From the author of The Sound of Things Falling, a "brilliant new novel" (New York Times Book Review) and one of the most buzzed about books of the year!
"One of the most original new voices of Latin American literature." -- Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature
When Gabriel Santoro's book is scathingly reviewed by his own father, a famous Bogotá rhetorician, Gabriel is devastated. Cataloguing the life of longtime family friend Sara Guterman, a Jewish German immigrant who escaped to Colombia during the 1930s, Gabriel's book seemed an innocent attempt to preserve a piece of his country's rapidly vanishing past. But as Gabriel pours over his research looking for clues to his father's anger, he discovers a sinister secret locked in the pages. After his father's death, and with the help of Sara Guterman and his father's girlfriend, Angelina, Gabriel peels back layer after shocking layer of family history-from the streets of 1940s Bogotá to a stranger's doorstep in 1990s Medellín-to reveal a hidden portrait of their past-dark, complex, and inescapable.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been hailed as one of the leading writers of his generation, compared to Borges, John Le Carre, Joseph Conrad and W. G. Sebald.
On the morning of April 7, 1991, when my father telephoned to invite me to his apartment in Chapinero for the first time, there was such a downpour in Bogotá that the streams of the Eastern Hills burst their banks, and the water came pouring down, dragging branches and mud, blocking the sewers, fl ooding the narrowest streets, lifting small cars with the force of the current, and even killing an unwary taxi driver who somehow ended up trapped under the chassis of his own vehicle. The phone call itself was at the very least surprising, but on that day seemed nothing less than ominous, not only because my father had stopped receiving visitors a long time before, but also because the image of the water- besieged city, the motionless traffic jams and broken stoplights and marooned ambulances and unattended emergencies, would have sufficed under normal circumstances to convince anyone that going out to visit someone was imprudent, and asking someone to come to visit almost rash. The scenes of Bogotá in chaos attested to the urgency of his call and made me suspect that the invitation was not a matter of courtesy, suggesting a provisional conclusion: we were going to talk about books. Not just any old book, of course; we’d talk about the only one I’d then published, a piece of reportage with a TV- documentary title— A Life in Exile, it was called— that told or tried to tell the life story of Sara Guterman, daughter of a Jewish family and lifelong friend of ours, beginning with her arrival in Colombia in the 1930s. When it appeared in 1988, the book had enjoyed a certain notoriety, not because of its subject or its debatable quality, but because my father, a professor of rhetoric who never deigned to sully his hand with any form of journalism, a reader of classics who disapproved of the very act of commenting on literature in print, had published a savage review of it in the Sunday magazine of El Espectador. It’s perhaps understandable that later, when my father sold the family home at a loss and took a lease on a refuge for the inveterate bachelor he pretended to be, I wasn’t surprised to hear the news from someone else, even if it was from Sara Guterman, my least distant someone else.
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, ocher- colored armchair, 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 Gaitán, that he’d spent the last three weeks making regular visits to a doctor at 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. Now he knew how close he’d been to no longer existing, and he wanted me to know, too. “I’m all you’ve got,” he said. “I’m all you’ve got left. Your mother’s been buried for fifteen years. I could have not called you, but I did. You know why? Because after me you’re on your own. Because if you were a trapeze artist, I’d be your only safety net.” Well then, now that sufficient time has passed since my father’s death and I’ve finally decided to organize my head and desk, my documents and notes, to get this all down in writing, it seems obvious that I should begin this way: remembering the day he called me, in the middle of the most intense winter of my adult life, not to mend the rift between us, but in order to feel less alone when they opened his chest with an electric saw and sewed a vein extracted from his right leg into his ailing heart.
