By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 2, 2009
By Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Translated from the Spanish
by Anne McLean
Riverhead. 351 pp. $26.95
The narrator of this superb novel, 30-year-old Gabriel Santoro, recalls being required to read "Leaf Storm," the first novel by Gabriel García Márquez, when he was a schoolboy. No doubt this was common practice in Colombia during the 1970s, as the country's greatest writer rose to the preeminent international stature he now enjoys, but I suspect there is more to it than that. Author Juan Gabriel Vásquez is a 36-year-old Colombian who obviously is paying homage to his great predecessor and, perhaps, calling attention to the nationality that both writers share, though in most respects their work is quite dissimilar.
Vásquez is an experienced teacher, translator and writer, but "The Informers" is the first of his books to be published in the United States in an English translation. He has been handsomely served by his translator, Anne McLean, who renders his lean yet textured prose in lucid English that manages to echo its Spanish roots. That we have had to wait so long to read him here is a mystery to me, and a disappointment. But "The Informers" not merely makes up for lost time, it raises the hope that his earlier books will in time find their way to this country.
It is a novel about many things, all of them interesting and explored by Vásquez with acute moral sensitivity, but at its core is one of the greatest of all literary themes: betrayal. Its central character is not the narrator but his father, also named Gabriel Santoro, "the man who taught, for more than twenty years, the famous Seminar on Judicial Oratory at the Supreme Court, and the man who, in 1988, delivered the commemoration address on the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Bogotá, that legendary text that came to be compared with the finest examples of Colombian rhetoric, from Bolívar to Gaitán." The elder Santoro was revered and celebrated throughout the land, but now, shortly after his death in an auto accident, he has been revealed as "the most despicable of all creatures: someone capable of betraying a friend and selling out his family."
This disclosure is made in the early 1990s. The betrayal took place half a century before, when Colombia drew up a "Proclaimed List of Certain Blocked Nationals" in compliance with a U.S. State Department program set up "with the aim of blocking Axis funds in Latin America." A vast dragnet was set up, and many German citizens living in Colombia were caught up in it, the innocent as well as the known Nazi sympathizers. Gabriel Santoro the elder was in his early 20s at the time; Konrad Deresser, the father of his friend Enrique, was put on the blacklist and forced to live out the war at a hotel in the interior where blacklisted men were confined.
It was a clear injustice. Deresser had rather naively invited a vehement Nazi to his house and listened to his rantings without raising any objection to them. Santoro was in the room, and subsequently advised Colombian authorities that Deresser was a Nazi sympathizer. The confinement that resulted ruined Deresser's life. His wife wrote impassioned letters to the authorities protesting his innocence, but she was ignored and in time she left him. Enrique, Deresser's son, sent hit men to attack Santoro brutally, leaving him with a mangled, essentially useless right hand and a sense of guilt that gnawed away at him.
He was one of the "thousands of people who accused, who denounced, who informed . . . because the system of blacklists gave power to the weak, and the weak are the majority." Santoro, for all his bluster and his grand oratory, was weak, a coward. Learning about this is a dreadfully painful experience for his son, a journalist who in 1991 published his first book, "A Life in Exile," which "told or tried to tell the story of Sara Guterman, daughter of a Jewish family and lifelong friend of ours, beginning with her arrival in Colombia in the 1930s." Astonishingly, his father denounced the book in public, and when his son asked him why, he replied:
"Memory isn't public, Gabriel. That's what neither you nor Sara understood. You two have made things public that many of us wanted forgotten. You two have made things public that many of us took a long time to get out of sight. People are talking about the lists again, they're talking about the cowardice of certain informers, about the anguish of those unjustly informed on. . . . And those of us who'd made our peace with that past, those who through prayer or pretense had arrived at a certain conciliation, are now back to square one. The blacklists, the Hotel Sabaneta, the informers. All words that many people rubbed out of their dictionaries, and you come along, white knight of history, to display your courage by awakening things most people prefer to let lie?"
It is only later, after Santoro's death, that his lover, Angelina Franco, discloses that she will give an interview revealing that "Gabriel Santoro, the man who was honored during the funeral and would in the near future be formally decorated, the lawyer who had distinguished himself as an orator for thirty years, not only by his talent but also by the high moral standards of his conduct, was not in fact what everyone had thought: he was an impostor, a liar, and a faithless lover." This may be motivated in some measure by spite -- Angelina believes that Santoro had deserted her, which may or may not be true -- but as Gabriel's inquiries dig ever deeper, the awful truth becomes ever more undeniable.
Why did Santoro do it? He was young, and perhaps he wanted to ingratiate himself with the authorities, but maybe he didn't know then what he learned later, that "words matter." Certainly the words he uttered at some unknown moment and in some unknown place after that dinner in Deresser's house mattered, changing forever too many people's lives, all of them innocent except him. A weak man but not a bad one, he understood this. Then, in his mid-70s, he had emergency heart surgery, and suddenly he was given a chance: "His chance to correct errors, to rectify faults, to ask for forgiveness, because he'd been granted a second life, and the second life, as everyone knows, always comes with the inconvenient obligation to correct the first one."
Nothing works out quite the way anyone expects, which is just one of the many strengths of this remarkable novel. It deals with big universal themes -- betrayal, the war between fathers and sons, cowardice and valor -- and big particular ones: the mix of peoples and histories that is Latin America, the painful political and social history under which Colombia suffers, the poison that Nazism spread throughout the world. It is the best work of literary fiction to come my way since 2005, with the publication of Olga Grushin's "The Dream Life of Sukhanov" (also, interestingly enough, about betrayal), and into the bargain it is immensely entertaining, with twists and turns of plot that yield great satisfaction.