Country Focus: Colombia
by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
translated by Anne McLean
Originally published as Informantes in 2004.
My edition: Riverhead, 2009. 351 pgs.
Acclaim: shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
Time period: 1991-1995, concerning events that happened during World War II
Summary: Gabriel Santoro, the namesake son of a a renowned orator and professor of rhetoric, is still reeling from a falling out with his father.
Three years prior, Santoro had published a book entitled A Life in Exile, which documented the life of Sara Guterman, a Jewish immigrant and family friend. The elder Santoro unexpectedly tore the book apart in a blistering review and ceased all communication with his son.
Only after a fatal car accident kills Santoro senior does Sara reveal the reason for the painful rebuff.
The Gutermans immigrated to Colombia from Germany in 1938. Her family opened what would become a prosperous hotel, the Nueva Europa. They employed a glassworker, a German exile named Konrad Deresser who married a Colombian woman. The Deressers had a son, Enrique, who Sara and Gabriel befriended.
As the years went by and the war progressed, the United States provided the Colombian government with a blacklist. The list included all Germans living in Colombia who were suspected Nazi sympathizers. Colombian informers added names to the list.
One fateful night, Deresser naively invited one of his pro-Nazi countrymen to dinner. The fallout divided the families and loyalties of all in attendance, including Sara, Gabriel and Enrique.
But the most important thing about those two pages was something else: within them was the confirmation that all could be told, the suggestion that I could be the one to tell it, and the promise of a strange satisfaction — giving shape to other people’s lives, stealing what’s happened to them, which is always disordered and confused, and putting it in order on paper; justifying, in some more or less honorable way, the curiosity I’ve always felt for all the emanations of other bodies (from ideas to menses), which has driven me, by a sort of internal compulsion, to violate secrets, reveal confidences, show interest in others the way a friend would, when deep down I’m just interviewing them like a vulgar reporter. But then I’ve never known where friendship stops and reporting starts.
How The Informers reflects Colombia:
Setting: Bogotá, Medellín
Indigenous people: N/A
Historical events & figures: The United States’ World War II Enemy Alien Control Program; Jewish emigration in the 1930s; Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a charismatic politician whose 1948 assassination triggered riots and civil unrest; Andrés Escobar, a soccer player who was murdered shortly after (and perhaps because) he scored an own (game-losing) goal during the 1994 World Cup
Native language: More German than Spanish words and phrases
Food & Drink: ajiaco (Colombian chicken & potato soup); pandeyuca (traditional bread made with cassava flour, eggs, butter and cheese
Culture: German immigrants in Colombia; the blacklisting and internment of Germans in Colombia
The author’s relationship to Colombia: A Colombian citizen, Juan Gabriel Vásquez was born, raised and educated in Colombia. He moved to Spain in 1999, but has written a weekly column for a Colombian newspaper since 2007 and visits annually.