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.