This slim novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (author of ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ and ‘Dogs of War’) is set again in his native Columbia. The protagonist, Javier Mallarino, is a political cartoonist and the book deals with the fragility of reputations, created and destroyed at the stroke of a pen. It deals too with memory-the unreliability of personal memory, the shortness of political memory- and it is when an event from the past is resurrected 28 years later that the two themes merge and his own reputation is put on the line.
The novel opens with Mallarino returned to Bogotá where a ceremony is about to be held in honour of his life and work. It is a sort of rehabilitation, for the the narrative flashes back to Mallarino’s beginnings as a cartoonist, when his political cartoons were a risky enterprise, critical and mocking of right wing politicians at a time of political oppression and censorship. Though protected to some extent by the editor of the newspaper he works for, things come to a head when he receives a letter threatening him and his family, signed ‘The Patriots’. His confidence is eroded, his marriage and family life suffer, and eventually he separates from his wife, Magdalena and sets up home alone some way outside Bogotá.
The narrative fast forwards back to the present day and the ceremony in his honour. A woman in her 30s, Samanta Léal, approaches Mallarino afterwards, claiming to be a journalist and asking for an interview. She drives out to his house in the country and then reveals that she visited his house as a small child when some important event happened which steered her life in a different direction. She asks Mallarino to help her recall the event, from a distance of 28 years later. In revisiting that traumatic event, Mallarino realises he is no longer sure exactly what happened and therefore whether his response at the time can be justified.
Skilled narrator as he is, Gabriel Vasquez draws us into Mallarino’s perspective in his use of free indirect style when recounting Mallarino’s early life and his settled, happy marriage to Magdalena. His intense and detailed descriptions of people and in particular physiognomies accord with his professional interest in capturing the most emblematic characteristics of a person’s face. But we begin to feel uneasy when an erotic charge creeps into his description of Samanta Léal- is this the cartoonist speaking or a sexually aroused male? We have in the second part of the book a lengthy description of the party where the event occurred. Samanta and Beatriz, Mallarino’s daughter, have been finishing off the adults’ drinks, as a result of which they pass out and are put to bed upstairs. It is a female guest who alerts Mallarino to what the girls are doing, another woman who mops their foreheads, while Mallarino returns to the party, going up to the girls every twenty minutes to dose them with sugar and water. We ( or this reader, at any event) begin to distance ourselves from Mallarino- isn’t his behaviour verging on the irresponsible?- making us ready to doubt the veracity of what he saw.
The third section deals with Mallarino’s attempts to find out what happened, to confirm what he now only thinks he saw. He claims to be doing this to help Samanta find closure but she is unsure whether it will be of benefit to her, and Mallarino’s former boss, Rodrigo Valencio, accuses him of pursuing this for his own satisfaction rather than for Samanta’s sake. And, warning that the result could be desperately damaging to Mallarino’s reputation, he refuses to help him. Thrown back on others, Mallarino finds that few can remember the events, or the personalities involved: Columbia, he asserts, is a country living always in the present, keen to consign its past to oblivion, good events as well as bad. Yet Mallarino wishes to pursue the truth-aware that his public reputation may suffer, he needs to satisfy himself to maintain his personal integrity.
Through this intensely personal story Gabriel Vasquez suggests wider issues of truth and collective memory relevant to Columbia and indeed many other countries. What is the value of raking up the past? The novel touches on censorship and repression in the earlier years of Mallarino’s career, yet the ceremony in his honour suggests the country has moved into a more open phase, willing to mark the work of one of its more critical sons. Why go back into a scandal which happened all that time ago and which people now can barely remember? Yet there is still a sense of brokenness in the land- Magdalena’s second marriage has failed and she prefers to live alone, their daughter Beatriz is separating from her husband whose family hold opposing right wing views. There is much healing still to be done.
This cleverly crafted novel throws up more questions than it answers, and unsettles us through its skilful narrative technique as well as the ambiguity of its content. And there is a gap in the dénouement, when we were expecting something clearer, less equivocal, less…..like a memory. Read and admire.