It had begun with a routine check- up. The doctor, a man with a soprano’s voice and a jockey’s body, had told my father that a mild form of diabetes was not entirely unusual or even terribly worrying at his age: it was merely a predictable imbalance and wasn’t going to require insulin injections or drugs of any kind, but he would need to exercise regularly and observe a strict diet. Then, after a few days of sensible jogging, the pain began, a delicate pressure on his stomach, rather resembling a threat of indigestion or something strange my father might have swallowed. The doctor ordered new tests, still general ones but more exhaustive, and among them was a test of strength; my father, wearing underpants as long and baggy as chaps, first walked then jogged on the treadmill, and then returned to the tiny changing room (in which, he told me, he’d felt like stretching his arms, and, realizing the place was so small he could touch the facing walls with his elbows, suffered a brief attack of claustrophobia), and when he’d just put on his flannel trousers and begun to button up the cuffs of his shirt, already thinking about leaving and waiting for a secretary to call him to pick up the results of his electrocardiogram, the doctor knocked on the door. He was very sorry, he said, but he hadn’t liked what he’d seen in the initial results: they were going to have to do a cardiac catheterization immediately to confirm the risks. And they did, of course, and the risks (of course) were confirmed: there was an obstructed artery.
“ Ninety- nine percent,” said my father. “I would have had a heart attack the day after tomorrow.”
“Why didn’t they admit you there and then?”
“Because the fellow thought I looked really nervous, I suppose.
He thought it’d be better if I went home. He did give me a very specific set of instructions, though. Told me not to move all weekend. Avoid any kind of excitement. No sex at all, especially. That’s what he said to me, believe it or not.”
“And what did you say to him?”
“That he didn’t need to worry about that. I wasn’t about to tell him my life story.”
As he left the office and hailed a taxi amid the confusion of Twenty- sixth Street, my father had barely begun to confront the idea that he was ill. He was going to be admitted to the hospital without a single symptom that would betray the urgency of his condition, with no discomfort beyond the frivolous pain in the pit of his stomach, and all because of an incriminating catheter. The doctor’s arrogant spiel kept running through his head: “If you’d waited three more days before coming to see me, we’d probably be burying you in a week.” It was a Friday; the operation was scheduled for the following Thursday at six in the morning. “I spent the night thinking I was going to die,” he told me, “and then I phoned you. That surprised me, of course, but now I’m even more surprised you’ve come.” It’s possible he was exaggerating: my father knew no one was apt to consider his death as seriously as his own son, and we devoted that Sunday afternoon to such considerations.
I made a couple of salads, made sure there was juice and water in the fridge, and began to look over his latest income- tax return with him. He had more money than he needed, which isn’t to say he had a lot, just that he didn’t need much. His only income came from his pension from the Supreme Court, and his capital— that is, the money he’d received when he’d sold off the house where I’d grown up and my mother had died— had been invested in savings bonds, and the interest from them was enough to cover his rent and living expenses for the most ascetic lifestyle I’d ever seen: a lifestyle in which, as far as I could tell, no restaurants, concerts, or any other means, more or less onerous, of entertainment entered into the picture. I’m not saying that if my father had spent the occasional night with a hired lover I would have found out about it; but when one of his colleagues tried to get him out of the house, to take him out for a meal with some woman, my father refused once and then left the phone off the hook for the rest of the day.
“I’ve already met the people I had to meet in this life,” he told me. “I don’t need anyone new.” One of those times, the person who invited him was a trademark and patents lawyer young enough to be his daughter, one of those large- breasted girls who don’t read and seem to go through an inevitable phase of curiosity about sex with older men. “And you turned her down?” I asked. “Of course I turned her down. I told her I had a political meeting. ‘What party?’ she asked. ‘The Onanist Party,’ I told her. And off she went quietly home and never bothered me again. I don’t know if she found a dictionary in time, but she seems to have decided to leave me alone because she hasn’t invited me to anything since. Or who knows, maybe there’s a lawsuit against me, no? I can almost see the headlines: PERVERTED PROFESSOR ASSAULTS YOUNG WOMAN WITH BIBLICAL POLYSYLLABLES.”
