The Shape of the Ruins
by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (La forma de las ruinas, 2015)
translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean (2018)
Riverhead Books (2018)
528 pp

I’m sorry to spoil your theories, but someone had to tell you one day that Santa Claus was your parents.

The Shape of the Ruins, translated (wonderfully as ever) by Anne McLean from Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s La forma de las ruinas, is based around two pivotal assassinations in 20th Century Colombian political history, and the conspiracy theories that swirled around each.

There are two ways to view or contemplate what we call history: one is the accidental vision, for which history is the fateful product of an infinite chain of irrational acts, unpredictable contingencies and random events (life as unremitting chaos which we human beings try desperately to order); and the other is the conspiratorial vision, a scenario of shadows and invisible hands and eyes that spy and voices that whisper in corners, a theatre in which everything happens for a reason, accidents don’t exist and much less coincidences, and where the causes of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows. “In politics, nothing happens by accident,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said. “If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.” This phrase, which I haven’t been able to find quoted in any reliable source, is loved by conspiracy theorists.

In 1914, as the Great War raged in Europe, itself triggered of course by an assassination by Gavrilo Princip:

In October of the same year, but on the other side of the world, a man who was not an archduke, but a General and a senator of the Republic of Colombia, was assassinated, not by bullets but the hatchet blows of two poor young men like Princip. Rafael Uribe Uribe, veteran of several civil wars, uncontested leader of the Liberal Party (in those days when being a liberal meant something) was attacked at midday on the 15th by Leovigildo Galarza and Jesús Carvajal, unemployed carpenters.

And, three decades later, the assassination by a lone gun man, Juan Roa Sierra, on April 9, 1948, of the “great Liberal caudillo Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, hero of the people and future president of the Republic of Colombia” (although in a later account of Gaitán in the closing pages of the novel, he comes across as something of a dangerous populist in his tactics, if not his policies, freely borrowing from the cult created by Mussolini.)

This last killing eerily foreshadowed the assassination, fifteen years later, of John F Kennedy, with the reputed killer himself killed shortly afterwards (albeit here at the hands of an angry mob), followed by a wave of conspiracy theories and reports of a second gunman:

Like all Colombians, I grew up hearing that Gaitán had been killed by the Conservatives, that he’d been killed by the Liberals, that he’d been killed by the Communists, that he’d been killed by foreign spies, that he’d been killed by the working classes feeling themselves betrayed, that he’d been killed by the oligarchs feeling themselves under threat; and I accepted very early, as we’ve all come to accept over time, that the murderer Juan Roa Sierra was only the armed branch of a successfully silenced conspiracy.

Although Kennedy’s death can be seen as the start of a wave of political violence that characterized the 1960s in the US, the effect of Gaitán’s death was more dramatic. On the day itself it triggered ten-hours of rioting, and retaliatory violence from the authorities, with up to 3,000 people believed to have been killed, an event referred to as the Bogotazo, “the grandiloquent nickname that we Colombians gave to that legendary day a long time ago.”

And this was followed by a ten-year civil war, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths, and with repurcussions, such as the drug-gang violence from Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel in the 1980-1990s.

Colombians don’t agree on many things, but we do all think that Gaitán’s murder was the direct cause of the Bogotazo, with its three thousand casualties, as well as the opening shot of the Violencia that would end eight years and three hundred thousand deaths later.

April 9 is a void in Colombian history, yes, but it is other things besides: a solitary act that sent a whole nation into a bloody war; a collective neurosis that has taught us to distrust each other for more than half a century.

The book draws some interesting links between these events and the great Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. In the interviews with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, documented in the book El Olor de la Guayaba (The Fragrance of the Guava), García Márquez reveals that the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendía in One Hundred Years of Solitude was loosely based on Rafael Uribe Uribe.

And in his autobiography, Vivir para contarla (Living to Tell The Tale) García Márquez hints at conspiracies behind the Gaitán murder, in particular a shadowy figure reputed to have incited the mob to take revenge on the alleged killer:

Many years later, in my days as a reporter, it occurred to me that the man had managed to have a false assassin killed in order to protect the identity of the real one.

