Wow could I eat the themes of this book up with a spoon. Testimony, truth-telling, the role of the novelist, making sense of horrific past events, overcoming violent traumas… Good God, am I going to have to include this book in my dissertation?! Probably. I mean it even deals with the Holocaust.
“The Informers” is written by the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez, whose “The Sound of Things Falling” I also loved. This book I may have loved even more, I think, because I feel like it does something even more surprising and challenging, by writing about an unexplored and relatively unknown (at least by me) facet of Colombian history–that of its WWII relationship with the Axis/Allies powers and its blacklisting of German immigrants.
This is a hard book to summarize because part of the pleasure of reading it is having absolutely no idea what is going to happen next. The basic gist is that the narrator, Gabriel Santoro, publishes a book based on the testimony of a longterm family friend, a Jewish-German exile living in Bogotá. His father (a renown professor of rhetoric, who in classic Colombian tradition has the exact same name as his son) publishes a review trashing the book, which of course leads to much hurt and confusion of Gabriel’s part. Then Gabriel’s father ends up having a series of health problems, which leads to him re-opening the doors of communication, which then leads to… that’s probably as far as I can go. But needless to say much Atonement-like madness take place.
There are many things to admire about this book. The plot is as tight as a drum–it’s like a classic detective story in which the perpetrator of the crime is also the victim; you want to keep reading for the good ol’ fashioned reason that you are desperate to know what happens next. Eleanor Catton (author of The Luminaries, a book I read earlier this year) gave a talk here recently and one of the many illuminating and helpful things she said was that the purpose of novels is to entertain. Not in a cheap way (it’s sad that the word “entertain” can sound so negative), but in the sense that every book is a promise to a reader, driven by a central question that the entirety of the book is attempting to answer. And it’s the way in which that question is resolved that creates suspense, and hence (ta-dah!) makes the reader want to keep reading. IDK, I think it’s an interesting thing to think about. I mean for example, the other book that’s been on my bedside table for weeks are the collected stories of Lydia Davis, and while I’ve definitely learned a LOT from them, it’s not like I sat down and devoured her book in a day the way I did with this one. And yet at the same time I still totally respect and understand (sort of…?) what she’s doing, in terms of writing fiction that is so challenging and weird and innovative, as opposed to “entertaining.” Anyway more on Lydia Davis later, maybe.
The other thing I admired about this book was its use of precise details. The coffee-colored sofas, the parrot endlessly screaming the name “Roberto” even though no one had any idea why, the pronunciation of the word bellísimo, crappy Cartagena T-shirts with blurry photographs and phrases like Colombia es nuestra, very long surnames, radio plays of La vorágine. Vasquez is obviously very aware of the looming shadow that García Márquez casts over Colombian literary history (he even includes a reference to Leaf Storm) and the complicated role of “the Colombian author” trying to make sense and narrate Colombia’s messy, messy present, observing at one point “how impossible it was to understand Colombia, how illusory, how ingenuous was any intention of trying to do so by writing books that very few would read and did nothing but create problems for those who wrote them.” (269) I think the way that the book uses the violence of 1980’s-90’s Colombia is very ingenious–assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, drug cartels and guerrilla forces are always in the background, an uneasy backdrop to the discussion of Axis powers and WWII concentration camp lists that is the book’s central focus. At one point when a character is asked about a death of a lover, she says “There was a fight and guns came out and he got shot, nothing more. The most normal thing in the world.”
What most resonated with me about this novel (as I said earlier) were its themes. One of its central question seemed to be what right, if any, to we have to narrate stories that are not our own. Are there some stories that don’t deserve to be told? (Again I’m reminded of Elizabeth Costello, another book I’m probably going to have to reassess due to the number of times I keep bringing it up.) At one point the father says “Keeping silent is not agreeable, it demands character,” (64) a sentiment that runs contrary to the traditional talk-show, confessional memoir notion that it is through TELLING that we are exorcized, liberated, set free from the past. Again and again this book raises questions about the morality of telling certain stories, of putting everything out on the table as opposed to letting some things be. As one friend puts it to Gabriel, “You’ve got every right, Gabriel, you’ve got every right in the world to tell whatever you like. But I felt strange, as if I’d walked into your room and seen you fucking someone. By accident, without meaning to. Reading the book I felt embarrassed, and I hadn’t done anything to be ashamed of. You oblige people to know what they might not want to know. Why?” (262-263) Gabriel himself even observes, “Maybe transforming the private into the public was a perversion—accepted, it’s true, in these days of voyeurs and busybodies, of gossips, of indiscretion—and publishing a confession of any sort was, deep down, a behavior as sick as that of a man who exposes his thick cock to women in the street just for the pleasure of shocking them.” (262)
What ultimately really pushed the book up to a whole ‘nother level for me was the ending, in which we are blatantly left with a fictional recreation, a speculation, the narration of an event via a direct perspective of someone the narrator has no access to (here’s where the parallel with McEwan’s Atonement makes the most sense). Because maybe that’s all we can do in the end. Invent little stories because because sometimes looking at the raw reality of things, the heart of the matter, is just too painful. In that sense, the order of a fictional story (even though the notion of order it’s proposing is a lie) will always inevitably trump the chaos and messiness that is life.
Later in books we see the important things. But by the time we see them it’s already too late. That’s the trouble, Gabriel, forgive my frankness, but that’s the fucking trouble with books. (299)