Sunday, March 21, 2010

#13: The Informers

The Informers is a case study of words: words uttered carelessly, meaningfully, traitorously. It concerns itself with not only the interpretations, but also the appropriateness, of these words, of rhetoric itself, and in so doing questions the way we write and understand histories.

Yes, histories. What Juan Gabriel Vásquez has constructed is a web of intermingling stories, centered on the World War II era and thereafter in Colombia. These narratives alternatively corroborate and contradict; even in recounting the same events, one's telling is always somewhat different from another's. Calling on historical orators -- from Demosthenes to Jorge Eliécer Gaitán -- the author draws attention to the lasting and powerful effects of speech and memory on the lives of those who have spoken and heard.

On the surface, The Informers is the tale of Gabriel Santoro, the son and namesake of a venerated Colombian rhetorician, and his stubborn attempt to recapture and reassemble the missing pieces -- the deliberate omissions and deceptions -- from his late father's life. Much of Gabriel's (the father's) story is related by a lifelong friend: Sara Guterman, a Jewish German emigré whose father was among the lucky few of his compatriots to successfully invent a new life in Colombia, was instrumental in helping Gabriel (the son) put together the various components that comprised his father's life.

What is reality to one is fiction to another, however, and it is soon apparent that the son understood very little of the truth of his father's past. Deep in the throes of an apparently life-ending illness, the senior Santoro tells his son, "Memory isn't public, Gabriel." This proclamation is indirectly the result of the dying man's scathing review of his son's book, A Life in Exile, which chronicled the life story of Sara Guterman and the struggle of German immigrants to find acceptance in a Colombia beset with war-heightened xenophobia.

The son, however, feels differently than his father on the subject of remembering. Meanwhile, Sara remains almost indecipherable, seemingly ambivalent at times, suspended as she is between the imperative to record a tragedy for posterity and the loyalty she feels to a lifelong friend. What is left in the end is Gabriel the younger's version of events, a retelling of past cowardice that suggests a personal betrayal of its own. The Informers is neither a political nor a journalistic endeavor, but the ideas within resonate in both arenas, as Vásquez masterfully shoves the public and private spheres into an uncomfortably small space. The result is an unsettling, and highly relevant, set of difficult questions. In an era of unprecedented media ubiquity and the much-ballyhooed shrinking of personal privacy, The Informers provides no easy answers, but at least it has done us the service of starting a necessary conversation.