Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vázquez

This is a cleverly written novel, well structured, planting information and revisiting events from different perspectives to slowly unravel its story.
Although set in 1990s Colombia, its subject matter is the fate of the German immigrants who lived in the country during the Second World War.
When Colombia took the side of the Allies those who were born in Axis countries and their descendants immediately came under scrutiny.
This was a fairly arbitrary process and many ended up losing their homes and businesses because of rumours of Nazi sympathies.
The Informers of the title are those who reported their suspicion of German neighbours and even friends, but it also relates to the sources of information used by the narrator Gabriel Santoro to piece together his father's role in the betrayal of a German friend.
When Santoro, a journalist, writes a biography of a German Jew who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s he believes his father will be proud of him. The subject of the book, Sara Guterman, is one of his father's closest friends and she cooperates fully with the writer.
However, Santoro snr, a respected legal lecturer, denounces the book - "its tropes are cheap, its ethos questionable, and its emotions second-hand... as a whole it is a failure".
Of course rather than undermining his son's work the caustic verdict of his well-known academic father only draws more attention to it.
For years the father and son avoid discussing the book, mostly avoiding one another, but when the father has a stroke his son is drawn back into his life. And when Santos snr dies he begins to unravel the truth behind his father's harsh verdict.
Colombia's more recent political violence simmers close to the surface but is not a major theme.
I liked this novels sense of time place, the way it navigated its characters through Bogotá, other regions of the country and Colombia's recent history and allows you almost experience life there during the time that you live in its pages.
Juan Gabriel Vázquez uses a variety of narrative techniques - first person, question and answers, journalism and extended dialogue. Maybe that makes it a bit writerly and self-consciously clever but the shifts in perspective reflect life and how we gather information about a subject, add to our understanding of what has taken place and revaluate our judgments.
Not a particularly easy read, nor even that enjoyable, but this left me with a sense of being on a journey from which I emerged a bit older, wiser and sadder.