The acclaimed Colombian novelist investigates two defining political murders in Bogotá’s past, in a multilayered critique of conspiracy aesthetics
In October 1914, in Bogotá, two disaffected carpenters hacked to death General Rafael Uribe Uribe, “undisputable leader of the Liberal party, senator of the Republic of Colombia and veteran of four civil wars”. Years later, on 9 April 1948, Liberal firebrand and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was shot and killed by Juan Roa Sierra; the assassin was beaten to death by a mob before his motives could be made plain or his associates – if any – discovered. This clever, labyrinthine, thoroughly enjoyable historical novel by the Colombian author of The Informers and The Sound of Things Falling entangles the two deaths and investigates the internecine politics that lay behind them.
“I accepted very early,” the narrator tells us of the Gaitán killing, “as we’ve all come to accept over time, that the murderer … was only the armed branch of a successfully silenced conspiracy.” The suspicion of conspiracy always gives rise to conspiracy theory, which, he concludes, is in itself a sort of further conspiracy – grown men discovered late at night at a cafe table, exchanging anecdotes about a famous killing in “the way boys exchange stickers for football albums”.
Ironic one moment, earnest the next, Vásquez presents himself as the central character of his own book. We learn about his career as a novelist, the state of his marriage, the birth of his daughters; we learn to be uncertain about what is fiction and what is not, what’s history and what’s debatable. Doctor Benavides, one of his two guides to the mysteries, is an amiable, compassionate and intelligent man whose only weakness seems to be the “irrational interest in objects from the past” that has turned his family house into a museum of crime. The other guide is the paranoid Carlos Carballo, who claims to have discerned stylistic parallels not just between the two Colombian crimes but between them and the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy.
There is nothing Carballo wouldn’t do, Benavides suggests, to pursue his obsession; while Carballo regards the doctor as an amateur. It soon becomes clear that these two are a sort of conspiracy of conspiracy theorists, elite representatives of the deep fandom of political murder, who have adopted Vásquez in the hope that, through a family connection to “the Bogotazo”, the riots that followed Gaitán’s killing, he can add detail to their narrative of events.
History is seen working its magic. Witnesses vanish, evidence goes missing, hidden actors – “the Elegant Man” who whipped up the crowd to murder Gaitán’s murderer; the “six well dressed men” said to have met with Uribe’s killers before the fact – are rumoured to exist but never reappear. A Scottish detective, hired by the Colombian state to look into the 1948 affair, remembers how his employers demanded daily results but “at the same time seemed to put all the obstacles in the world” in the way of the investigation. Works of various Spanish-language writers, including Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, are cited as evidence. Orson Welles has a bit part.
Even at their most grotesque or bloodstained or slyly comic, these anecdotes and observations retain their humanity. Vásquez assembles them into a discursive, mischievous autofiction, combining forensic medicine with hearsay, revealing a third-hand source behind a first-hand account, setting public memory against private, chatter against documentation, until The Shape of the Ruins is less an album of stickers than a comprehensive critique of conspiracy aesthetics.
The text even provides us with blurry photographs – a section of Gaitán’s spine in a jar, the old Zapruder film frames showing JFK’s head whipped in the wrong direction by the impact of the second bullet. But Vásquez knows that history isn’t the “facts”, much less an approachable truth: it’s the shape of the ruins. Everything we describe as the past depends on an interpretation of what’s left over: and everything that’s left over has a baked-in undependability. In addition, no historical narrative has clear-cut limits: a beginning is always the story of what came before it, an ending is an extended dissolve – a solution which can only weaken with time. Definition, as much as conclusion, is shaped by needs and narrators.
Vásquez describes the folie à deux of Benavides and Carballo as a “cult”. Has he, by the end of the book, become a member of it? What, in the end, is the difference between a search for historical truth and the condition of the soul he describes as a “dark fascination with the dead”? Well, he says, it could be this: perhaps Colombia would be “able to look itself in the mirror more easily if the assassination were not still unsolved so many years later”. This conclusion, of course, could be applied elsewhere.
- M John Harrison’s story collection You Should Come With Me Now is published by Comma. The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (Quercus Publishing, £20). To order a copy for £14.99, saving 25%, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.