The shock waves from the assassination of Colombia's Jorge Eliécer Gaitán can still be felt todayby Daniel Hahn / May 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
As Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s new novel opens, Carlos Carballo has apparently just failed to steal a suit. The outfit in question belonged to the (real-life) Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who was assassinated in April 1948—the suit has the bullet-holes to prove it. Carballo, a conspiracy theorist, has become obsessed with Gaitán’s murder, and is determined to prove the flaws in the usual explanation for the crime that shattered a nation. Our narrator, one “Juan Gabriel Vásquez,” has been persuaded to write a book about the killing. Vásquez’s subject is not, however, what really happened, but the damage one man’s killing can do to a country. In Gaitán’s case, the immediate consequences included the violent riots which came to be called the “Bogotazo.”
There is a hint that political murder and its aftermath are the order of the day right from the start, because the “ruins” of the book’s title come from a line in Julius Caesar. But Vásquez threads his own life through the book, too, making his relationship to the events in the national story as important as the events themselves. Gaitán’s suit is only one of the many surviving relics examined by our investigative novelist—there’s documentation, a vertebra, a skull. So rather than being a historical novel, this is a novel interrogating history, or perhaps undermining it.
The Shape of the Ruins is a big book, assembled with satisfying complexity, but it’s also very light on its feet (with a great driving character in the form of the constantly shifting Carballo). At times it reads like a political thriller. Vásquez’s novels often worry at his native Colombia’s unexplained past—or if not unexplained, then at least mis-explained—so this latest collaboration with his long-time translator Anne McLean will be familiar to those who have encountered him before. But it’s his most ambitious and accomplished work yet.
The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean (MacLehose Press, £20)