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In Bogota, An Intricate Web Of Secrets, Betrayal

Oct 5, 2009

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'The Informers'

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Even the most original writers labor under the shadow of their elders. The critic Harold Bloom has argued that the truly great artist overcomes this anxiety of influence only by "killing the father," his or her predecessor, through misinterpretation. Whether or not this is true, the relationship between writers who are, literally, parent and child, often takes on a combative quality.

Martin Amis, for instance, attributes his tolerance for criticism to his father Kingsley's candid disapproval; the older writer announced that he "couldn't get on" with Amis' second book, and later threw the much-acclaimed novel Money across the room. Auberon Waugh, meanwhile, was so haunted by the father who called him, at 7, "clumsy and disheveled, sly, without intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual interest," that he eventually wrote a memoir called Will This Do?

Generational tensions of both the familial and cultural sort form the thematic center of Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez's inventive and intricately plotted The Informers. As the novel opens, its narrator, Gabriel Santoro, receives a surprise phone call from his estranged father, a renowned speechwriter, professor and critic, and learns that he will soon undergo risky surgery for an obstructed artery. The two men haven't spoken for a couple of years, since Santoro Sr. published a hostile review proclaiming his son's first book a failure.

Gabriel expresses his bewilderment at this rebuke so eloquently, and Vasquez structures his story so masterfully, that the mystery of the elder Santoro's disapproval quickly consumes the reader. Why would Gabriel's book — an account of the life of a family friend who fled Nazi Germany with her parents and settled in Bogota — so inflame the father who until then had exhibited only pride in his son, the father who was, although an exacting wordsmith, a "perfect specimen of that predictable species: those who are so confident of their life's achievements that they have no fear of baptizing their children with their own names"? And while Gabriel is baffled and hurt by his father's scathing criticism, he becomes even more perplexed as the man recuperates and begins to speak of a "second life," of wishing to carry on as if I hadn't published that review, as if I hadn't actually gone as far as doing that cowardly thing I did to us."

Although its present-day action unfolds in 1990s Bogota, The Informers' true intrigue is of an earlier vintage, dating to the World War II era of refugees and blacklists. Gabriel increasingly questions his own motivations, the "strange satisfaction" he gets from "giving shape to other people's lives, stealing what's happened to them, which is always disordered and confused, and putting it on paper." And as the truth about our narrator's father emerges, Vasquez calls into question the reliability not just of Gabriel's story but of all historical reportage.

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