The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, was one of my most anticipated reads of the year since I thoroughly enjoyed his novel The Sound of Things Falling, and something about the way Vásquez writes makes me eager to return to his fiction.
The Shape of the Ruins brings you on a journey through the violent history of 20th-century Colombia. It’s one of those books that is difficult to categorise. Part political thriller, part courtroom drama, part reportage, part conspiracy theory, and part personal memoir, the novel focuses on two defining murders of Liberal politicians and charismatic orators in Bogotá – the assassination of General Rafael Uribe Uribe on October 15, 1914, and the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948. The book examines the conspiracy theories that exist connecting these two murders and seems to provide a space for the unwritten, hidden, or “fragile” truths that exist in places that are not within the reach of journalists and historians.
“There are truths that are no less true due to the fact that nobody knows them. Maybe they happened in a strange place where journalists and historians can’t go. And what do we do with them? Where can we give them space to exist? Do we let them rot in inexistence, only because they weren’t able to be born into life correctly, or because they let bigger forces win? There are weak truths, Vásquez, truths that can’t be defended in the world of proven facts, newspapers and history books.”
The two catalysts of the story are Doctor Benevides, who becomes obsessed with the medical artefacts collected by his father, a very talented forensic scientist, and Carlos Carballo, a fanatic, who has organised his entire life around conspiracy theories surrounding the two famous assassinations. The author gradually gets pulled into their world and tries to sift through the conspiracies and evidence connected to “the Bogotazo”, the violent riots that broke out in Bogotá following the assassination of Gaitán (hailed as the Colombian JFK), to arrive at some historical truth of the events. The novel also includes quotes from other authors and photographs of some of the pieces of evidence that are relevant to the investigation.
Vásquez plays with the concept of “autofiction”, as he presents himself as the narrator of the story, and blurs the lines between reality and fiction. He contemplates the different ways it is possible to view history and suggests that our capacity of chronicling the past is limited to our interpretation of the events, therefore, history is merely an artificially constructed story.
There are two ways to view or contemplate what we call history: one is the accidental vision, for which history is the fateful product of an infinite chain of irrational acts, unpredictable contingencies and random events (life as unremitting chaos which we human beings try desperately to order); and the other is the conspiratorial vision, a scenario of shadows and invisible hands and eyes that spy and voices that whisper in corners, a theatre in which everything happens for a reason, accidents don’t exist and much less coincidences, and where the causes of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows.
Vásquez ruminates on the inheritance of violence that is passed on from generation to generation of Colombians. The novel illustrates the deep political divide in Colombian society that is responsible for these repeated cycles of violence.
At first, the middle section of the book feels like a long digression from the central storyline, however, as more information is revealed, you start to realise that this section is actually an integral part of the overall narrative, and, in the final section, Vásquez manages to wrap up the story in a very moving and satisfying way.
The Shape of the Ruins is an intelligent, multi-layered, and engrossing journey through key moments in 20th-century Colombian history, and it’s also one of my favourite reads of the year so far.
Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.