Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Review of The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (2009, Bloomsbury)

Fascinated by the life of long-time family friend, Sara Guterman, a Jewish German immigrant who fled to Colombia in the late 1930s, Gabriel Santoro writes a book about her experiences of exile and making a new life.  His book, however, is not favourably received by his father, a famous professor of rhetoric and law, who publishes a scathing review in a national newspaper.  The book and review places their relationship under strain and when his father dies not long after Gabriel investigates the source of his father’s wrath, tracing it back to a secret from the Second World War and the treatment of the German community.

The Informers is a reflexive novel that explores a little known period of Colombian history when many Germans living in the country were blacklisted and interned at the insistence of the United States and its subsequent effects.  Using a plot device of a falling out between father and son over the publication of a biography of a family friend – a German Jew who fled to Colombia in the 1930s – Vásquez’s narrative charts three intertwined family histories: a Jewish German family who has fled from Nazi Germany to start a new life in Columbia; a German-Colombian family who is severely affected by internment; and a Colombian family who were initially friends of both German families.  The father and son belong to the latter, with the son keen to understand the history of the families, while the father would prefer the past remains largely forgotten.  While the story is interesting and at times nicely written, Vásquez’s style was not to my taste, with the storytelling being overly reflexive, often to the point of navel gazing, and the pace slowing to almost a standstill at times.  My sense was that it could have done with a good edit and it would have been more engaging if it had included more personal interchanges (the dialogue between characters is by far the best bits in the telling).  Overall: interesting for the history, but fairly hard work to wade through despite the often nice prose and philosophical observations.

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