I stayed with him until six or seven and then went home, thinking during the whole trip about what had just happened, about the strange twist of a son’s seeing his father’s home for the first time. Was it just the two rooms— the living room and bedroom— or was there a study somewhere? I couldn’t see more than a cheap white bookcase leaning carelessly against the wall that ran parallel to Forty- ninth Street, beside a barred window that hardly let in any light. Where were his books? Where were the plaques and silver trays with which others had insisted on distinguishing his career over the years? Where did he work, where did he read, where did he listen to that record— The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, a title I wasn’t familiar with— the sleeve of which was lying on the kitchen table? The apartment seemed stuck in the 1970s: the orange and brown carpet; the white fiberglass chair I sank into as my father recalled and described for me the map of his catheterization (its narrow highways, its back roads); the closed, windowless bathroom, lit only by a couple of transparent plastic rectangles on the ceiling (one of which was broken, and through the hole I could see two neon tubes in their death throes). There was soapy foam in the green washbasin, the shower was dark and didn’t smell too good, and from its aluminum frame hung two pairs of recently washed underpants. Had he washed them himself? Didn’t anyone come to help him? I opened drawers and doors held shut with magnets and found some aspirin, a box of Alka- Seltzer, and a rusty shaving brush that no one had used for a long time. There were drops of urine on the toilet bowl and on the fl oor: yellow, smelly drops, telltale signs of a worn- out prostate. And there, on top of the tank, under a box of Kleenex, was a copy of my book.
I wondered, of course, if this might not be his way of suggesting that his opinion had not changed over the years. “Journalism aids intestinal transit,” I imagined him telling me. “Didn’t they teach you that at the university?”
When I got home I made a few calls, although it was too late to cancel the operation or to pay any attention to second opinions, especially those formulated over the phone and without the benefit of documents, test results, and X- rays. In any case, talking to Jorge Mor, a cardiologist at the Shaio Clinic who’d been a friend of mine since school, didn’t do much to calm me down. When I called him, Jorge confirmed what the doctor at San Pedro Claver had said: he confirmed the diagnosis as well as the necessity of operating urgently, and also the luck of having discovered the matter by chance, before my father’s asphyxiated heart did what it was thinking of doing and suddenly stopped without warning. “Rest easy, brother,” Jorge told me. “It’s the simplest version of a difficult operation. Worrying from now till Thursday won’t do anyone any good.” “But what could go wrong?” I insisted. “Everything can go wrong, Gabriel, everything can go wrong in any operation in the world. But this is one that’s got to be done, and it is relatively simple. Do you want me to come over and explain it to you?” “Of course not,” I said. “Don’t be ridiculous.” But maybe if I’d accepted his offer I would have kept talking to Jorge until it was time to go to bed. We would have talked about the operation; I would have gone to sleep late, after one or two soporific drinks. Instead, I ended up going to bed at ten, and just before three in the morning I realized I was still awake and more frightened than I’d thought.
I got out of bed, felt in the pockets of my jeans for the shape of my wallet, and dumped its contents into the pool of lamplight. A few months before I turned eighteen, my father had presented me with a rectangular card, dark blue on one side and white on the other, which gave him the right to be buried with my mother in the Jardines de Paz— and there was the cemetery’s logo, letters like lilies— and asked me to keep it in a safe place. At that moment, like any other teenager, I couldn’t think of anywhere better to put it than in my wallet; and there it had stayed all that time, between my ID card and my military card, with its funereal aspect and the name typed on an adhesive strip now wearing away. “One never knows,” my father had said when he gave it to me. “We could get blown up any day and I want you to know what to do with me.” The time of bombs and attacks, a whole decade of living every day with the knowledge that arriving home each night was a matter of luck, was still in the distance; if he had in fact been blown up, the possession of that card wouldn’t have made things any clearer to me as to how to deal with the dead. Now it struck me that the card, yellowed and worn, looked like the mock- ups that come in new wallets, and no stranger would have seen it for what it actually was: a laminated tomb. And so, considering the possibility that the moment to use it had arrived, not due to any bombs or attacks but through the predictable misdeeds of an old heart, I fell asleep.
They admitted him at five o’clock the next afternoon. Throughout those first hours, already in his green dressing gown, my father answered the anesthesiologist’s questions and signed the white Social Security forms and the tricolor life insurance ones (a faded national fl ag), and throughout Tuesday and Wednesday he spoke and kept speaking, demanding certainties, asking for information and in his turn informing, sitting on the high, regal mattress of the aluminum bed but nevertheless reduced to the vulnerable position of one who knows less than the person with whom he’s speaking. I stayed with him those three nights. I assured him, time and time again, that everything was going to be fine. I saw the bruise on his thigh in the shape of the province of La Guajira, and assured him that everything was going to be fine. And on Thursday morning, after they shaved his chest and both legs, three men and a woman took him to the operating room on the second fl oor, lying down and silent for the first time and ostentatiously naked beneath the disposable gown. I accompanied him until a nurse, the same one who’d looked blatantly and more than once at the patient’s comatose genitals, asked me to get out of the way and gave me a little ammonia- smelling pat, saying the same thing I’d said to him: “Don’t worry, sir. Everything’s going to be fine.” Except she added, “God willing.”
