Rating 5 stars
The Shape of the Ruins is the story of the writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez and his involvement with two men who are obsessed by the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948. Gaitán is real. Vásquez is real. I don’t know whether Carlos Carballo or Dr Francisco Benavides, the man who introduces Vásquez to Carballo, are real. It’s a novel about truth and the multiple truths of history. It’s a novel about how politically charged events can have decades of reverberation, affecting the lives of those who are unaware of the origin moment. It’s a novel of connections obscured by the twists and turns in their paths. Ultimately, it’s a novel about power and its influence over truth.
Coincidence is everywhere, or perhaps it’s conspiracy. Vásquez’s wife’s aunt was married to a man who was chased by the mob on the day Gaitán was assassinated because his first names were the same as those of the assassin. “What a name to have on that day,” Benavides says. Inspired by these events, Vásquez writes a story about the assassination while in university, failing to train as a lawyer. Dr Benavides, a family friend who attempts to diagnose and treat a strange illness Vásquez contracts while studying in Paris, becomes interested in him because of that story.
Vásquez’s own uncle was Governor of a neighbouring area at the time of the assassination and sent his military police into Bogotá to impose a form of martial law. This fact draws Vásquez unwittingly into the orbit of Carballo, who believes this uncle governor to be implicated in an assassination cover-up.
When Vásquez re-encounters Benavides during a time when his wife is unwell and going through the difficult birth of her twin daughters with Vásquez, he becomes pulled into an argument about what really happened to Gaitán. Gaitán, Vásquez tells us, is
… not just any man, but one whose assassination was still living among us Colombians, and fed in obscure ways the multiple wars in which we keep killing each other fifty-seven years later.
The conversation with Benavides triggers a memory in Vásquez of the time he witnessed what he thought was another assassination on the spot where Gaitán was killed, an event that leads him to ask one of his law professors, an expert in Gaitán on the side, to tell him the story of Gaitán’s assassination. The professor reveals details that Vásquez was unaware of before.
Carballo and Benavides, not to mention Vásquez himself along with other Colombians, are fascinated by Gaitán’s assassination. Carballo is convinced that there has been a cover-up, that the assassin beaten to death by the mob in the aftermath of the killing of Gaitán wasn’t working alone, that some other shadowy figure was the one to fire the final fateful shot.
Carballo is an extreme character, possessed by his quest to discover the truth about Gaitán’s death, socially illiterate as a result, over excited by the slightest potential clue. Vásquez characterises him as a histrionic, an actor, a self-written character. There is something off about him, something that set me on edge each time he popped up in the story. Benavides is friends with him but with a slight distance arising from his father’s favouring of Carballo when he was his student, at the expense of Benavides’s relationship with his own father. The meeting between Carballo and Vásquez that Benavides engineers doesn’t go well, but it doesn’t stop Carballo pestering Vásquez about ghost writing a book about Gaitán’s assassination and the cover-up of what really happened, an imposition that Vásquez resists. By the end of the book, though, his very humanity is revealed as the root cause of his obsessive histrionics.
What I loved most about the novel were the literary layers in the story. Vásquez’s uncle is introduced via the pages of Gabriel García Márquez’s memoir, in which Colombia’s principal man of letters asserts that all is not as the official history suggests in the assassination that he believed brought the 20th century to Colombia.
Another Colombian writer, Rafael Humberto Moreno-Duran, is the unwitting vehicle by which Carballo delivers the idea of ghost writing his research to Vásquez. Moreno-Duran wrote a book imagining a trip to Colombia that the film actor and director Orson Welles apparently never took. In writing it, as Vásquez is doing, he further blurred the lines between history and fiction. All history is an interpretation of facts, memories and documented evidence. It’s the historian’s take on what happened, a story made up of the facts and evidence that the historian chooses to elevate to significance. But so is a novel based on historical events. And yet a fiction includes the made up, the imagined, the interpolated. And round we go, because this can also be true of history. Vásquez understands the playfulness that exists in this apparent contradiction. His character Carballo doesn’t, choosing instead to take literally the suggestion that something that didn’t happen might have happened, and spinning it into conspiracy.
Vásquez and Benavides talk about Moreno-Duran’s book, leading Benavides to
… mock that novel in particular and novelists in general, who couldn’t leave history alone or respect things that really happened, as if they weren’t interesting enough. He told me that was why novelists had lost the truly important fight a long time ago, which was not to get people to stop thinking about their disagreeable or grey or incomplete reality, but rather to get them to grab reality by the lapels and look it in the eye and insult it unceremoniously and then slap it across the face.
Vásquez argues that the exploration of an alternative reality is the only interesting thing about novels, not the novelisation of true events, suggesting that it is the meddling that a novelist can do and a journalist or historian can’t that brings a different perspective to how we view history.
I agree and disagree with both positions. It’s not a case of either/or. It is important to use fiction to challenge people’s anathema to the bigger things in life that feel unchangeable, but it’s as possible to do that through imagining events that history doesn’t record, or imagining recorded events differently as it is to write a straight representation of what we know to be true. The danger lies in the ability of readers to distinguish between fact and fiction, and the way that the unscrupulous might manipulate people’s credulity.
Vásquez also brings in a little known Serbian writer, Senka Marnikovic, whose sole work is a collection of short stories that includes an imagining of the world had Gavrilo Princip failed to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Referring to that story in a magazine article and linking it to a Colombian assassination later that same year brings Carballo out of the woodwork along with a band of late night conspiracy theorists.
So conspiracy is everywhere, too. Or is it coincidence? That’s the knot at the centre of this tale, and the way Vásquez goes about unravelling it makes for compelling reading.
I thought the novel had echoes of Paul Auster in its use of the author as the protagonist in a way that might be full truth or might be a version of the truth. It made me think, too, of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the way it is written, in its fictionalised combination of history, mystery and biography. It sometimes feels lazy to say that a work by a South American writer has echoes of Borges, but often it’s true, and it is true in the case of The Shape of the Ruins. Vásquez makes reference to Borges’s Death and the Compass when describing his psychogeographic perambulations of locations of violence in his home city. I liked Vásquez’s take on psychogeography, hinted at in the novel’s title, and his identification of the general ignorance with which most people move through the city.
I repeated all this [his regular route along a parallelogram of streets] on that Tuesday, September 13, but this time I didn’t do it thinking of those deaths we’ve inherited, which occurred in such a small area over so many years and make up part of our landscape whether we know it or not, and it shocks me that people should pass by the plaques without ever stopping to glance at them and in all probability without devoting the briefest of thoughts to them. We the living are cruel.
That last sentence interested me. Are we cruel in not knowing the history of violence in our cities and in not memorialising it each time we pass through a place where violence has occurred, and here Vásquez is talking only of the violences that caused change and that echo down the centuries, or are we simply too occupied with the business of living?
More than that last sentence, though, I enjoyed the pause that the phrases “those deaths we’ve inherited” and “part of our landscape whether we know it or not” gave me. Because we do inherit the events that mark places of significance, whether we know it or not. Events of significance ripple through time and help to mould the landscape we currently occupy. Buildings and pavements are soaked in the past.
I was also taken by Vásquez making the point that our language and perceptions today can skew our understanding of the past. It’s something that historians must be aware of, the changes in meanings and nuances of language, so that someone reading the written word at the time it is written might have a different understanding of what is written than someone reading the same words half a century later.
It’s always difficult, I thought, the exercise of reading a document from another time with the eyes of those who read it in the moment of its appearance. There are those who never manage it, I thought; and that’s why they’ll never communicate with the past: they will remain forever deaf to the whispers, the secrets it tells us, to the comprehension of its mysterious mechanisms.
I found that paragraph very powerful, that idea that some people are deaf to the secrets of the past. I suppose even those who profess to reveal those secrets by writing histories about them can be deaf to their truths. That thought returned me to the blurring of the lines between history and fiction. It’s something that I’ve been aware of since secondary school when one of my classmates wrote an essay about the Christmas Day truce, but instead of drawing on our set history texts, she chose the video for Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace as her source material. It’s something that I’m aware of keenly at the present moment, with the attacks on experts, the obfuscation of truth amid cries of fake news, of the proliferation of history as entertainment with an emphasis on the attention grabbing rather than the factual. We interpret the past through the lens of our own present, writing the stories that support our own prejudices. At the end of the book, Vásquez separates history into two core categories. There is history seen as entirely accidental in which life is a chaos over which humans try to gain control. The alternative is history seen as conspiracy in which unseen powers plan what happens and choose not to prevent the bad. We each of us choose the version we prefer to accept, just as historians choose the version they prefer to tell. Personally, I think history is a mix of the two and at certain points in time one version might be more prevalent than the other. I think we’re living in a time when the conspiracy view of history is more prevalent.
Vásquez returns to Bogotá from Europe years after the birth of his daughters and finds it a changed city. What interested me here was the way in which Vásquez focuses in just on his home city and doesn’t make the links with the wider picture. We all do it. We all bemoan how our national life isn’t what it used to be, when we should be looking at the way the world is changing in the same way. We are not isolated from each other. Vásquez talks about the change in Bogotá being an angry, hostile and intolerant change, with a new source for the violence.
… contrary to what was happening when I left, the violence was not coming from well-defined actors at war with the citizens, but was in the citizens themselves, who all seemed to have embarked on their own crusades … The city was poisoned with the venom of small fundamentalisms …
Isn’t that true of everywhere? Aren’t we seeing a rise in intolerance, facilitated by the freedoms and impunity that changes in communication media seem to offer us? Or has it always been this way and we’re only more aware of it because we can see it happening everywhere and make bigger connections?
The novel turns away from the assassination of Gaitán, towards that other 1914 assassination. General Rafael Uribe Uribe was the murdered politician linked by Vásquez in his article to Franz Ferdinand. More than 200 pages are given over to the story of that assassination, the conspiracy theory surrounding it, and the contemporary investigation of the assassination by a young civil servant frustrated by the botched official investigation. Some of what the civil servant discovers made me think of the populism and arrogance of current unpleasant figureheads like Trump, Bannon, Farage and commentators like Yannopoulos and Assange. One of the witnesses in the investigation is in the pay of those who want to cover up the truth of the assassination, and gives nonsense testimony with a breathtaking arrogance and sense of impunity. His final claim, that gets his testimony dismissed, is that he bases his beliefs about the case on the contents of a “sensationalist newspaper that devoted itself to irresponsible rumours and the toughest satire … A tabloid with neither dignity nor shame …” Even when it comes to the trial, the corruption and desire to cover up the involvement of powerful people reads like the kind of obfuscation we see in the Trump administration, with the slippery way words are twisted to have more than one meaning, as though everything is nothing more than a game that has as its goal the increase of power of a few at the expense of democracy and justice for the many.
It’s an exciting courtroom drama, but it’s also a depressing indictment of the way Western society is constructed. And ultimately the novel ceases to be about either of the assassinations that have captured the time, energy and imagination of Vásquez’s key characters, but is instead about the reliability of what we believe to be true of the society we live in, the country we are born in, the values we live by, whether we can trust any of it.
Quietly, too, beneath the excitement and investigation of old mysteries and the questioning of truth, is a story about family that questions how we belong to each other, what ties us together and what threatens to separate us. Trust is the key to this subplot, too. The trust a wife can place in her husband, the father of her children, to be present in the moments when he is needed. The trust a son can place in his father to be faithful to their relationship and not adopt an outsider in his place. The trust a grandfather can place in a grandson to do the things his father was prevented from doing, to the honour of that father and his family.
I adored this book. It rides a clever line between exciting thriller and political analysis. It makes a number of points that are pertinent to the world today. It examines history, both the primary evidence and the stories historians tell about and around that evidence, and encourages the reader to think critically about what they are being told. I’m happy that a female author and her female translator won the International Booker this year, but I’m sorry that it meant this book missed out.
Towards the end, I wanted to cry as a different truth about the assassination of Gaitán was revealed, and with it the pain that history can inflict and that is carried forward to touch the lives of future generations. It made sense of everything that went before and provided the perfect ending to an exceptional novel.