BY DAVID DUHR
Author: Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009
Filed under: Literary
When it hit me that The Informers was, in fact, the text of a book written by the fictional protagonist, I wanted to kick it, and Juan Gabriel Vásquez, across the room. It always gives me a sinking feeling, to learn that I’m reading embedded text. A book within a book. Occasionally it succeeds, more often it fails miserably. In Vásquez’s The Informers, it … kinda works, kinda doesn’t. The result is a novel that is at times spirited and at other times flat and lifeless. It gave me that sinking feeling, but was just good enough to make me trudge on.
Gabriel Santoro is a young journalist who has written a book (a book before the book within this book) titled A Life in Exile about an old family friend, Sara Guterman, whose family fled Nazi Germany in the late 30s and settled in Bogota. The book draws little attention until Gabriel’s father, a famous rhetorician also named Gabriel Santoro, publishes an attack on it in a local newspaper, for reasons unclear to young Gabriel.
(For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to young Gabriel as Gabe, and his father as Gabriel).
When he confronts his father, Gabe learns that Gabriel fears A Life in Exile will dredge up an era better left forgotten, when many Germans in Colombia were blacklisted, put in internment camps (for which they were charged room and board), and forced into financial and social ruin. “Memory isn’t public, Gabriel,” father says to son. He continues:
“Do you want my opinion? My opinion is that you’ve got every right to investigate, to ask questions, even to write, but not to publish. My opinion is that you should’ve put that manuscript in a drawer and locked it, and then tried to lose the key. My opinion is that your book is shit.”
Father and son don’t speak again for three years. Only when Gabriel gets sick and requires heart surgery do the two of them reunite.
There, in essence, begins the storyline of The Informers, the book Gabe writes (and we read) as he unearths a black secret in his father’s past, and the true reason that Gabriel was so vehemently opposed to publication of Gabe’s book. This secret first comes out in a televised interview with Gabriel’s girlfriend after Gabriel dies in a car accident: turns out that Gabriel had, during wartime, told government officials that a certain German émigré was a Nazi sympathizer. It wasn’t true, but the German was hence blacklisted, forced out of business and into a camp, and eventually committed suicide.
The German’s Colombian-born son, Enrique, had been a good friend of Gabriel’s, and Gabriel spent the rest of his years tortured by guilt.
Family secrets. Betrayal. Politics and espionage. One event leading to another event, the ripple effect that one small moment can have. These have long served as successful themes in fiction, and Vásquez manages to deliver them in new ways, and in a new setting.
Still, The Informers trips itself up by failing to deliver on one of the most fundamental requirements in good fiction: characterization. After his father’s death, young Gabe chases the story through the streets of Bogotá and eventually into Medellín, and yet he never really becomes a character. In writing The Informers, Gabe stays faithful to his journalistic nature—he is the book’s main informer, providing plenty of facts, noting the emotional reactions of his subjects, but he never reveals to us his own internal struggles. Like a doctor delivering a death sentence, Gabe is detached and aloof. The events surrounding his father’s betrayal are interesting, but because we are never provided any insight into their impact on Gabe, as drama it falls flat.
Gabe never comes to life, and so neither does the novel.
Which is too bad, because much of the writing here is sharp, and this could’ve been a fine book. Vásquez’s description of the elder Santoro’s waning health is particularly evocative:
From his domineering, ocher-colored armchair, while he changed channels with the solitary digit of his mutilated hand, this aged and frightened man, smelling of dirty sheets, whose breathing whistled like a paper kite, told me, in the same tone he’d used all through his life to recount an anecdote about Demosthenes or Gaitan, that he’d spent the last three weeks making regular visits to a doctor at the San Pedro Claver Clinic, and that an examination of his sixty-seven year old body had revealed, in chronological order, a mild case of diabetes, a blocked coronary artery—the anterior descending—and the need for immediate surgery.
Vásquez does a fine job, too, of showing how one moment, how just a few words, can alter the course of the lives of so many people. He brings to life a Colombia ravaged by violence and upheaval, where the bombings and murders of the past are treated as mundane, but people are still afraid to leave their homes at night.
I also found helpful the index he provides in the back pages of important names and events. In fact, Vásquez is probably a very, very good journalist/informer himself. He just doesn’t yet have all the tools a novelist requires.
Similar Reads: No review of a Colombian novel would be complete without the obligatory nod to Márquez. In this novel, Vásquez alludes to Leaf Storm and The General in His Labyrinth, so we’ll go with those two. Also, McEwan’s Atonement plays around with this “ripple effect” idea. But stay away from the film. And Craig Nova recently released a novel titled The Informer, which also deals with the exchange of information in the WWII era. Read my interview with him here.