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The Informers

The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
6 reviews (2009) (368p) Best Books

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Book Description
When Gabriel Santoro publishes his first book, A Life in Exile, it never occurs to him that his father, a distinguished professor of rhetoric, will write a devastating review in a leading newspaper. The subject seems inoffensive enough: the life of a German Jewish woman (a close family friend) who arrived in Colombia shortly before the Second World War. So why does his father attack him so viciously? Do the pages of his book unwittingly hide some dangerous secret? As Gabriel sets out to discover what lies behind his father's anger, he finds himself undertaking an examination of the duplicity, guilt and obsession at the heart of Colombian society in World War II, when the introduction of blacklists of German immigrants corrupted and destroyed many lives. Half a century later, in a gripping narrative that unpacks like a set of Russian dolls, one treacherous act perpetrated in those dark days returns with a vengeance, leading the reader towards a literal, moral and metaphorical cliff edge. With a tightly honed plot, deftly crafted situations, and a cast of complex and varied characters, The Informers is a fascinating novel of callous betrayal, complicit secrecy and the long quest for redemption in a secular, cynical world. It heralds the arrival of a major literary talent. Review
Book Description
A virtuosic novel about family, history, memory, and betrayal from the brightest new Latin American literary talent working today.

When Gabriel Santoro's biography is scathingly reviewed by his own father, a public intellectual and famous Bogotá rhetorician, Gabriel could not imagine what had pierced his icy exterior to provoke such a painful reaction. A volume that catalogues the life of Sara Guterman, a longtime family friend and Jewish immigrant, since her arrival in Colombia in the 1930s, A Life in Exile seemed a slim, innocent exercise in recording modern history. But as a devastated Gabriel delves, yet again, into Sara's story, searching for clues to his father's anger, he cannot yet see the sinister secret buried in his research that could destroy his father's exalted reputation and redefine his own.

After his father's mysterious death in a car accident a few years later, Gabriel sets out anew to navigate half a century of half-truths and hidden meanings. With the help of Sara Guterman and his father's young girlfriend, Angelina, layer after shocking layer of Gabriel's world falls away and a complex portrait of his father emerges from the ruins. From the streets of 1940s Bogotá to a stranger's doorstep in 1990s Medellín, he unravels the web of doubt, betrayal, and guilt at the core of his father's life and he wades into a dark, longsilenced period of Colombian history after World War II.

With a taut, riveting narrative and achingly beautiful prose, Juan Gabriel Vásquez delivers an expansive, powerful exploration of the sins of our fathers, of war's devastating psychological costs, and of the inescapability of the past. A novel that has earned Vásquez comparisons to Sebald, Borges, Roth, and Márquez, The Informers heralds the arrival of a major literary talent.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez on The Informers

In 1999, three years after leaving Colombia, I travelled back to spend the holiday season with my family. I didn't go looking for stories; but four or five days before the end of the century, I met a woman of German-Jewish origin who had arrived in Colombia in 1938, and a story came to me. She had fled with her family from Emmerich, her hometown, when she was thirteen; her father opened a hotel in the small provincial city of Duitama, a couple of hours from Bogotá; the hotel's reputation, particularly among politicians, ensured them a good living. Then the war started. Colombia broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, and Colombian authorities began persecuting enemy citizens—Nazi spies, Nazi sympathizers, Nazi propagandists—but also citizens who, while not declared enemies, were deemed dangerous to the security of the hemisphere. Blacklists were brought into play, informers hired, and soon a German name was cause for suspicion, and feelings of mistrust and paranoia—all this a few years before the rise of McCarthyism in the United States—surrounded the German community in Colombia. After that, things got out of hand.

The woman told me all this. I wanted to know more; so she sat with me for three days and patiently dictated her life to me. I wrote on a hotel notepad, staggered by the story, but more so by the fact that she was telling it to me with such freedom, such eagerness. At the time, I didn't know I would use that conversation as the narrative backbone of a novel. In fact, I seriously doubted I would use it at all: in those days, my fiction amounted to a group of stories set in France and the Belgian Ardennes, places I had lived in, watched closely with a writer's eyes, and felt I understood. I had never written about my country, mainly because I didn't understand it, and I had grown up believing one should only write about what one knows. Sometime in the middle of 2002 I realized how mistaken that advice was. I realized not understanding something is perhaps the best reason to write about it; I realized my favorite novels were, with rare exceptions, novels of inquiry, of investigation. From Conrad's Under Western Eyes to Sebald's The Emigrants, certain works of fiction give us the sense that in writing them authors are entering an undiscovered country. They seem to know their story no better than their narrators; we read them and feel that writing, for them, is finding out.

In writing The Informers, I wanted to find out about the way the war was experienced in Colombia: about the existence of a Nazi party there, about the blacklists, about the way my generation has inherited the consequences of what happened in those years. After my interviews in 1999, I had a whole life written down in notepads; my task was to transform it and then to invent other lives that would bring the historical moment to the surface. My task, in other words, was to look for that place where private secrets cross paths with public ones, and shed a little light on it. "Novels," said Balzac, "are the private history of nations." That idea carried me through the writing of The Informers.

(Photo © Peter Drubin)

Other Award Winning Books by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
19 reviews (2016) (208p) (NYT100)
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The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
315 reviews (2013) (288p) (Amazon Top10Lit) (Amazon Top100) (NYT100) (Amazon)
Read Reviews | Visit this book's page

Juan Gabriel Vásquez Award Stats
Major Prize* Nominations 0  
Unique Books Nominated for a Major Prize* 0  
Pulitzer Prize Wins 0  
Pulitzer Prize Nominations 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Wins 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominations 0  
National Book Award Wins 0  
National Book Award Nominations 0  
Man Booker Prize Wins 0  
Man Booker Prize Nominations 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Wins 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Nominations 0  

*Major Prize = Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, and PEN/Faulkner Award


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