In a note at the conclusion of his beautifully melancholic collection, "Lovers on All Saints' Day," Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez recalls a comment he once heard from Tobias Wolff: "A book of stories should be like a novel in which the characters don't know each other."
Though sealed off in their individual pieces, Vásquez's restless men and women feel grouped around a larger table, sharing a meal of existentialist dread. Composed during his sojourn in Europe from 1998 to 2002, these seven stories speak with the confident voice of a mature writer.
Set in France and Belgium's forested Ardennes, "Lovers on All Saints' Day" probes the mutable nature of love and desire, harking to the travails of one classic literary heroine, Emma Bovary. In "The Lodger," an elderly gentleman is haunted by his wife's long-ago affair, remembering that she'd received a copy of Flaubert's novel as a gift from her lover.
The narrator of "At the Café de la République" persuades his estranged partner to carry out a deception in front of his aging father. And in "The All Saints' Day Lovers," a troubled couple's relationship teeters in the aftermath of a bizarre hunting incident.
Vásquez imbues his stories with Hitchcockian suspense — hunters form a motif throughout — and Anne McLean's finely wrought translation sustains his elegiac mood while capturing the piquancy of his imagery, as in this rural scene: "This year, the summer was long; at the end of September there was still hay to cut. … The land was covered in dry yellow stubble, and had taken on that look of an old dog who's lost too much fur."
The final story, "Life on Grímsey Island," is the collection's bravura performance. After his father's death, Oliveira, the son of a wealthy equestrian, returns to northern France to dispose of his father's estate. He meets Agatha, a veterinarian, and agrees to drive her back to her home near Paris. Their long night's journey into day becomes a noirish odyssey of sex and danger, grief and memory, truth and denial, pushing Oliveira to a deeper revelation: "He approached the map on the wall and looked for Iceland. It was a violet-colored country. France, where he still was, was saffron red. Portugal was green, an intense green similar to the color of the van … Rootlessness had no color, however. It makes no difference to live in one place or another and being born here or there was an accident. One was a chameleon, countries and people mere scenery."
With its felicitous language, deft sense of exile and command of the short-story form, "Lovers on All Saints' Day" confirms Juan Gabriel Vásquez's emerging reputation as a major literary figure.
Hamilton Cain is the author of "This Boy's Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing." He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.