What makes Colombia remind me of Ireland? It’s not only the soft rain that falls from grey skies on the emerald uplands around Bogotá. In both countries, ingrained habits of courtesy and charm can smooth over the jagged rifts left by a history of strife.
Raised in Bogotá, and living there again after a decade in Barcelona, Juan Gabriel Vásquez writes novels in which elegant mazes of legend and rumour lead, step by graceful step, into the guilty secrets of ‘this country sick with hatred’. Perhaps only an accident of genius enthroned Gabriel García Márquez, with his hyperbolic Caribbean imagination, as the carnival king of his nation’s fiction. With Vásquez, in contrast, characters throw up a veiling mist of polite refinement and witty euphemism, of hearsay, anecdote and speculation. It often cloaks what his latest narrator calls ‘the cesspool of Colombian history’.
As in his previous novels, such as The Informers and The Sound of Things Falling, The Shape of the Ruins cunningly lures us into the labyrinth where skulk the ‘monsters of violence’ that have tormented Colombia. With a narrator named Vásquez, who shares the author’s own trajectory, the story plays with the masks of ‘autofiction’. A note warns readers, though, that it plunders past and present realities ‘with the liberties characteristic of the literary imagination’.
Still, the pair of political assassinations that this ‘Vásquez’ investigates happened as he tells them. As his premature twin daughters fight for life, the narrator’s sense of vulnerability in ‘this country where people kill others all the time’ drives him back towards the heart of national darkness. In April 1948, the killing of the reformist politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán — often viewed as the Colombian JFK — plunged Bogotá into bloody riots and let slip the dogs of civil war (Vásquez nods often to Julius Caesar).
Drawn into the feverish orbit of Carlos Carballo, a conspiracy-mad friend, the narrator flirts with the ‘camaraderie of paranoia’ that obsessively pursues the buried truth about Gaitán’s death. ‘Conspiracy theories are like creepers,’ warns the kindly Dr Benavides, whose physician father left him fragments of the slain hero’s bones; ‘they grab onto whatever they can to climb up and keep growing.’
In search of those ‘truths as fragile as a premature baby’ that official versions deny, Vásquez hunts for the secret history behind another murder: that of the Liberal statesman Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914. We follow the snaking trail of a (real) lawyer-turned-journalist, Marco Tulio Anzola. In court and in print, Anzola challenged the state’s claim that a couple of low-grade hoodlums had alone despatched Uribe. He sought to find ‘the great wolves in the pack’ behind these hired thugs.
Between them, these two slayings helped seed a climate of rancour and suspicion. It destabilised society until, in the 1980s, the drug lord Pablo Escobar and his rivals ‘flooded the country with blood for a decade’. Vásquez feels the attraction for any conflict-shattered community of ‘the conspiratorial vision’. This ‘scenario of shadows’ gives each private loss its role in a ‘theatre in which everything happens for a reason’. He hints, too, that writers who love tangled plots may get enmeshed in yarns spun by conspiracists who claim access to ‘the underside of the world’.
Beautifully voiced by his serial translator Anne McLean, Vásquez writes with the elliptical feints and ruses of a story-teller who admires Joseph Conrad in his most delphic moods. The result is sly, subtle, captivating and — as with Conrad himself — intermittently long-winded. This Colombian past reveals its ‘shadowy terrain’ through swirling Andean fogs. The facts remain forever in dispute. The grief, as Vásquez shows, cascades plainly down from one stricken generation to another.