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.
Translated by Anne McLean, Vásquez is adept at turning metaphorical phrases, such as Santoro senior's "breathing whistled like a paper kite" or "the notion of his past bothered him like a raspberry seed stuck in his teeth." And while The Informers is told from the viewpoint of the younger Santoro, Vásquez is not tied to traditional narrative format. One part of the book 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 view this as adding to 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. Politics, terrorism and the impact 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 the drug cartels means he lives and writes in Spain. (Interestingly, Chilean author Roberto Bolaño was also living in Spain when he wrote Nazi Literature in the Americas, a fictional encyclopedia of ultra right-wing writers in North, Central and South America first published in the U.S. in 2008.)
Vásquez's book is yet another example of how literary fiction and many of its common themes can help examine seemingly forgotten historical periods and events and their consequences. By helping animate the story, these themes can motivate the reader. The fact the themes explored in The Informers are age-old doesn't keep it from helping explain 20th Century history.