The novel is narrated by a Colombian novelist called (you’ve guessed it) Juan Gabriel Vásquez. As the novel opens, his wife is about to give birth to two very premature babies (as happened in the real author’s life), and he also encounters a surgeon who turns out to have parts of the post-autopsy remains of Gaitán in his personal possession, inherited from his father who performed the autopsy – things that really happened in the author’s life. Juan Gabriel Vásquez explained his reason for this auto-fictional approach in an interview:

Well, the reason had to do with the circumstances in which the novel was born. I met this surgeon who invited me to his place and showed me the human remains – right? – a vertebra that belonged to Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and then a part of the skull that belonged to Rafael Uribe Uribe. This happened in September of 2005. That was the same moment in my life in which my twin daughters were being born in Colombia – in Bogota. Now, they were born very prematurely — at 6 1/2 months — which is a complicated situation that led to my wife and me spending a lot of time at the hospital while the girls recovered in their incubators.

I saw myself immersed in this very strange situation in which I went to this guy’s place to take in my hands the human remains of two victims of political violence in Colombia, and then I went back to the hospital to take my own girls into my hands.

And the situation was so — so potent with me that these questions began taking shape very slowly in my head. What relationship is there between the two moments? Is my country’s violent past, is that transmissible? Will that go down generation after generation to reach, in some way, the lives of these girls that have just been born? How can I protect them from this legacy of violence? I have always been aware that my life has been shaped by the crime of Gaitan for personal reasons, family reasons, sociopolitical reasons. It has shaped my whole country and the life of everybody I know. And so I thought, will that happen to my girls?

And so I realized that inventing a narrator, inventing a personality different from myself would, in a way, diminish them — or rather, undermine the importance these events had for my life. So — making a narrator up would remove me from these events, these anecdotes. And I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to take moral responsibility, as it were, for everything that I was telling in the novel.

His fictional alter-ego makes a similar point:

I swear that I thought, after finishing The Sound of Things Falling, that my personal accounts with the violence it had fallen to me to live through were settled. Now it seems incredible that I hadn’t understood that our violences are not only the ones we had to experience, but also the others, those that came before, because they are all linked even if the threads that connect them are not visible, because past time is contained within present time, or because the past is our inheritance without the benefit of an inventory and in the end we eventually receive it all: the sense and the excesses, the rights and the wrongs, the innocence and the crimes.

Although much of the novel is fictional, particularly (I believe) the creation of an conspiracy theory obsessive, Carlos Carballo, a protege of the surgeon’s father. Within minutes of meeting him, Carballo has explained to our narrator what really happened on 9/11 and with Princess Diana, before turning to his favourite topic — the April 9, 1948, killings and the suspicious similarities with Kennedy’s death (and 9/11):

What did Juan Roa Sierra and Lee Harvey Oswald have in common? They were both accused of acting alone, of being lone wolves. Second: they both represented the enemy in their historic moment. Juan Roa Sierra was later accused of having Nazi sympathies, I don’t know if you remember: Roa worked at the German Embassy and brought Nazi pamphlets home, everybody found out about that. Oswald, of course, was a communist. ‘That’s why they were chosen,’ Carballo told me, ‘because they were people who wouldn’t awaken solidarity of any kind. They were the public enemy of the moment: they represented it, they incarnated it. If it were now, they would have been Al-Qaeda. That makes it much easier for people to swallow the story.’ Third: both assassins were, in turn, murdered almost immediately. ‘So they wouldn’t talk,’ Carballo told me, ‘isn’t it obvious?’

In another neat García Márquez link, Carballo claims to be a years younger than he actually is, so that his birth date can coincide with the events of 1948:

García Márquez had done something similar: for many years he maintained that he was born in 1928, when he was actually born a year earlier. The reason? He wanted his birth to coincide with the famous massacre at the banana plantation that became one of his obsessions, and which he described or reinvented in the best chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

And as Carballo strings him a succession of increasingly fantastical stories about himself, the narrator also recalls Sebald:

I hadn’t made such a marvellous discovery since the day in 1999 when I opened the strange book of a certain W.G. Sebald.

A page of The Emigrants came to mind in which Sebald talks about Korsakoff syndrome, that disease of the memory that consists of inventing memories to replace true ones that have been lost, and I wondered if it weren’t possible that Carballo suffered from something similar.

At one point another character tells the narrator:

Conspiracy theories are like creepers, Vásquez, they grab onto whatever they can to climb up and keep growing until someone takes away what sustains them.