Almost anyone would recognize my father’s name, and not only because it’s the same as the one on the front of this book (yes, my father was a perfect example of that predictable species: those who are so confident of their life’s achievements that they have no fear of baptizing their children with their own names), but also because Gabriel Santoro was the man who taught, for more than twenty years, the famous Seminar on Judicial Oratory at the Supreme Court, and the man who, in 1988, delivered the commemoration address on the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Bogotá, that legendary text that came to be compared with the finest examples of Colombian rhetoric, from Bolívar to Gaitán. gabriel santoro, heir to the liberal caudillo, was the headline in an official publication that few know and no one reads, but which gave my father one of the great satisfactions of his life in recent years. Quite right, too, because he’d learned everything from Gaitán: he’d attended all his speeches; he’d plagiarized his methods. Before he was twenty, for example, he’d started wearing my grandmother’s corsets to create the same effect as the girdle that Gaitán wore when he had to speak outdoors. “The girdle put pressure on his diaphragm,” my father explained in his classes, “and his voice would come out louder, deeper, and stronger. You could be two hundred meters from the podium when Gaitán was speaking with no microphones whatsoever, pure lung power, and you could hear him perfectly.” The explanation came accompanied by the dramatic performance, because my father was an excellent mimic (but where Gaitán raised the index finger of his right hand, pointing to the sky, my father raised his shiny stump). “People of Colombia: For the moral restoration of the Republic! People of Colombia: For your victory! People of Colombia: For the defeat of the oligarchy!” Pause; ostensibly kind question from my father: “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 favor of calling anaphora. And the next one to mention ideas will be shot.”
I used to go to these classes just for the pleasure of seeing him embody Gaitán or whomever (other more or less regular characters were Rojas Pinilla and Lleras Restrepo), and I got used to watching him, seeing him squaring up like a retired boxer, his prominent jaw and cheekbones, the imposing geometry of his back that filled out his suits, his eyebrows so long they got in his eyes and sometimes seemed to sweep across his lids like theater curtains, and his hands, always and especially his hands. The left was so wide and the fingers so long that he could pick up a football with his fingertips; the right was no more than a wrinkled stump on which remained only the mast of his erect thumb. My father was about twelve, and alone in his grandparents’ house in Tunja, when three men with machetes and rolled- up trousers came in through a kitchen window, smelling of cheap liquor and damp ponchos and shouting “Death to the Liberal Party,” and didn’t find my grandfather, who was standing for election to the provincial government of Boyacá and would be ambushed a few months later in Sogamoso, but only his son, a child who was still in his pajamas even though it was after nine in the morning. One of them chased him, saw him trip over a clump of earth and get tangled up in the overgrown pasture of a neighboring field; after one blow of his machete, he left him for dead. My father had raised a hand to protect himself, and the rusty blade sliced off his four fingers. María Rosa, the cook, began to worry when he didn’t show up for lunch, and finally found him a couple of hours after the machete attack, in time to stop him bleeding to death. But this last part my father didn’t remember; they told him later, just as they told him about his fevers and the incoherent things he said— seeming to confuse the machete- wielding men with the pirates of Salgari books— amid the feverish hallucinations.
He had to learn how to write all over again, this time with his left hand, but he never achieved the necessary dexterity, and I sometimes thought, without ever saying so, that his disjointed and deformed penmanship, those small child’s capital letters that began brief squadrons of scribbles, was the only reason a man who’d spent a lifetime among other people’s books had never written a book of his own. His subject was the word, spoken and read, but never written by his hand. He felt clumsy using a pen and was unable to operate a keyboard: writing was a reminder of his handicap, his defect, his shame. And seeing him humiliate his most gifted students, seeing him fl og them with his vehement sarcasm, I used to think: You’re taking revenge. This is your revenge.
