By Willa A. Cmiel
By Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Translated by Anne McLean
Riverhead Books (2009), 351 p.
You can say many things about a person, but only when we expose dates and places does that person begin to exist.
We don’t translate much in this country. When we do, though, what we choose usually shows pretty decent promise. While I’ll always root for more translations, it’s hard not to appreciate at least occasionally the choosiness of what United States publishers translate, like a sieve. It can be nice not to wade through (much) dredge for decent contemporary novels. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’ The Informers, which tells of a small-scale familial conflict within one of a grander weaving, betraying history, is the best “new” book I’ve reviewed all year. Vasquez, though, is hardly a début writer. A celebrated writer and translator in Europe and Latin America, this Colombian-born artist was two years ago named one of Latin America’s most important writers under 40. Hopefully the success in this country of The Informers, his first novel, will propel publication of more of the celebrated writer’s other works, as this is the first available in this country (he doesn’t even have an English Wikipedia page yet!).
Vasquez’ magic is the un-linearity of his narrative: its jumps between decades–the early-middle and late twentieth century–while still managing to attach itself not only to a single period, a still fairly unknown period in Colombian history and aspect of World War II.
What power a list can have, no? That column down the left with all the letters exactly the same, all capitals, one after another, it’s always fascinated me. I’ve always found lists enthralling, why should I deny it? There’s nothing wrong in that either, I suppose, nothing reproachable…Control. That’s what you have when you make a list: absolute control. The list is in charge. A list is a universe. What isn’t in a list doesn’t exist for anyone. A list is proof of the nonexistence of God. I said that to Papa once and he slapped me across the face. I said it to sound interesting, a bit to see what would happen, and that’s what happened, a slap. But deep down it’s true.
During the war, a list of suspected Axis-sympathizers was compiled by the US government for fear of Nazi presence in Latin America. Those on the list—almost 7,000 individuals—were then placed in internment in the United States. Vasquez, though, deals more specifically with the effects of such on the children of German immigrants to Colombia. The history is in the narrative, but so is the not-yet-written history of our own distinctive era of informants, terror, unsettling wars, and how in the face of such threats how quickly we turn on one another.
As nearly every mention of Mr. Vasquez will remind you, the 35-year-old Colombian-born writer works, as do all writers from the region, in the Latin American fictional shadow of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Besides a similar geographical region, and the similarity of their names I suppose, the writers are inherently different. And it’s nearly an offense, in fact, to place their talents side by side simply because they are both Colombian. If only for the wonderous, mysterious nature of human and familial, connections, Vasquez’ narratives hold no traditional magic. The Informers is not mythical. Rather, Vasquez addresses history with straight-on gravity, and that moment when History changes your life, when you “witness the moment when your life changes forever…The world unfocuses for awhile.” The Informers is even-handed and tight in a way that intimidates a reviewer and makes her hesitant or unable to see the flaws, if they are even any there. Because Vasquez’s narration is so sure-footed and Anne McLean’s translations so adept, The Informers willingly transcends.
Rather than Marquez, though, Vasquez’ Informers does echo in a sense Roberto Bolaño or W.G Sebald. Each avoids traditional dialogue, eloquently utilizing long, sprawling narration, and providing the reader with a distinctive, unfaltering voice and a window with which to look at history’s events. As well as the basic essences of Mankind, of revenge and fate, the order of life and death, the intensity of loss and of the capriciousness of history even after the subjects in question have passed on. “The role says,” writes Vasquez, “that death is as definitive as anything can be on Earth. That’s why it’s so disconcerting when a man changes after death.”