Family, politics, and growing up are all complicated and multi-faceted topics. In “Retrospective“, the English translation of the 2021 novel Colombian novel “Volver la vista atrás” published by Riverhead Books on May 9th, Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez weaves them all in a multigenerational tale based on the real life of Sergio Cabrera, which spans across multiple countries and vastly different political realities. While not without flaw, this novel manages to present an engaging and engulfing read that will leave readers reflecting about the limits of radicalization and meditating about its intriguing structure that lies between fiction and non-fiction.
Wonderfully translated by Anne McLean, the novel introduces us to Colombian filmmaker, Sergio Cabrera, who is very much non-fictional. Cabrera is preparing for a trip to Barcelona in 2016 for a celebration of his career at the Filmoteca de Cataluña when he learns that his father, Fausto Cabrera, a famed actor, had died. Then, as the celebrations of Sergio’s career begin and he starts rewatching his own films, he starts meditating about the history of his family, his father, and himself, which were collected by Vásquez in a series of in-depth interviews.
In a sense, the novel is a grand tale across three generations that begins with stories of Fausto’s Uncle, Felipe, who fought in the cruel Spanish Civil War. After his family forcefully decide to go into exile, it follows the adventures of a young Fausto, who travels to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela and ends up in Colombia where he builds a family and a career as a filmmaker. However, the story takes a turn when, after a life of moderate luxury, he discovers and embraces Maoism and forces his family to move to China, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, where they adapt to a whole new world-view and set a chain of events that, years later, will put their lives in danger in the middle of the Colombian jungle.
“To turn our gaze backwards”
The novel excels at telling the story is told in a very grounded way. Narratives based upon real events are difficult to execute well, as often they drag into an exaggeration with a series of grandiose events, or just feel like summaries of history books. In “Retrospective”, which is originally titled in Spanish “to turn our gaze backwards”, Vasquez treads a careful line between a novel and a “second-person memoir” about the complicated relationship between a son and an authoritarian father.
He achieves this by using a fascinating slow and careful pace. We get to see the interactions between the family, their communication styles, and relationships as historical events unfold around them and as they adapt to life in China. While this might be cumbersome for some readers, this slow pace allows audiences to get to know these characters and understand their relationships, especially as the family dynamic becomes more estranged. At times, it feels that we are a camera watching the events that unfold in the repurposed hotel where Sergio and his sister Marianella spend their youth. This is not entirely a bad thing.
This slow pace further achieves what I think is the main point of the story, to show the slow radicalization of a family that started to slowly embrace an ideology that progressively turned them into soldiers of Latin America’s longest armed conflict. Furthermore, the bulk of the story focuses on Sergio and his sister’s childhood and youth. We also get plenty of backstory about the supporting characters that feel like stand-alone novellas on their own. All of this time spent with the characters further allow us to see their slow transformation and makes it even more heartbreaking as they turn into people we barely recognize.
Walking the thin line of realism
Despite its scale, the novel never feels far-fetched. In the author’s note: Vasquez himself stated: “Retrospective is a work of fiction, but there are no imaginary episodes in it”. The novel can convey that notion. In addition to its slow pace, and the amount of backstory, the novel has a consistent matter-of-fact tone that is accompanied by family photos in pivotal moments.
While this allows the notion that these characters are real humans to always be present, it also leads to one of the weaker points of the work. In its appeal to walk the line between novel, memoir and biography, “Retrospective” does not spend enough time exploring the internal emotions of its characters. This introspection is one of the characteristics that makes novels shine, and it doesn’t come through until Sergio and his sister Marianella become disillusioned with the ideas that they grew up with and finally start actively confronting their overbearing father.
Flipping genres on their heads
However, despite these flaws, the novel is engaging and engulfing, particularly because it portrays a different story of migration and exile from what conventional narratives often present. Plenty of novels deal with the experience of being a young person from Latin America abroad. Although, the majority of them explore the cultural adaptation from oppressive environments, politically or interpersonally, into a more open and freer culture. Retrospective flips that idea and presents many elements that are common in a Bildungsroman. However its vastly different setting, the strict and oppressive China of the Cultural Revolution, makes it an incredibly compelling, and poignant story about radicalization that serves as a great introduction to audiences that want to learn more about the complexities of Latin America.
By the end of the novel, there will be more questions than answers. Especially as to how the book differs from the events that occurred, but more importantly about empathy, the slow and incremental process of radicalization and about what it takes for people to change their minds once they have been radicalized by any political persuasion. I think those are very important questions in contemporary society.
Retrospective was released in English on May 9, 2023.
Featured image courtesy of Riverhead.