Monday, July 21, 2008

When Books Matter (Books - The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez)

Interesting, in light of the many voices raised world-wide against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) this weekend, that I am reading The Informers by Columbian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez. It is also a story of Columbian politics that starts when Gabriel Santoro (son) interviews a family friend - a Jewish Columbian woman who had emigrated from Germany in the 1930s - and writes a book telling her story and the story of the Columbian relationship with the Germans during the Second World War. Gabriel Santoro's father - an important professor - is upset by the memories of blacklisting and damaging betrayals that the book unearths and writes a scathing review of his son's book in a prominent newspaper. Gabriel the son tries to understand what has happened in the past that his father would react in this unexpected way - so the book's form is part mystery and also a novel of the relationship between father and son.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez's prose as translated by Anne McLean is eloquent and detailed.

So the most natural thing in the world, the afternoon I went to see him, was to think it was the book he wanted to discuss with me: that he was going to make amends, three years late, for that betrayal, small and domestic though it may have been, but no less painful for that. What happened was very different. From his domineering, ochre-coloured armhcair, while he changed channels with the solitary digit of his mutilated hand, this aged and frightened man, smelling of dirty sheets, whose breathing whistled like a paper kite, told me, in the same tone he'd used all through his life to recount an anecdote about Demosthenes or Gaitan, that he'd spent the last three weeks making regular visits to a doctor an the San Pedro Claver Clinic, and that an examination of his sixty-seven-year-old body had revealed, in chronological order, a mild case of diabetes, a blocked coronary artery - the anterior descending - and the need for immediate surgery.

As a professor of rhetoric, Gabriel (the father) has a reputation for revealing to students of language, politics, and law how language wields power.

'Who can tell me why this series of phrases moves us, what makes it effective?' An incautious student: 'We're moved by the ideas of...' My father: 'Nothing to do with ideas. Ideas don't matter, any brute can have ideas, and these, in particular, are not ideas but slogans. No, the series moves and convinces us through the repetition of the same phrase at the beginning of the clauses, something that you will all, from now on, do me the favour of calling anaphora.. And the next one to mention ideas will be shot.'

Not only does Vasquez capture the voice of a charismatic professor with this passage. It seems to me that he begins to reveal something about his character. Perhaps his obsession with form stems from his own reluctance to look beneath the surface of his country, the surface of himself. His armor against the past is as densely packed as the prose on the pages of this novel. This prose is welcomingly different in style from the more conversational Thirteen and more patient Grace Notes, the last two novels I read - but they were both interestingly also about uncovering memory. Something about the way Vasquez writes about this son's search for the truth about his father makes me not just plough through the events (although the story does interest me and the writing moves forward with energy) I constantly reflect and connect. The writing calls up memories of my grandfather, also a German Jewish immigrant, thoughts about other books I just read, how they use language, what books do in general, thoughts of world politics not only in Columbia but also the upcoming elections in my own country and our candidates' use of rhetoric. I guess this is what is meant by evocative writing.

One of those days, Sara asked me why I wanted to write about her life, and I thought it would have been easy to evade the question or throw out any old witticism, but to answer with something approaching the truth was as essential to me as it seemed to be, at that moment, to her. I could have said that there were things I needed to come to understand. That certain areas of my experience (in my country, with my people, at this time that I happened to be living) had escaped me, generally because my attention was taken up with other more banal ones, and I wanted to keep that from continuing to happen. To become aware: that was my intention , at once simple and pretentious; and to think about the past, oblige someone to remember it, was one way of doing it, arm wrestling against entropy, an attempt to make the disorder of the world, whose only destiny was a more intense disorder, stop, be put in shackles, for once defeated. I could have said that or part of it; in my favour I point out that I avoided these grandiloquent lies and chose more humble lies, or rather, incomplete lies. 'I want his approval, Sara,' I told her. ' I want him to look at me with respect. It matters more than anything ever has.'

Halfway through now, I am drawn forward by the current of the prose, like a quickly moving river. I want to know what happens, yes. But I am enjoying being inside a book driven by the passion to know something more important than who did it or the real (fake) story behind Opus Dei. This book looks deeply at events both personal and political. It is about telling the truth when one simple version of it doesn't exist and when language, if used properly, has the power to convince one of almost anything. It's about legacy and inheritance. It's about living with integrity. I feel like I'm reading a book that matters, and although that may just be an illusion created by the skill with which Vasquez has strung together his words, for the moment I'm convinced.

The Informers was a recommendation of Dovegreyreader (and a great one - thank you!) however it was not available in the U.S. when I looked, so I picked it up when I was in London.

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