But none of that seemed to have any consequences in the real world, where my father’s success was as unstoppable as slander. The seminar became popular among experts in criminal law and postgraduate students, lawyers employed by multinationals and retired judges with time on their hands; and there came a time when this old professor with his useless knowledge and superfl uous techniques had to hang on the wall, between his desk and bookshelves, a kind of kitsch, colonial shelf, upon which piled up, behind the little rail with its pudgy columns, the silver trays and the diplomas on cardboard, on watermarked paper, on imitation parchment, and the particleboard plaques with eye- catching coats of arms in colored aluminum.
FOR GABRIEL SANTORO, IN RECOGNITION OF TWENTY YEARS OF PEDAGOGICAL LABOR . . . CERTIFIES THAT DOCTOR GABRIEL SANTORO, BY VIRTUE OF HIS CIVIL MERITS . . . THE MAYORALTY OF GREATER BOGOTÁ, IN HOMAGE TO DOCTOR GABRIEL SANTORO . . .
There, in that sort of sanctuary for sacred cows, the sacred cow who was my father spent his days. Yes, that was his reputation: my father knew it when they called him from city hall to offer him the speech at the Capitolio Nacional; that is, to ask him to deliver a few commonplaces in front of bored politicians.
This peaceable professor— they would have thought— ticked all the right boxes for the event. My father didn’t give them anything they expected. was in each one of those sentences— all of which, I’m sure, held no importance for my father, who wanted only to dust off his rifl es and take his best shots in the presence of a select audience. None of them, however, could recognize the value of that exemplary model of rhetoric: a valiant introduction, because he relinquished the chance to appeal to his audience’s sympathies (“I’m not here to celebrate anything”), a narrative based on confrontation (“This city has been betrayed. Betrayed by all of you for almost half a millennium”), an elegant conclusion that began with the most elegant figure of classical oratory (“There once was a time when it was possible to speak of this city”). And then that final paragraph, which would later serve as a mine of epigraphs for various official publications and was repeated in all the newspapers the way they repeat Simón Bolívar’s I shall go quietly down to my grave or Colonel, you must save our nation.
Somewhere in Plato we read: “Landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me, but the people of a city most certainly do.” Citizens, I propose we learn from ours, I propose we undertake the political and moral reconstruction of Bogotá. We shall achieve resurrection through our industry, our perseverance, our will. On her four hundred and fiftieth birthday, Bogotá is a young city yet to be made. To forget this, citizens, is to endanger our own survival. Do not forget, citizens, nor let us forget.
My father spoke about reconstruction and morals and perseverance, and he did so without blushing, because he focused less on what he said than on the device he used to say it. Later he would comment: “The last sentence is nonsense, but the alexandrine is pretty. It fits nicely there, don’t you think?”
The whole speech lasted sixteen minutes and twenty seconds— according to my stopwatch and not including the fervent applause— a tiny slice of that August 6, 1988, when Bogotá turned four hundred and fifty, Colombia celebrated one hundred and sixty- nine years less a day of independence, my mother had been dead for twelve years, six months, and twenty- one days, and I, who was twenty- seven years, six months, and four days old, suddenly felt overwhelmingly convinced of my own invulnerability, and everything seemed to indicate that there where my father and I were, each in charge of his own successful life, nothing could ever happen to us, because the conspiracy of things (what we call luck) was on our side, and from then on we could expect little more than an inventory of achievements, ranks and ranks of those grandiloquent capitals: the Pride of our Friends, the Envy of our Enemies, Mission Accomplished. I don’t have to say it, but I’m going to say it: those predictions were completely mistaken. I published a book, an innocent book, and then nothing was ever the same again."Remarkable...[The Informers] is the best work of literary fiction to come my way since 2005...and into the bargain it is immensely entertaining, with twists and turns of plot that yield great satisfaction."
-Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
"[A] straight-ahead, old-fashioned narrative... [T]he career of Juan Gabriel Vásquez...is off to a notable start."
-The New York Times
"To read The Informers is to enjoy the shock of new talent... [Vásquez's] novel is subtle, surprising and deeply pleasurable, with razors secreted among its pages."
-The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Unlike anything written by his Latin American contemporaries...The Informers deserves to be read...[O]ne of this year's outstanding books."
-The Financial Times
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