The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

by Sunita

I read this weeks ago as part of the MBI longlist (it has since made the shortlist) and I thought it was excellent. I’ve put off reviewing it because I didn’t feel I could do it justice, but here we go.

Vásquez is an acclaimed novelist who has won prizes for his earlier books. This latest release is a long and complicated set of stories focusing on two political murders in his home country of Colombia. One occurred in the 1940s and the other nearly half a century earlier. Both politicians were Leftists who presented a threat not only to the ruling parties but to powerful Colombian elites. The character who becomes involved in understanding these historical events and the conspiracy theories to which they’ve given rise has the same name as the author, and shares many characteristics and experiences as the author, but is not exactly the author. Yes, we are in the world of autofiction, but this version is quite different, to my mind, from the kind of autofiction practiced by Rachel Cusk, Olivia Laing, or Edouard Louis.

Whereas those authors tend to look inward, Vásquez the character acts as the reader’s guide to the histories, showing at first the kind of skepticism a “rational” reader would, but then slowly recognizing the ways in which conspiracies can represent a way to make sense of official explanations that aren’t entirely convincing or satisfactory. We also learn quite a bit about Vásquez the person (the character Vásquez, that is), and he doesn’t hesitate to show us both his more and less admirable qualities. The result is a novel in which the reader swings from long discursive sections about political murders in 1948 and 1914 to poignant, heart-in-mouth descriptions of Vásquez’s wife’s pregnancy and the birth and infancy of their twin daughters.

The reader accompanies Vásquez on his journey from skepticism and a sense of superiority over conspiracy theories to a more sympathetic understanding of why such theories gain traction. The last part of the book, in particular, when the author is directly addressing the role of history in our national cultures, is powerful in arguing that the more we hide inconvenient facts or ambiguities that reflect poorly on the status quo, the more we make spaces for systems of thought that can make sense of those inconveniences and ambiguities. Sometimes we simply cannot know what happened; sometimes what happened undermines our sense of rightness or forward progress. But denying that, or papering it over with a “nothing to see here” explanation doesn’t solve the problem and can give rise to others. Vásquez is talking about Colombia and its history of political violence, but I violence is endemic to all polities and failing to acknowledge that creates problems in all political cultures.

This is a long, dense, complex book. The stories are told partly through dialogue but primarily through narration, and the details and trajectories of the various events recounted are peopled by many characters and sometimes hard to keep track of. The long central section on the 1914 murder and the attempt to uncover its truth was a slog for some readers. I was gripped by it, and it serves a critical function in the larger story, but your mileage may vary. It’s not a demanding book in terms of style (it’s very straightforwardly written and the translation, by Anne McLean, seems excellent), but it does require that the reader pay attention. And did I say it’s long.

Nevertheless, I found the book completely engrossing and I felt changed and enlightened by reading it. It’s a different kind of social and historical novel, an important one, that helped me understand the role of conspiracies in politics and in our public discourse. And it’s a gripping set of stories, with a compelling and engaging narrator.