Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s masterful first novel, The Informers, published five years ago in Spanish and now available in a lyric translation by Anne McLean, comprises a dozen narrative strands—some laced, some tangled—that describe the same forgotten tragedy. Between 1941 and 1945, the Colombian government, under pressure from American leaders, interned and economically “blacklisted” hundreds of emigrant Germans suspected of having ties to the Axis cause. At the time, Nazi sympathizers lived throughout Colombia and elsewhere in South America, but many Jews and German nationals had fled persecution in their own country, and they, too, were trampled underfoot.
Vásquez, who was born in 1973, is particularly interested in how quickly ordinary Colombians turned on one another. Friends betrayed friends; sons betrayed fathers. The bulk of The Informers, however, is set in the early ’90s, when Colombia was mired in a different kind of infighting. Explosions set off by the Medellín Cartel ripped through Bogotá, and the kidnapping trade, now so prevalent, lurched into gear. Vásquez’s hero is Gabriel Santoro, a journalist and the biographer of a Jewish woman named Sara Guterman, whose family arrived in Colombia before World War II and opened a hotel popular with local dignitaries; Sara, then a teenager, got a front-row seat to the political tumult. Her story, which runs through the novel, connects the heaviness of life during the war and the terror of the cartel years.
Sara is pleased with Gabriel’s biography of her, as are many critics, who see the book as an honest attempt to expose a regrettable chapter in Colombian history. But his father, a college professor, is furious: The account is a “failure,” Gabriel Santoro Sr. writes in a prominent Bogotá journal. Its “tropes are cheap, its ethos questionable, and its emotions secondhand.” Three years later, the elder Santoro dies in a car crash.
Why did the professor react so badly to the book? What exactly did he find so objectionable in its pages? With Sara’s help, Gabriel digs back through the wreckage of his father’s life until he arrives at a single incident: the suicide, in 1946, of German émigré Konrad Deresser. El Senior’s role in Deresser’s death is the real subject of The Informers, although Vásquez dances around it so long that the actual crime, savage as it is, begins to matter less than the tragic tale of the criminal himself.
Vásquez has much in common with Roberto Bolaño. Vásquez’s great theme is memory: the nightmares, personal and political, that return to haunt us. But unlike Bolaño’s stolid, serviceable prose, Vásquez’s style is musical, occasionally even lush, and its poeticism remains unmuddled in McLean’s translation. “Now I’ve started to see my father when he’s not there,” Gabriel thinks, “to confuse him with my image of him, now I’ve started to unlearn his silhouette, for I’d realized I would have to unlearn his life: one revelation, just one fucking revelation, and already my father is a crude hologram, a phantom in the streets.”