But of course that is not really true. Conspiracy theories often have such tangled roots that even with the lack of any sustaining source and the removal of their underpinning (in the 1948 case, the autopsy proved that the bullets all came from one gun) the theories still flourish.

Much of the story to around half way relates the various encounters of the narrator and Carballo over the years, culminating into a visit to his house, where he reveals some of his treasures, in particular a now obscure, but once famous, book written on the Uribe Uribe killing by one Marco Tulio Anzola, who forms a role model for Carballo’s own exhaustive investigations.

In a rather odd editorial decision, over two hundred pages (40%) of the book is then devoted to an exhaustive, and factual not fictional, examination into the Uribe Uribe murder.

In real-life, a young man, Marco Tulio Anzola was commissioned by the General’s family to mount a private investigation into the death, and after several years produced a detailed account which, in contradiction to the official judicial view, claimed to reveal a widespread conspiracy as well as (inevitably) a third killer who escaped the scene.

It was published as a book Asesinato del general Rafael Uribe Uribe. Quienes son? (The Assassination of General Rafael Uribe Uribe. Who Are They?) in 1917 and caused a sensation at the time, Anzola being permitted to call various witnesses to the trial of the alleged sole murderers, but his account, while compelling as a story, failed to reach judicial standards of proof. As a newspaper reported at the time:

It is a simple and very easy labour to suggest, in any sort of matter, vague and sinister complicities; the popular spirit is very fertile soil for those kinds of seeds; in it suspicion catches, even the most absurd, marvelously fast; however, that wasn’t what was expected of Señor Anzola, but proof and concrete accusations, and the country was left waiting.

His case collapsed and he was discredited, and eventually arrested for attacking a police officer and faded into obscurity.

In the novel, our narrator is pressured by Carballo into reading the book:

I opened Who Are They? and flipped through pages without disguising my boredom. There were three hundred pages of cramped type.

And while he ultimately finds the account fascinating, it is also highly confusing, and easy to lose track of exactly why being able to prove such and such a person was in a particular place at a certain time is quite so key:

“Emilio Beltrán,” I said. “Rings a bell, but I don’t remember who he was.”

The problem for the reader of The Shape of the Ruins is that Juan Gabriel Vásquez essentially rewrites a second-had version of Who are They?, which if it is “only” 200 pages, not 300, still produces very similar sensations of boredom, at times, and confusion.

I felt some sympathy to Anzola, as a person, but entirely unconvinced of his findings – the former was surely the author’s intention, but the latter possibly wasn’t. The theories of Who Are They? are built on the usual sources of crackpots, publicity seekers and delusional and contradictory witnesses – where, in fact, the only sources of agreement are those entirely consistent with the official account. And yet Anzola believes that too is a conspiracy – the witnesses have been bribed to undermine their own credibility. At one point he even accuses the key figure in the whole conspiracy, another senior General, of causing the death of his own mother to avoid a court appearance.

Anzola uses the press to give public voice to his accusations: “launching these difficult contentions from the tribune of the free press.”

But as the author has said in the aforementioned interview, one of the perfidious effects of 21st century conspiracy theories as a tool used by political populists (see Brexit, the Labour left, Trump) is to undermine the free press not by suppression or censorship, but simply by destroying belief in any objective authoritative truth.

It is all fascinating in many sense, but this section rather uses a sledgehammer to the reader’s patience to make its point.

The novel does however end strongly. The narrator gives us Carballo’s back story, and we and the narrator come to have some sympathy with what drives his obsession. The narrator also presents a balanced rationale for the competing cock-up versus conspiracy theories of the chaos that seems to govern our lives. Carballo argues:

He understood that, Vásquez, he understood that terrible truth: that they were killed by the same people. Of course I’m not talking about the same individuals with the same hands, no. I’m talking about a monster, an immortal monster, the monster of many faces and many names who has so often killed and will kill again, because nothing has changed here in centuries of existence and never will change, because this sad country of ours is like a mouse running on a wheel.

Overall, an extremely impressive novel. This is my fourth Juan Gabriel Vásquez novel and, I think, the best. Middle section aside, this could have been 5 star territory, but a good 4 stars, and a strong shortlist contender for the Man Booker International Prize.

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