A novelist becomes embroiled in conspiracy theories surrounding political assassinations in his native Colombia.
Vásquez’s fifth novel in English (Reputations, 2016, etc.) is a Paul Auster–style intellectual thriller, built on one part violence and two parts history- and irony-soaked interrogation of authorship. The narrator is also a novelist named Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who makes the acquaintance of Francisco, a doctor with a sideline studying and collecting artifacts of Colombian history, such as the 1948 assassination of politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. For instance, Francisco owns an X-ray of Gaitán’s bullet-ridden chest and a piece of his vertebra in formaldehyde in a jar, both counterweights to truthers who believe he had more than one assassin—truthers like Francisco’s friend Carlos, who so exasperates Juan Gabriel with his ahistorical riffs on 9/11, JFK, and Gaitán that the author flings a whiskey glass in his face. What kind of person gets so ridiculously obsessed with such contrarianism? But how ridiculous is it, exactly? Vásquez’s goal is to better understand such thinking, and the novel is largely a study of another political assassination, of political figure Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914. Officially, Uribe was crudely murdered by a pair of angry tradesmen acting alone. But Juan Gabriel's investigation leads him to a lawyer who at the time was exploring a deeper (and not-untenable) plot, distilling his findings into articles and a book. Was he mocked for lack of evidence or something more? A person’s “noblest task” is to “thwart a lie the size of the world,” Carlos tells Juan Gabriel, and the novel captures the questionable seductiveness of the job: This book, by design, is immersive in the way quicksand is, pulling the reader in directions often best resisted. Like any conspiracy theory, it’s overly thick with information, but Vásquez successfully gives it a novelistic shape.
A fine work of art about the blurry line between truth and artifice.