by Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
The endless paeans to good American behavior in World War II hide the brutal but obvious reality that war rarely brings out the best in people. Juan Gabriel Vasquez's Informers (Riverhead, $25.95) shows the devastating effects of that war on a single family in Colombia, a country seemingly at a safe distance from Hitler and Stalin. The novel revolves around the laws promulgated against Germans in Colombia, which resulted in the expropriation of much of their property and their internment in a strikingly named town near Bogota, Fusagasuga.
That distant era comes uncomfortably close to a young Colombian writer and journalist, Gabriel Santoro, when he publishes a collection of interviews with an old friend of his father's, a Jewish refugee from Germany who has spent her life in Colombia. The seemingly anodyne book provokes a fierce reaction from his father, a well-known public-speaking guru also named Gabriel Santoro. For no reason apparent to his son, Gabriel Sr. starts making cutting remarks designed to get back to Gabriel Jr. ("The book is original and good, but what is good is not original and what is original is not good.") The whisper campaign culminates in a scathing review signed, just so that no one would fail to make the connection, "G.S." The mystified son tries to make sense of his father's behavior, an attempt that unearths his father's despicable, and long since forgotten, conduct during the war.
The Informers is a dramatic and surprising novel featuring an array of eccentric characters, but its central premise is implausible. It would be easy enough to believe that the pompous Gabriel Santoro Sr. had committed any number of indiscretions -- sexual, political, financial -- but one cannot believe both that he is a great rhetorician and that his implosion would come thanks to such a calculated public outburst, which could only draw attention to the past he had invested so many years in burying. It's too much to suggest that this man, of all people, does not understand the power of words.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of Why This World.