“History is a tale told by power,” Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez proclaimed (I think — memory distorts) during an appearance at 2008’s PEN Festival, invoking a South American literature perpetually wrestling with its leaders for control of the narrative. (What reality could be more “magical” than one in which a government can make thousands of citizens simply… disappear?) Vásquez’s own rewarding, realized rearview reckoning both sates and investigates this hunger for “the real story”: The Informers, a novel by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, is mostly comprised of The Informers, a memoir by Gabriel Santoro — itself comprised of lectures, speeches, interviews, private correspondences and official records across a half-century. Our journalist narrator takes up the paper trail as his father, a renowned professor of rhetoric, has a literal change of heart and decides, post-surgery, to reconcile with prior bad acts — beginning with his brutal review of his son’s first book, A Life in Exile, which used a family friend’s experiences as a member of Colombia’s expat German community to recall the frequently abused WWII-era blacklists of alleged Nazi sympathizers. (That the sins of the father are more serious than a critical spat is hardly a spoiler — a suspense novel this ain’t.)
Though the structure is collage — or, rather, dossier — the style is essayistic. Translator Anne McLean retains the precision of Vásquez’s stately sentences and balanced paragraphs; in novel-of-ideas fashion, characters embody different notions about past mastery and storytelling strategies. (That Santoro fils works with the printed word and Santoro père the spoken word is significant.) True, excerpts of A Life in Exile reveal arrogant literary flourishes as Gabriel assumes “the chronicler’s singular privilege” of imposing order, but how Vásquez himself feels about “looking forward, not looking back” comes through when Gabriel, as if talking to a source, has an acquaintance identify the Medellín landmarks a televised funeral procession wends its way past: “At that moment, she seemed to believe, the cortege’s destination depended upon the precision of her descriptions.” How can you know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been?