“The Informers” by Juan Gabriel Vásquez


Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean

Juan Gabriel Vásquez makes his title plural, because the informers are everywhere in this interesting and self-reflective novel. The author plays himself, so to speak, in writing this book, and the narrative taking up the first three quarters poses as a book which has been published. However, there is very nearly nothing we can consider meta-fictional here; Sr. Vásquez plays this very straight. The result is entertaining, thought-provoking, and full of cautionary lessons.

Sr. Vásquez uses the voice of a Colombian journalist who has written a book about the life of Sara, his immigrant friend. Sara moved to Bogotá in 1938 from Germany with her prosperous Jewish family, and has lived there ever since. She became friends with Gabriel Santoro, prominent attorney and language professor. Santoro’s son, also called Gabriel, is our narrator-journalist. Santoro senior reads his son’s book and writes a prompt and excoriating review. We very gradually learn the reasons for the hostility, and they stem from the elder man’s guilt about something he apparently said about an acquaintance, an immigrant man from Germany, during World War II. He informed. The result is a blacklisting of the acquaintance-victim, Konrad Deresser, who is detained, imprisoned, loses his family and his business, and at war’s end, commits suicide.

This bit of character assassination starts the dominoes falling, and it takes more than fifty years for all the effects to be felt. 

The author takes up the immorality of calumny very effectively: the perpetrator destroys his victim, and lives with his guilt for decades. Even as he becomes a prominent professor and rhetorician, his words and his acquaintances betray him. Eventually we aren’t sure whether he’s killed himself or not. The moral territory is crystal clear and the language engaging and seamlessly translated. This book abounds in subtleties: the snitch becomes a jurist-rhetorician; the son becomes a truth-seeking journalist who inadvertently brings ruin to the father. Well-written and throught-provoking.
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