Recently I seem to have read a number of novels which explore the relationship between Nazi Germany and Latin America, from Jenny Erpenbeck’s outstanding The Book of Words to the less cerebral A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr. The Columbian writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s, first novel, The Informers, tackles similar territory with both a narrative and structure that focuses on stripping back, layer after layer, towards the truth.
The truth which the narrator, Gabriel Santoro, is searching for relates to his father’s life. The novel begins by outlining a conflict between them – the cause of that conflict being Gabriel’s decision to write about the life of a family friend, Sara Guterman, a Jewish woman who escaped from Germany to Columbia in 1938. His father (also called Gabriel) objects to this to the point where he writes a savage review, even though his expertise is in the area of oratory, on which he lectures, and he would not normally lower himself to print. This rift only begins to be healed when the father requires heart surgery, and Gabriel and Sara help him recuperate. It is, however, only after his father’s death in a car accident (which may not have been an accident but suicide) that the secret his father has been hiding from is revealed: that he falsely informed on Konrad Deresser, his friend’s father, during war-time when Nazi sympathisers in Columbia were blacklisted. Deresser lost his business and his family and never recovered, later committing suicide. This revelation is made publicly by his lover, Angelina, ruining Gabriel senior’s posthumous reputation.
As one of the Bogota 39, Vasquez represents a new generation of South American writers, and in style and structure this novel can be seen as almost anti-magic realist. The story is presented in the format of a documentary, and the characters are delivered to us in a series of autobiographical segments, directed towards the reader in written or spoken format. As well as the first person narrative there are extracts from the taped conversations with Sara, and a number of lengthy conversations with other characters like Angelina and Enrique, Deresser’s son, which allow them to tell their stories. That this is a novel that is concerned with the possibility of recreating a life can be seen from the inclusion of the word “life” in the heading of each section apart from the Postscript. The Postscript is another device used by the author to create a documentary feel: it purports to be written in 1995, a year after the book “The Informers” was published. (The Informers was published in 2004). This is in keeping with the way that the novel is structured as an ongoing investigation – we only know what Gabriel knows at that time, not at the time he is writing about it. The most striking example of this is when he reads Deresser’s letters. They are in a folder in reverse order, i.e. the last one first, and this is how they are reproduced in the novel. (I couldn’t help it – I read them chronologically).
Clearly this is a novel about betrayal. It is Gabriel’s father’s betrayal that is the secret that he hides from his son. He feels betrayed by his son when he writes about Sara, revisiting a past he wishes to stay buried – and, in turn, betrays him with his criticism of the book. Angelina betrays her lover by revealing his secret – she informs on him – but she does so because he abandoned her, and she also felt betrayed. It is also a novel about the impossibility of knowing someone. Perhaps Gabriel’s father is also angered by his book because it suggests he feels he can sum up someone’s life in print, that he can understand someone without even having lived through the same times as them. In order to keep his secret, Gabriel’s father has falsified more than one aspect of his life: his ability to speak German, the way in which he lost the fingers of his right hand. His son has not really known him at all. Vasquez’s style emphasises this theme by presenting characters largely in their own words. This may seem superficially a path to greater insight, but it allows us few other clues to their lives beyond what they tell us. By the end of the novel, for example, we know remarkably little about the narrator beyond what relates to his relationship with his father and his attempts to understand him.
There also seems to be an interesting conflict between written and spoken language in the novel. As already mentioned, Gabriel’s father lectures on oratory, while Gabriel is a writer. While his father speaks, Gabriel listens, and it is this that leads him to the truth. His father’s ability to talk well is ultimately seen as a method of deception:
“My father spoke about reconstruction and morals and perseverance, and he did so without blushing, because he focused less on what he said than on the device he used to say it.”
This is an accomplished first novel, stylistically astute, and engaging both as a historical study and as the portrayal of a father-son relationship.