Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Review of The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (2018, Riverhead Books)

At a party the author is introduced to Carlos Carballo, a man obsessed with political assassinations. He wants Vasquez to write a book about the assassination of the Colombian liberal, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, murdered by a lone gunman on the 9th April 1948, plunging the country into a ten year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people died and a million were displaced. Like the rumours surrounding the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914, and the assassination of John Kennedy, Carballo is convinced that there was a wider conspiracy behind Gaitán’s death involving at least one other gunman backed by a group hiding in the shadows manipulating events. Vasquez gets into an argument with Carballo, accidentally breaking his nose in the altercation. A few years later Vasquez meets Carballo again, giving away information that would be of interest for his conspiracy theory, which leads to a theft. Vasquez promises to try and recover the object by promising to write the book Carballo wants written. The material Carballo produces captures Vasquez’s imagination making him question accepted history despite him being resistant to revisionist claims.

The Shape of the Ruins is an auto-fiction account of how Vasquez comes to write a novel concerning the assassinations of two twentieth century Colombian politicians that had lasting consequences for the country. The first death is the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914 and the parallel inquiry conducted by a young lawyer, Marco Tulio Anzola, who published a book in 1917 setting out an alternative account to the official investigation. The second murder is the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 and the obsessive investigation by Carlos Carballo who wants to produce a book that replicates Anzola’s work. Carballo has assembled what he believes is extensive evidence of a conspiracy concerning Gaitán’s death, but he wants a professional writer of Vasquez’s stature to write the book. Carballo meets Vasquez at a party, but Vasquez wants no part of the venture. Circumstances, however, conspire to make Vasquez take on the job. His investigation leads him to question the nature of history and conspiracy theories, and the obsessions of those that seek to challenge and re-write the past. It’s a fairly lengthy tale, with much philosophical wandering and autographical asides, and long passages recounting Anzola’s and Carballo’s stories. Given the mix of official history and conspiracy theories it’s difficult to know the extent to which the tale is fiction and faction, which matches in many ways the contested nature of Colombian history. And that’s the point of the story, I feel, given the politics and violence that haunts the country. In that sense, the book makes an engaging, reflexive and thoughtful intervention regarding Colombian identity, memory, and living with the past. It’s a little too long in places, especially recounting Anzola’s quest, but is nonetheless an interesting read.

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