The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (Anne McLean, trans.). Riverhead. 351pp, $16.00.
Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s 2004 novel, The Informers, recently translated into English by Anne McLean, is a fascinating story that explores the relationship between the memory of reality and the reality of textual truths. The intertextuality creates a complex web of action and tension between those who tell stories and those who live stories.
The protagonist of the novel, Gabriel Santoro, is a journalist who has published a kind of biography, entitled, A Life in Exile, capturing the story of a close family friend, Sara Guterman, a Jewish woman who escaped Nazi Germany to come to Colombia with her family as a young woman. Her story is compelling, if rather commonplace during WWII, but when her story begins to intertwine with the history of Colombia, Gabriel begins to uncover secrets from the past that touch very close to home.
This causes problems for Gabriel and his father. The father is a very celebrated law professor (father and son have the same name), and the book opens with Gabriel reuniting with his elderly father before a heart operation. They haven’t seen one another since the father’s scathing review of his son’s book three years earlier, and it is only when faced with his death that father and son can come to a truce. Still, Gabriel senior is bitter about his son’s “parasitical, exploitative, and intrusive” book:
You think I’m going to congratulate you, I’m going to encourage you and say you were born to write about Sara’s life, or rather that Sara was born and went through her whole life, through the Nazis and exile, through wartime in a strange country, through forty years of life in this city where people kill each other out of habit, so that you could come now and sit down comfortably with your tape recorder and ask her idiotic questions and write two hundred pages, and our happiness would be so irrepressible we’d all start masturbating . . .
The irony is palpable, the bitterness rather puzzling, particularly given the garb of moral principles that Gabriel’s father dresses his bitterness in. He objects stock and parcel to the entire industry of journalism, which makes “use of others [and] is one of the lowest occupations in humanity.” He seems to react most strongly in his work against the mentioning of blacklists that came about as a result of Colombia’s anti-German stance prior to and during WWII. His father says:
None of you have felt that terrible power, the power to finish someone off. I’ve always wanted to know what it felt like. Back then we all had that power, but we didn’t all know that we had it. Only some used it. There were thousands, of course: thousands of people who accused, who denounced, who informed. But those thousands of informers were just a part, a tiny fraction of the people who could have informed if they’d wanted to . . . the system of blacklists gave power to the weak, and the weak are the majority.
Eventually, Gabriel senior’s ardent attack on his son’s book is rendered comprehensible: it is nothing more than the intellectual justification of a personal shame. Gabriel senior reacts so strongly to these blacklist allusions because he himself was an informer years ago. It this principled, noble, and highly respected academic’s terror of being found out–of the “public” learning of his dirty little secret–that so enrages Gabriel’s father, and not the moral principles by which he attacks his son’s book in the media. These facts, though, aren’t uncovered until much later.
As his father slowly recovers from his illness, he befriends his physical therapist and begins a love affair. This pivotal relationship contributes to the unhinging the father’s reputation. In a romantic pillow talk moment, he confesses to his lover his past role as an informer, and after his death she goes to the television media where she rehashing his confession to her for weeks. It is a shocking revelation, both for Gabriel the son and for the Colombian public who so admired the man. This truth exposes a nerve that perhaps no story, no retelling, can be considered reliable. The past is a trial whose outcome is suddenly overturned.
Indeed, the novel itself is made up of layers and layers of telling, retellings, and rehashing of retellings, as if the truth itself lies somewhere deep underneath all these stories. We have excerpts of Gabriel junior’s book, passages of transcripts that represent his interviews, conversations about long-remembered conversations, conversations about imagined conversations, factual details that represent dossiers; even the novel itself can be seen as evidence documenting this entire experience, both for the reader and for historians of Colombia. Where is the “truth” in all these retellings?
Gabriel, as a journalist, is interested in factual information, but who decides which facts are true, pertinent, or relevant to any retelling, particularly when memory is unreliable? And it is precisely the power of memory that so alarms his father.
Memory isn’t public, Gabriel. That’s what neither you nor Sara have understood. You two have made things public that many of us wanted forgotten. You two have recorded things that many of us took a long time to get out of sight . . . .And those of us who’d made our peace with that past, those who though prayer or pretense had arrived at a certain conciliation, are now back to square one . . . and you come along, white knight of history, to display your courage by awakening things most people prefer to let lie.
I’ve always been interested in the distinction between “official knowledge” and “unofficial knowledge,” and it’s a distinction that plays into so much of our private and public lives. We can know something unofficially and let it remain unobserved or unacknowledged. But once that information becomes officialised, publicized, noted, documented, it screams out for action. This seems to be one of the central tensions in the story: Gabriel is interested in official knowledge, in translating unreliable memory into documented official history.
It also gets at the reasons why Gabriel’s father will have none of it: memory can be denied, contradicted, challenged. Memory fades. This is precisely why memory is so dangerous as a medium for textual reality. The pool of memories, those unofficial bits of knowledge, also allow criminals to escape justice, past sins to be glossed over. It’s hard enough to punish those officially accused of a crime; if the facts remain unofficial, they lose their shine. But a document, a textual representation of memory, becomes some form of “truth,” and officialised truth can have consequences.
These are common tensions and questions in Latin America today, and this is where the novel`s power begins to gain momentum, particularly in its Colombian context. The collective memory of Colombian injustices, Gabriel seems to be saying, needs only be written down for it to take on power. The story becomes a challenge, a challenge to right past wrongs, to expose past injustices, even more so since according to Gabriel, memory is not contained in the body but in the objects that represent retellings:
While I write I see that, over the course of several months, instead of the things and papers that I need to reconstruct the story, it has been the things and papers that prove the existence of the story and can correct my memory, if necessary, that have been accumulating on my desk.
Indeed, we are told, that Sara’s own body has no memory–she only experiences time–and it is through all the objects “in boxes and files and photographs, and in the cassettes of which I was the custodian, that seemed to absorb Sara’s history and at the same time withdraw it from her body.” The objects, then, come to serve as a conduit between those lines of unofficial knowledge and what we come to know as official knowledge. And it is Gabriel junior who emerges in this battle, whose textual documents come to represent these stories: the story of a Jewish girl feeling the Nazis, the story of a young man who believes in his government propaganda and destroys a life, and the story of his son who attempts to understand what these stories mean in a modern-day Colombia.
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