The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean (Man Booker International Prize 2019 long list)

The Shape of The Ruins is a novel of historical fiction which dwells on many themes: the past, coincidence, conspiracy, how mistaken we might be about what we are told is factual. What if the Twin Towers in New York did not fall just because two planes crashed into them? What if John F. Kennedy was not shot by Lee Harvey Oswald alone? And, what if Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, the Liberal leader of Bogata, was also part of a nefarious plan when he was assassinated on April 9, 1948?

I like how Juan Gabriel Vasquez highlights pieces of American history and parallels them with that of Colombia’s, in terms of possible deception to the people. He presents governments who, at the very least, have distorted or omitted facts for their own political agenda. And, he presents himself as an author within this book, for authors have the freedom to interpret what happened in the past.

And nevertheless, that was the only thing that interested me as a reader of novels: the exploration of that other reality, not the reality of what really happened, not the novelized reproduction of true and provable events, but the realm of possibility, of speculations, or the meddling the novelist can do in places forbidden to the journalist or historian. (p. 181)

Juan Gabriel Vasquez gives us many interpretations of what the past can mean, this being one which particularly stands out to me:

That’s what the past is: a tale, a tale constructed over another tale, an artifice of verbs and nouns where we might be able to capture human pain, fear of death and eagerness to live, homesickness while battling in the trenches, worry for the soldier who has gone into the fields of Flanders and who might already be dead when we remember him. (p. 224)

The plot within these pages is quite involved. It is detailed, in some places, to the point of being tedious. (Especially the section from page 290-390 which describes the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe.) Facts, as we know them, have been intertwined with the author’s conjecture, portraying a country’s history as tenuous at best.

I don’t know when I started to realize that my country’s past was incomprehensible and obscure to me, a real shadowy terrain, nor can I remember the precise moment when all that I’d believed so trustworthy and predictable—-the place where I’d grown up, whose language I speak and customs I know, the place whose past I was taught in school and in university, whose present I have become accustomed to interpreting and pretending I understand—-began to turn into a place of shadows out of which jumped horrible creatures as soon as we dropped our guard. (p. 441)

The last section of the book pulls me in with sentences like that. I remember being a child who believed that teachers taught you, doctors healed you, and leaders led you. Now that I am grown up, I, too, see the shadows all around me, and for that reason I think The Shape of The Ruins has an impact far beyond its pages. Far beyond Colombia or America. Perhaps all of us can find a certain disillusionment in what we thought to be true about our country.

13 thoughts on “The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean (Man Booker International Prize 2019 long list)

    • I have loved this author, too, but this book was surprisingly hard for me to get through. There were so many random names interspersed with real people, so many imagined details intertwined with facts, and those 100 pages were…awful. I loved the beautiful sentences, and the idea of conspiracy held by those in power creating a shadowy past, but over all, I did not love this book. It will be interesting to see what my fellow jurors think, and of course, the judges themselves. Will you read it?

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    • I thought The Sound of Things Falling was wonderful, too. Did we read it for the IFFP? (I think it was listed for that prize; I have to double check.) His writing reminds me quite a lot of Javier Marias, with those elegant, long sentences imbued with meaning and atmosphere. I like how you said “broad in scope and intimate in detail.” Beautifully put!

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    • I started with this not only because I respect Vásquez’ writing, but becuase it was the biggest. 😉 It may have been a mistake, as I (rather compulsively) pushed my way through it instead of taking time as I would have in normal reading conditions. (i.e. when there’s not a deadline for the shortlist.) I think you are smart to wait until later, after you’ve read some others. I really got mired 2/3 of the way through, which may not have happened if I’d read more leisurely. Anyway, in a brief summation: I found it meaningful but quite dense. I’d love to know your opinion when you finish.

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