Book Review: The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

If someone mentions South America and Nazis, what comes to mind? For many, it’s the seemingly ubiquitous idea of Nazis escaping there after the war. While the concept has at least a few kernels of truth, it ignores or pushes aside events that swept up Latin America during the war.

South American writers, though, recognize that even if their nations were not combatants, they were not immune from the effects of Nazism and World War II. Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, in fact, created a fictional encyclopedia of ultra right-wing writers in North, Central and South America with his Nazi Literature in the Americas. More directly addressing the topic is The Informers, the first novel of Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez translated into English.

The Informers is inspired by a woman of German-Jewish origin Vásquez met in late 1999 who emigrated to Colombia with her family as a teenager in 1938. In Vásquez’s hands, she becomes Sara Guterman, the subject of a book written by Gabriel Santoro, a young Bogotá writer whose father of the same name is a nationally recognized and honored professor of rhetoric. Like her real life counterpart, Guterman’s family moves to Colombia in the 1930s as her German Jewish parents fled Nazism. She becomes a lifelong friend of the senior Santoro.

In telling Guterman’s story, Santoro fils also examines the impact of the “Proclaimed List of Certain Blocked Nationals,” a list announced by the U.S. Government of some 1,800 individuals and entities in Latin American “deemed to be acting for the benefit of Germany and Italy.” That list became the basis of blacklists in Colombia, with people informing on others, usually with German or Jewish backgrounds, for real or unfounded suspicion or out of self-interest. Many end up in internment camps in Colombia and, in fact, a number of Latin Americans were sent to the United States for internment. The senior Santoro tells his students there were “thousands of people who accused, who denounced, who informed.” He teaches that “the system of blacklists gave power to the weak, and the weak are a majority. That was life during those years: a dictatorship of weakness. The dictatorship of resentment[.]”

Despite those comments and the fact he also teaches lawyers and judges, Santoro père disparages his son’s book in a published review. Not only does he downplay its discussion of the blacklist years, he calls the book a “failure” and says listing its shortcomings “would be as futile as it would be exhausting.” Father and son do not speak for three years after that.

The senior Santoro breaks the silence when he contacts his son to tell him he is facing a life-threatening health condition. The two begin to reconcile and when father survives the health scare, he views it as a new chance at life. While he at some point apologizes for the review, he never truly explains his reasons for it. After several months, though, the senior Santoro dies in a car accident. Before and after his father’s death, with information provided by Guterman and his father’s girlfriend (his own informers), Santoro begins to peel away layers of silence, misdirection and falsity to reveal a secret his father hid for decades and that explain his hostility to the book.

Anne McLean translates Vásquez’s generally artful prose, with the latter being an author who doesn’t indulge in trite metaphor. To the contrary, Santoro senior’s “breathing whistled like a paper kite” and “the notion of his past bothered him like a raspberry seed stuck in his teeth.” While the younger Santoro narrates the book, Vásquez is not tied to a single traditional narrative style. One part of The Informers is the first chapter of Sanotoro’s book about Guterman. Other parts are almost transcript-like versions of interviews and yet another is basically a recording of a conversation between the younger Santoro and Guterman, consisting of lengthy passages of Guterman’s recollection of events before and during the blacklist era. Some readers may see the changing formats format extending a slowly unfolding structure that is already intricate but it does not become a major distraction. Perhaps more noticeable is that the younger Santoro seems strangely aloof, as if viewing himself as a journalist requires him to approach the events and revelations that impact his life in that role.

The Informers, first published in translation in the U.S. in 2009 and now in a trade paper edition, doesn’t limit itself to Colombia’s World War II history. Electoral politics, internal armed conflict and terrorism, and the power of the drug cartels also come into play as Vásquez takes his story through some half century of Colombian history. Those items play a role in the author’s own life, as the violence and unrest caused by guerrilla movements and the drug lords led him to Europe, where he now lives and writes in Barcelona. (Interestingly, Bolaño lived on the Mediterranean coast in Spain less than 50 miles from Barcelona when he wrote most of his novels.)

With The Informers, Vásquez provides another example of how literary fiction and many of its most common themes can illuminate seemingly forgotten history and its consequences. Not only do these themes help animate the story, they help engage the reader. The fact the themes explored in The Informers, such as the relationship of father and son, family secrets and betrayal, are age-old doesn’t keep it from helping unfold 20th Century history.

The rule says that death is as definitive as anything can be on earth. That’s why it’s so disconcerting when a man changes after death[.]

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Informers

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