Challenging New Colombian Novel about Exiled Germans
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The Informers might be a little too much for a book club. It’s a new novel from Colombia by Juan Gabriel Vasquez coming out this August, and no one could say it was effortless reading. It takes a bit of work. The writing style is very elegant and complex, the sentences long, multiply-claused, Proustian affairs with lots of semi-colons, the paragraphs sometimes going on for pages.
The story itself is compelling, if not particularly fast moving: Gabriel Santoro, in an attempt to impress his professor father, writes and publishes a biography of his father’s best friend, Sara Guterman, daughter of the Jewish hotel owner who has fled from Nazi Germany. Instead of proud of his son, Gabriel’s father becomes enraged, denounces his son as talentless, and writes a heartless review for the newspaper. Obviously his son has touched on a secret of his father’s, and as the book opens, after three years of silence, his father is due to have an operation and asks his son to visit him.
Reunited with Gabriel, the father undergoes surgery and emerges as a new man with a young man’s energy. Six months later, however, on a tryst in Medellin with his twenty-years-younger lover, Gabriel’s father is killed in a freak car accident on a dangerous cliff road. And that’s when things start to get interesting.
Angelina, the father’s abandoned lover, shows up at the funeral. She knows something she’s not telling, and soon arranges to tell it all to a television interviewer. Before that can happen, Sara Guterman decides that Gabriel deserves to know the truth, and will tell him herself on a long, long New Year’s Eve before he finds out the hard way. One by one, the things we’ve believed about Gabriel’s father turn out to be not true.
Many of the characters in the story-within-a-story are expatriate Germans who have fled their homeland in the 1930’s and now in 1943 find themselves blacklisted in Colombia, suspected of having dangerous allegiances to Nazism. The tale unrolls in sentences as convoluted as the thoughts and lives of the German Jews and German Nazis living cheek-by-jowl in Bogota. The pace, slowed down to include stories-within-stories, can become glacial. Yet I can’t deny a page-turning curiosity as to where all this is leading, which is why I keep re-caffeinating myself and pushing farther and farther into the story, giving up all my plans for Saturday and reading the last two hundred pages at a stretch.
The book’s title refers not only to the backstabbing informers against German Nazis who put their friends and neighbors’ names on the blacklist, but also to the other informers, like Sara and Angelina, who slowly and patiently tell Gabriel who his father really was. Not only is The Informers about all the events leading up to the writing of the book, but the last eighty pages of the novel are a Postscript to the publication of the novel-within-the-novel, and an actual encounter with the most enigmatic character in the book, the son of the man Gabriel’s father blacklisted, Gabriel’s father’s best friend, who has now read Gabriel’s The Informers and would like to have a word with him.
Tough, complicated, fascinating stuff. But is it for my book club? I know this much — those that finished it would be glad they did.