian writer, journalist and translator. He is the author of seven novels, two volumes of stories, two books of literary essays, and numerous articles of political commentary. His novel The Sound of Things Falling, won the Premio Alfaguara de Novela and the 2014 International Dublin Literary Award.

Anne McLean is a Spanish literary translator. In 2004 she won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for
her translation of
Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, and again in 2009 for The Armies by Evelio Rosero. In 2014, her translation of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling was awarded the International Dublin Literary Award.

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