Have you ever had that moment when reading a conspiracy theory when you were on the verge of being convinced? This book pulls it off not once, but twice. It is a fascinating work of fiction that grows out of reality. A book that will have you checking facts, while it holds you in its fictional grip.
This is one of the Easter gifts from my mum. Since we spoke about my growing appetite for non-English fiction, she goes out of her way to find books in translation for me and this is one of them. It was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2019, but I rarely use this as a guide due to my mixed experiences with Booker nominees.
I usually shy away from books this long, but what drew me in this time is the fact that it is based in Colombia. Since I started learning Spanish with an Argentinian teacher my interest in Latin America and its history has been piqued.
It is one of those books that are fiction but pretend not to be. Starting with the narrator who is Juan Gabriel Vásquez. In a bit achronological and chaotic way, he tells us the story of his involvement with two of the most prominent Colombian conspiracy theories. It all started when he met Carlos Carballo at the house of his friend. Caballo is obsessed with the murder of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, which plunged Colombia into a period of bloody violence. He is convinced, just like conspiracy theorists talking about JFK murder, that the person considered a lone wolf killer, who was killed at the scene was not such a lone wolf in the end. Rather a tool of the mysterious higher powers.
Vásquez is too preoccupied with his wife’s difficult pregnancy to take it all too seriously. He also hasn’t lived in Colombia for years. He moved to Barcelona to flee the country’s bloody past and is just visiting. But then it becomes clear that his friend’s father performed Gaitan’s autopsy and retained a piece of his vertebrae. And so bit by bit Vásquez is drawn in. It takes time, the plot involving Vásquez runs through almost a decade. But his run-ins with Carballo get him more and more hooked.
The story of Gaitan’s murder is a real one, and so is the other story Carballo uses as parallel, that of the murder of Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914. Here again, supposedly the guilty parties have been captured but there is a lingering suspicion of conspiracy. This introduces one more protagonist into our story: Marco Tulio Anzola, again a real person. He devoted years of his life to the investigation of Uribe’s killing, and it eventually destroyed his career and made him disappear.
Like many people, before reading this book I had only two associations with Colombia: great coffee and Escobar. Now I still cannot say I know a lot, but certainly a lot more than before. Vásquez mentions Escobar, I don’t think it would be possible to skip that part of the country’s history, but he avoids the temptation of making him the focal point of the story. Uribe and Gaitan take this place. All of those events serve as a platform for Vásquez to try and understand the violence that has tore his country to pieces so many times.
It is a book about the lure of a conspiracy theory and how irresistible it is when combined with a personal connection. But it is also a book about violence, about leaving the country to save oneself and coming back to it for the same reason.
Vásquez takes his time. It is a sprawling book, giving space for all accounts to sound out and for us to make our own judgment. We may follow the links he presents us, or stick to the official version, he isn’t really trying to convince us either way.
It would be hard to call this book a classic crime, or even a thriller. I’ll be honest, I’ve never read a book like this. And this is why I enjoyed it. It was completely new territory for me, a work of fiction so grounded in reality. But one that makes no claim to be a true story. It also made me want to learn even more about Latin American history and made me realize my Europe-centric education and point of view.
Here are two more reviews, to give you a better idea about the book:
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska