When most of us think of World War II, what usually comes to mind are the main members of Allied and Axis powers or the Holocaust. Yet the war changed the lives of many noncombatants in countries never visited by it, frequently in ways invisible to us. Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez builds The Informers, his first novel translated into English, around one such rippling event in his native country, one unnoticed or forgotten by almost everyone, including many of its citizens. Yet while World War II provides the framework, The Informers explores a variety of themes, not the least of which are the relationship of father and son, family secrets, betrayal and the vagaries (intended or not) of memory.
The book is narrated by Gabriel Santoro, a young Bogotá writer, whose father of the same name was a nationally recognized and honored professor of rhetoric. In 1988, Santoro fils publishes a biography of Sara Guterman, a lifelong family friend who emigrated to Colombia in the 1930s as her German Jewish parents fled Nazism. (Guterman's story is based on the life of someone he met in late 1999.) Santoro's book is also a vehicle to examine the effects 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 with German or Jewish surnames, whether for real or unfounded suspicion or out of self-interest. Many people ended up in internment camps in Colombia and, in fact, a number of Latin Americans were sent to the United States for internment. As the senior Santoro says of Colombia's experience during a class lecture, there were "thousands of people who accused, who denounced, who informed." He tells them "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 teaches lawyers and judges, Santoro père disparages the book in a published review. Not only does he downplay its subject, 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 by contacting his son and telling him of a serious health condition. The two begin to reconcile, and father survives the health scare, viewing 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 version of informers), Santoro begins to peel away the layers of silence, misdirection and falsity to reveal a secret his father hid for decades and that explains his hostility to the book.