Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s 2004 novel Los informantes kicked up quite a fuss among literary critics when it came out. By and large, they gobbled it up. I think I came across it at Punto y Coma, the wonderful Spanish-language bookshop hidden away in a little street of the EU quarter in Brussels (It’s brilliant. It’s become one of my must-gos when I’m in Brussels.) I didn’t buy it at the time, but I did download it onto my Kindle shortly after.
Los informantes is narrated by Gabriel Santoro, a current affairs journalist and writer, son of Gabriel Santoro, a famous rhetorics professor and is set in Colombia. The relationship between father and son is fraught with mutual disappointments, and the present, which forms the backdrop of the novel, finds Gabriel Jr. trying to come to terms with this relationship as his father first suffers from a heart attack and then passes away.
One of the issues standing between the two is a book Gabriel Jr. wrote about Sara Guterman, a friend and lover-that-never-was (or maybe she was? This question isn’t conclusively answered) of his father’s. Sara is of German Jewish descent and emigrated to in the 1930s. In the 1930s and 40s, however, the German emigrant community in Colombia was an interesting mixture, comprised of both emigrant Jews, opponents of the Nazi regime, and… Nazis. Drawn together by a common language and culture and common problems in adapting to their new home, Los informantes portrays them as living in a strange limbo that oscillated between friendship and deep-seated mutual suspicion.
Having declared war on Germany and allied itself with the US, the Colombian government then proceeded to arrest German emigrants resident in the country and blacklisted by the US. The way Los informantes depicts it, because of the strange situation of the community, where everyone was sort of linked to everyone else and it could happen that a Jew like Sara ended up dining with Nazis at the house of a sitting-on-the-fence coward, this strange mixture of people saw itself reflected in the inmates of these improvised prisons. Living in a kind of forced summer camp that nibbled away at their savings, Germans of all convictions ended up sharing facilities and even rooms.
How did one end up on the blacklists? Via an informer. This is the first type of informants we meet in Los informantes. The second is Gabriel Jr., who is a compulsive informer trying to reconstruct and publicise first the life of Sara Guterman, then that of his recently deceased father, and finally, that of Konrad Deresser, the father of one of Gabriel Sr.’s friends, who ended up on the blacklist and subsequently saw his life and family destroyed. The third type of informer is the late Gabriel Sr.’s last girlfriend, who first brings his dark secret to light, thus deeply disturbing Gabriel Jr.’s picture of his father. The question of why people decide to inform others about something, and how such information can shape the public perception of an individual is thus one that penetrates the novel.
I found this aspect philosophically interesting, but it didn’t grip me as much as the fate of the German community in Colombia that I mentioned before. I have to say that this is purely personal, as I was personally interested in German emigration to Latin America in the first half of the 20th Century and found the mixture of people that ended up there fascinating. Unfortunately, the part discussing this issue only took up about half the book, while the rest of it left me a bit cold. Vásquez alternates the different themes of Los informantes though, and this is what kept me engaged, although I lost some interest during several sections.
I suppose part of the reason why Los informantes received such a warm welcome from the critics when it came out, apart from the fact that it’s very well written, is the fact that it covers a period of history intertwining Latin America and Europe, and more specifically Germany, that very little has been said about. This is where I personally saw the main value of Los Informantes. I was intrigued by the strange atmosphere of the period and, in some ways, reminded of Anna Segher’s great novel of emigration, Transit: the mixed crowds of people seeking to leave Europe through Marseille to some extent find their mirror on the other side of the Atlantic as described in Los informantes.
Still, I’m not gushing about this novel. It’s evidently of very high quality, but because its main fascination for me was with only one of its themes, the overall feeling I came away with wasn’t one of great enthusiasm, although I’m glad I read it.
English title: The Informers
German title: Die Informanten
June 5, 2012 at 12:29 am
I had a similar reaction to this work as you did, Bettina–admired much about the novel without quite being blown away by it. Still want to read more by Vázquez at some point, but I don’t quite understand the fawning critical reception the author inspired with this one.
June 5, 2012 at 6:56 pm
I just went over to read your review (it’s here if anyone else is interested: http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.de/2011/05/los-informantes.html).
You put a lot of emphasis on the almost distanced tone of the book, and you’re completely right, it is actually quite surprising that Vásquez takes such a moderate approach to the subject. I found it fit the protagonist quite well though, as he seemed to be more the quiet, thoughtful type, not someone who gets overly passionate about things. His reactions to events seem to be reactions that develop over a longer period of time, such as researching and writing a book.
But yeah, I also didn’t quite understand why it received so much attention. It didn’t seem all that special to me.