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The Informers Hardcover – July 30, 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Book Description
A virtuosic novel about family, history, memory, and betrayal from the brightest new Latin American literary talent working today.

When Gabriel Santoro's biography is scathingly reviewed by his own father, a public intellectual and famous Bogotá rhetorician, Gabriel could not imagine what had pierced his icy exterior to provoke such a painful reaction. A volume that catalogues the life of Sara Guterman, a longtime family friend and Jewish immigrant, since her arrival in Colombia in the 1930s, A Life in Exile seemed a slim, innocent exercise in recording modern history. But as a devastated Gabriel delves, yet again, into Sara's story, searching for clues to his father's anger, he cannot yet see the sinister secret buried in his research that could destroy his father's exalted reputation and redefine his own.

After his father's mysterious death in a car accident a few years later, Gabriel sets out anew to navigate half a century of half-truths and hidden meanings. With the help of Sara Guterman and his father's young girlfriend, Angelina, layer after shocking layer of Gabriel's world falls away and a complex portrait of his father emerges from the ruins. From the streets of 1940s Bogotá to a stranger's doorstep in 1990s Medellín, he unravels the web of doubt, betrayal, and guilt at the core of his father's life and he wades into a dark, longsilenced period of Colombian history after World War II.

With a taut, riveting narrative and achingly beautiful prose, Juan Gabriel Vásquez delivers an expansive, powerful exploration of the sins of our fathers, of war's devastating psychological costs, and of the inescapability of the past. A novel that has earned Vásquez comparisons to Sebald, Borges, Roth, and Márquez, The Informers heralds the arrival of a major literary talent.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez on The Informers

In 1999, three years after leaving Colombia, I travelled back to spend the holiday season with my family. I didn't go looking for stories; but four or five days before the end of the century, I met a woman of German-Jewish origin who had arrived in Colombia in 1938, and a story came to me. She had fled with her family from Emmerich, her hometown, when she was thirteen; her father opened a hotel in the small provincial city of Duitama, a couple of hours from Bogotá; the hotel's reputation, particularly among politicians, ensured them a good living. Then the war started. Colombia broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, and Colombian authorities began persecuting enemy citizens—Nazi spies, Nazi sympathizers, Nazi propagandists—but also citizens who, while not declared enemies, were deemed dangerous to the security of the hemisphere. Blacklists were brought into play, informers hired, and soon a German name was cause for suspicion, and feelings of mistrust and paranoia—all this a few years before the rise of McCarthyism in the United States—surrounded the German community in Colombia. After that, things got out of hand.

The woman told me all this. I wanted to know more; so she sat with me for three days and patiently dictated her life to me. I wrote on a hotel notepad, staggered by the story, but more so by the fact that she was telling it to me with such freedom, such eagerness. At the time, I didn't know I would use that conversation as the narrative backbone of a novel. In fact, I seriously doubted I would use it at all: in those days, my fiction amounted to a group of stories set in France and the Belgian Ardennes, places I had lived in, watched closely with a writer's eyes, and felt I understood. I had never written about my country, mainly because I didn't understand it, and I had grown up believing one should only write about what one knows. Sometime in the middle of 2002 I realized how mistaken that advice was. I realized not understanding something is perhaps the best reason to write about it; I realized my favorite novels were, with rare exceptions, novels of inquiry, of investigation. From Conrad's Under Western Eyes to Sebald's The Emigrants, certain works of fiction give us the sense that in writing them authors are entering an undiscovered country. They seem to know their story no better than their narrators; we read them and feel that writing, for them, is finding out.

In writing The Informers, I wanted to find out about the way the war was experienced in Colombia: about the existence of a Nazi party there, about the blacklists, about the way my generation has inherited the consequences of what happened in those years. After my interviews in 1999, I had a whole life written down in notepads; my task was to transform it and then to invent other lives that would bring the historical moment to the surface. My task, in other words, was to look for that place where private secrets cross paths with public ones, and shed a little light on it. "Novels," said Balzac, "are the private history of nations." That idea carried me through the writing of The Informers.

