Valencia: Pre-Textos. 2021. 224 pages.
In Ecuadorian literature there is no better creator of gray atmospheres than Javier Vásconez. That is the main success of his latest novel, El coleccionista de sombras: the dense, leaden, heavy atmosphere in which the various ghosts that roam its pages must move.
Space is the protagonist in the book. The Circasiana, Count Aldo Velasteguí’s lugubrious dwelling, operates as the main focus of the narration. From down below, where a casino runs, the country’s various corrupt schemes and political intrigues are plotted. And, from above, the Count observes and controls everything, always lurking among the shadows.
A writer by the name of Vásconez is in charge of chronicling that house. Any chronicle of the city, he tells us, would be incomplete without that house and without the figure of the Count. Both are key elements that make his reading possible. The Count has read Vásconez’s books; he knows his ability to outline the shadows. He’s the ideal guy for the job.
The house is filled with dark leather chairs, photographs of deceased relatives, dark hallways, collections of insects, “some as long and slim as question marks.” The black legend of the Count takes form in the Circasiana. It is a place that undermines any notion of the “familiar.” This is where one enters a dimension full of peculiarities from which sinister secrets, unresolved traumas, and uncomfortable silences emerge.
The Count is obsessed with the city’s old republican mansions; he has even written a small treatise about them. He gives the impression of wanting to establish an obscure connection between each one, as if several of the enigmas of urban memory were stuck in those networks. In the novel, the Circasiana is connected to the Atenea, the black house with a Gothic influence that Liliana Zaldumbide built herself upon her return from France. “All of the city’s old mansions,” the narrator says, “possessed the gift of memory and were like those elderly women who know all of the tribe’s stories.”
Speaking of the Gothic, the existence of an “Andean Gothic” has been talked about a lot in recent years. Several critics have referred to renowned writers such as Mónica Ojeda or Solange Rodríguez as representatives of the genre in Ecuador. It seems to me that any panoramic study of the Gothic in Ecuadorian literature would be incomplete without mentioning Javier Vásconez’s narrative.
The Gothic tends to escape precise definitions. Classic studies of the genre were a little clearer: a European landscape, a castle, the alpine heights where Shelley’s Frankenstein wandered, the desolate cemeteries of London or Edinburgh where body-snatchers lurked. But the Gothic has long spoken several languages and has had contact with too many cultures to continue being defined solely from the narrow European space. It is a genre that has been known to move to different places, mixing and adapting well to stories, superstitions, or legends of the local folklore of the cultures in which it lands.
Roger Luckhurst speaks to us about the Gothic as a complex “hybrid” in which, nonetheless, certain common threads (“travel tropes,” as he calls them) can still be identified, revolving around ideas related to transgression, the blurred boundary between life and death, good and evil, knowledge and belief, and the essential questions about ourselves and others.
In the case of El coleccionista de sombras, the Gothic is also in the documentation of a crisis: that of the city, that of Vásconez himself. His proximity to the Count’s monstrosity gives him back a no-less-monstrous image of himself. Monstrosity can also be what looks like us, a familiar face that suddenly appears foreign. By coming into contact with that character, with its silences and ghosts, Vásconez comes into contact with his own as well. He gradually reveals to us stories of his past that he would have liked to forget, but there they are, waiting to appear at the moments when he least expects them: his uncomfortable time at Saint Mary’s College (where he always felt like a stranger and a misfit) or his experience in the abyss of insanity in a hospital in Paris.
The Circasiana is a house inhabited by ghosts. Only houses with a past enter into that category. Its hallways and doors are areas of anxiety, its rooms hide specters that are better to not invoke given that they are hungry and wait for the slightest call to settle into the present and stir up stories that beg to be told. This is what the Count asks of Vásconez: to write a chronicle that, essentially, is a movement of inquiry into a past that has an overwhelming weight on its fragile, precarious present.
The house marks a boundary between this world and the next. The Count belongs to a declining aristocracy. The genealogy of his family traces back to colonial times whose corrupt institutions have not been overcome. And Circasiana is there to constantly remind us of this. The ghosts of a past that return again and again. The novel is built upon continuous digressions that create a memory that highlights the impossibility of forgetting.
There are also other ghosts that weigh in on El coleccionista de sombras: literary ones. The novel can also be read as a collection of debts: to Kafka, Le Carré, Onetti, Benet, Conrad, Melville, and, most of all, Dostoevsky. Once again, Vásconez pays homage to the old Russian master. The shadows of The Gambler are dispersed throughout. As is in Dostoevsky, gambling operates as a fundamental element to raise a critique not only of the vile deeds and generalized corruption that rule the city, but also of the way in which that decadence connects with the psychological conflicts that haunt its main characters, Vásconez and Denise.
Denise is the woman perpetually humiliated by the Count. The Count has always lived as a “poisonous mushroom” in the city. It is said that he is a “vampire” who is reborn every night in the shadows of the casino, a popular and feared character. His relationship with Denise was based on nothing but an obsession with ownership. But Denise resists having her identity be absorbed by the vampire, and soon she begins to despise him. The Count humiliates her because he cannot control her like he does everyone else. Denise is the real literary foil to his figure. Denise makes Vásconez her lover, tells him things that he never would have otherwise known, and progressively imposes herself as a central figure in the narrative. Vásconez knows that she is the main interlocutor, the character who allows him to access the real gray areas of the story he tries to tell.
El coleccionista de sombras confirms the place that Javier Vásconez has occupied for some time in Ecuadorian and Latin American literature. One critic has observed that this novel is very much like a literary will, a final text. We hope not. As long as Vásconez continues to produce quality novels, I think we can continue postponing that will indefinitely.