On the afternoon of April 9, 1948, an assassin drew a pistol on a downtown Bogota street and took the life of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a charismatic, populist political icon who was one of the great South American orators of his time.
An enraged mob quickly formed, chasing down the presumed killer, a stonemason named Juan Roa Sierra, and yanking him into the street where he was pummeled to death. Hundreds, or by some estimates thousands, died in the riots that followed, a searing moment in Colombian history dubbed “El Bogotazo” that ushered in an era of extraordinary violence known as “La Violencia.”
Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy 15 years later, the brazen killing of Gaitán has forever been wrapped in a shadowy aura of conspiracy theories that swirl around the notion that Roa Sierra was either a pawn in a wider plot or was not the real killer. The long-lingering questions and breathless speculation about Gaitán’s assassination form the framework of “The Shape of the Ruins,” a sweeping and magisterial novel by master Colombian storyteller Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
The book might easily have settled into the conventions of police procedurals or political thrillers. But Vásquez, whose previous novels have delved into his country’s drug wars and the secret world of Nazi informers in Colombia, takes those forms deeper, examining the nature of truth, the resilience of historical narratives and the subtleties of human obsession.
“There are millions of things that happen in special places,” Carlos Carballo, a man consumed with unraveling the untold secrets of Gaitán’s death, says. “They are places that are not within the reach of historians or journalists.”
Carballo, who hosts a radio program called “Night Owls,” serves as the book’s guide into the murky world of Colombian conspiracy theories, a domain populated by mysterious men in well-tailored suits, conniving policemen and disappearing witnesses. The character who Carballo is most interested in enlisting as an ally is a writer named Juan Gabriel Vásquez, a fictional representation of the author.
The unusual device of injecting a character named after himself, a character whose life and works match his own in almost every way, can be confusing at first. But as the novel unfolds the literary device seems to not-so-subtly give his imprimatur to the idea that Colombians should, at a minimum, question the received wisdoms about their past, even if doing so can be a maddening exercise. An author’s note at the end of the book says, “Readers who wish to find coincidences with real life in this book do so at their own risk.”
In that ancient murder of Gaitán, Vásquez sees a crime that is “still living among us Colombians, and fed in obscure ways the multiple wars in which we keep killing each other 57 years later. I wondered if it wasn’t possible that a door might open in my life and the monsters of violence enter through it.”
As the character sorts through his reckoning with the past, you get the sense that the author is engaging in a public reckoning as well — airing the evolution of his creative process and ruminations.
“It seems incredible that I hadn’t understood that our violences are not only the ones we had to experience, but also the others, those that came before, because they are all linked even if the threads that connect them are not visible, because past time is contained within present time, or because the past is our inheritance without the benefit of an inventory and in the end we eventually receive it all: the sense and the excesses, the rights and the wrongs, the innocence and the crimes,” Vásquez says.
Through a series of twists, including one that involves the theft of the bullet-pierced vertebra of Gaitán, the character Vásquez leads Carballo to believe he will collaborate with him on an epic assassination book. But Carballo insists that he also study another killing, too: the 1914 assassination of Gen. Rafael Uribe Uribe, one of the most influential Colombian political figures of his day.
Uribe, the inspiration for the fictional character Aureliano Buendía in Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” was hacked to death by two ax-wielding laborers. Carballo introduces Vásquez to the story of Marco Tulio Anzola, a young lawyer who made public accusations of a conspiracy involving prominent figures that he was ultimately unable to prove in court.
At one point, Anzola tracks down Uribe’s skull, preserved by a physician, and runs his finger across the gap where an ax had entered and Uribe’s “life had slipped out.”
“Like religious experiences, it was profoundly incommunicable: a void opened up between him and everyone else, he thought, just for having seen what he’d seen, for having touched what he’d touched.”
The title of Vásquez’s novel derives from a line in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” uttered after Caesar is assassinated: “Thou art the ruins of the noblest man/That ever lived in the tide of times.”
“I don’t know if Uribe Uribe and Gaitán were the noblest of men of their times, but their ruins . . . had that nobility,” the character Juan Gabriel Vásquez observes. “Those human ruins were memoranda of our past errors, and at some point they were also prophecies.”
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a feature writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. On Oct. 6 at 6 p.m., Juan Gabriel Vásquez will be in conversation with Jonathan Yardley at Politics and Prose at Union Market 1270 Fifth St. NE.
By Juan Gabriel Vásquez. 528 pp. $27.