Juan Gabriel Vásquez
The Informers
2004

Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Informers (2004; this is the 2008 translation by Anne McLean) is a cleverly constructed novel that does not quite do enough to hold the reader's interest. The novel involves two books and research that is not permitted to appear in a book. It begins with a debut book Life in Exile written by Gabriel Santoro about family friend Sara Guterman who arrived as a child in Columbia in the 1930s as part of the exodus from Nazi Germany. The first part of the book is about the unexpected fall-out between the author and his father, who is also called Gabriel Santoro. The second part of the novel is framed around a follow-up book written after the father's death in which the son explores the legacy of the Columbian government's mistreatment of German citizens after they aligned their country with the United States in 1941. Then the final part deals with information that is given to the son, but is not allowed to be published.

This structure allows Vásquez to explore the ways in which dealing honestly with the past can cause ructions among friends and family in the midst of efforts to atone for past hurts. The key disappointment is that so much of the novel is of the talking head variety, with a resultant lack of engagement. Vásquez can write dialogue well and does so in the contemporary parts of the novel and the overall work suffers because the level of engagement drops off in the talking head portions.

The subject matter was, nonetheless, fascinating. It is commonplace in literature to come across explorations of the confused responses of German Jews as discrimination begins to be ratcheted up by the Nazi authorities, so it was interesting to read the flip-side of German emigres (both Jewish and non-Jewish) dealing with uncertainties over their fate. Indeed a novel set wholly in the 1940s would have been a more compelling read than the multi-layered approach taken by Vásquez.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved

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