(Photo © Peter Drubin)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Betrayals public and private collide in Colombian author Vásquez's first novel to appear in the States, a crushing and beautifully tricky novel. Gabriel Santoro's publication of a book about a family friend, Sara Guterman, a German Jew who arrived in Colombia with her family in 1938, unexpectedly enrages his father, a famous professor of rhetoric (also named Gabriel Santoro) who prefers that the past remain forgotten. When the elder Gabriel has a change of heart (after a health crisis), it coincides with a sexual relationship he begins with Angelina, his physiotherapist. But after Gabriel confesses to Angelina long-held past transgressions shortly before his accidental death, Angelina turns against Gabriel on national television while the younger Gabriel watches. The younger Gabriel then delves into Sara's memories of wartime intrigue and anguish revolving around suspected Nazi sympathizers. But Gabriel's lust for the truth makes him susceptible to committing harsh betrayals of his own. In Vásquez's intricate narrative, morality is ambiguous and as treacherous as the early-1990s Bogotá backdrop, and its intelligence and unsparing tone will hold readers rapt through its many twists and turns. (Aug.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books (July 30, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594488789
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594488788
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,382,377 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One hallmark of a gifted novelist is the ability to see the potential for compelling fiction in an incident, anecdote or scrap of history, no matter how dry or seemingly obscure, that others have overlooked. By that standard and several others, the career of Juan Gabriel Vásquez, a Colombian writer born in 1973, is off to a notable start with "The Informers," his ambitious first english translated novel from his native spanish.

His topic is one of the least-known episodes of World War II. Fearful of Nazi influence in Latin America, the United States, acting through J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I. and the State Department, compiled a list of suspected Axis sympathizers and then pressured compliant governments to intern those named, often on the basis of sketchy or dubious intelligence.

Anti-Fascist refugees from Germany and Italy, along with the descendants of immigrants from those countries and Japan, were snared in that net and frequently imprisoned together with real Nazis. There were other abuses: corrupt government officials and covetous neighbors would sometimes falsely accuse prosperous émigrés, hoping to gain control of their expropriated businesses and homes.

"The system of blacklists gave power to the weak, and the weak are the majority," one character in "The Informer" muses bitterly. "That was life during those years: a dictatorship of weakness. The dictatorship of resentment," in which there were thousands "who accused, who denounced, who informed."

The parallels with the contemporary war on terror are clear, though Mr. Vásquez chooses not to make them explicit.
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During WWII, the United States compiled the Proclaimed List of Certain Blocked Nationals, which was essentially a blacklist of people and organizations thought to be supporters or sympathizers of one or more Axis countries. (A successor to that List is the current "Specially Designated Nationals List", on which, until his recent demise, Osama bin Laden was the most infamous designee.) Both then and now, the U.S. has pressured other countries to adopt its blacklist and extend sanctions to those on the list. In WWII, the sanctions often went beyond a simple prohibition of doing business with those listed to expropriation of private assets and internment.

Placement on the Proclaimed List was far too often based on nothing more than national heritage, suspicion, and lies, some venal. "The system of blacklists gave power to the weak, and the weak are the majority." So says Gabriel Santoro the elder, the central character of THE INFORMERS. His son, Gabriel Santoro the younger, is the principal narrator of the novel, which is about how the blacklist in Colombia destroyed the lives and haunted the families of two people - one, a nationalized German who was surreptitiously and unjustly denounced as a Nazi-sympathizer, and the other, the person who had informed on him. Santoro the younger tells the story from the perspective of fifty years later, and through the course of the novel he revises and amends that story as he continues to receive new information from a succession of new "informers".

One of the questions raised by the novel is the reliability of all this fresh information. Memory plays its tricks as do both the conscious and subconscious psychic needs and impulses of the new informers. Is historical truth possible, given these circumstances?
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