By Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Trans: Anne McLean)
When Gabriel Santoro, a young journalist, publishes his first book, it is well received except for one reviewer who savages it — his father. The father is a distinguished professor and lawyer and he does not just take against his son’s book. He hates it. Clearly, the son has crossed some line. But what is it?
This is the first of several mysteries in The Informers, a novel by the young Colombian writer, Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Young Santoro sets out to find out what crime he has committed and, as he draws back layer after layer, he finds the answer is buried in his father’s past, in an act of betrayal that ruined several lives.
Young Santoro’s book, A Life in Exile, tells the life story of Sara Guterman, an old family friend and Jewish refugee who escaped from Nazi Germany and came with her family to start a new life in South America. The book within which this book exists, The Informers, moves between modern-day Colombia and the 1940s when, under pressure from the United States, Colombia introduced a blacklist for Nazi sympathisers. The blacklist was “a sort of civil death: the impossibility of carrying out any economic activity whatsoever.” Families were ruined, including the family of Konrad Deresser, a German refugee who has never adjusted to his new life in exile. But how did an innocent refugee, struggling to run a small glass-making factory, fall into ruin? And what could this have to do with Sara Guterman and Santoro’s father?
On the strength of The Informers, his first novel to appear in English, Vásquez, somewhat inevitably, has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez. But there are more interesting comparisons to be made with Borges. At one point, Santoro quotes a Borges narrator who says that “to modify the past is not to modify a single fact, but to annul the consequences of the fact, that is, to create two universal histories”. This gives some of the flavour of Vásquez’s novel. It is a kind of thriller, a coming to terms with the past, and with acts of betrayal and what followed. But it is a very bookish kind of thriller, full of references to readers, stories and books.
Two things bring it to life. First, it is a very moving account of exile. Vásquez evokes superbly the problems of learning a new language. One German refugee who had never learnt Spanish “had been forbidden spontaneity… the capacity to react unthinkingly, to make a joke or ironic remark”. Vásquez is also very good on how mysterious our parents are. The battle lines in the book are between fathers and sons. The women never feature strongly. This is the real mystery Santoro tries to solve: What kind of man was his father?
“Nobody’s what they seem to be,” says Santoro’s father (he certainly wasn’t). That’s the revelation at the heart of this clever, subtle novel, an exploration of what people, both refugees and the generation who come after, seem to be.