‘The Shape of the Ruins’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez


2018 (English translation, originally 2015), 505 p.

When I learned that there was a new Juan Gabriel Vásquez book available, I made sure to put a hold on it as soon as it became available at the library. I had really enjoyed The Sound of Things Falling and looked forward to this new book. But I must confess that for about the first 100 pages I felt disappointed. Was this even a different book? I wondered. Many of the same elements were in both books: the tone of the narrator, who becomes obsessed with a murder at the same time as his partner is undergoing a health crisis; the fictionalization of a real-life event, and the sticky web of crime and conspiracy in Colombia. Is Vásquez only capable of writing the same book over and over?  That question still lingers, even though I was soon won over by the author’s smooth writing (no doubt ably assisted by an excellent translation).

The narrator is Juan Gabriel Vásquez himself, so already the lines between fiction and memoir are blurred. He becomes drawn into his friend Doctor Benevidas’ obsession with the (real life) murder of Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaítan on April 9, 1948, an obsession that was almost handed down from father to son. Vásquez learns that his friend is not the only one obsessed: so too is Carlos Carballo, a former student of Dr Benevidas’ father, who conflates this assassination with other historical assassinations including J. F. Kennedy and the 1914 assassination of Liberal leader General Rafael Uribe Uribe. So there is this whirlpool of assassinations and conspiracy theories, investigated to the point of madness by amateur historian/detectives. Vásquez finds himself drawn into this whirlpool, while at the same time distancing himself from the conspiratorial world-view that propels it.

The book unfolds almost like those Russian dolls, starting off with one assassination, which is then likened to another, and then another.  There are stories within stories, each subtly but recognizably different from the other. The historical detail is rich, as I found when I googled to supplement my sketchy knowledge of Colombian history. This is not a bad way to have your history delivered, but Vásquez plays tricks too. He inserts completely fictional artefacts into the story, and makes references to his own fictional characters in his earlier books, as well as referencing other Latin American writers like Borges and, in a factual sense, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are photographs in the text, like a W.G. Sebald text, and the book is permeated with that same elegiac Sebaldian tone. It feels baggy and discursive, but it is always controlled.

So after playing with your head for 500 pages and making you feel as if you are stuck in one long Oliver Stone documentary, where does Vásquez leave you? The line between fiction and truth is blurred for him, as well as for you:

There are two ways to view or contemplate what we call history: one is the accidental vision, for which history is the fateful product of an infinite chain of irrational acts, unpredictable contingencies and random life events (life as unremitting chaos which we human beings try desperately to order); and the other is the conspiratorial vision, a scenario of shadows and invisible hands and eyes that spy and voices that whisper in corners… where the cause of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows (p. 496)…it would no longer be the fictional characters of that novel who would occupy my solitude, but a true story that showed me at every step how little I had understood until this moment of my country’s past, which laughed in my face, as if making me feel the pettiness of my narrative resources before the disorder of what had happened so many years ago. It would no longer be the conflicts of characters who depended on my will, but my attempts to understand truly and for ever, what ..had [been] revealed over the course of several encounters that were now blending in my memory (p. 501)

This is a complex read, but a compelling one. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for 2019.  I’m frustrated that it is so similar to his earlier book, and yet I can’t help feeling that this similarity is completely intentional – that it is all part of a bigger vision. And so, when his next book comes out, I’ll be rushing to read that too.

My rating: 9.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.



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