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The Informers: Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean [Paperback]

Juan Gabriel Vasquez , Anne McLean
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 April 2009
When Gabriel Santoro publishes his first book, a biography of a Jewish family friend who fled Germany for Colombia shortly before World War Two, it never occurs to him that his father will write a devastating review in a national newspaper. Why does he attack him so viciously? Do the pages of his book unwittingly hide some dangerous secret? As Gabriel sets out to discover what lies behind his father's anger, he finds himself undertaking an examination of the guilt and complicity at the heart of Colombian society, as one treacherous act perpetrated in those dark days returns with a vengeance half a century later.

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The Informers: Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean + The Secret History of Costaguana + The Sound of Things Falling
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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (6 April 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0747596514
  • ISBN-13: 978-0747596516
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 141,080 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

'An enticing novel of betrayal, secrecy and a long quest for redemption'
-- Jewish News

'From the opening paragraph of The Informers, I felt myself under the spell of a masterful writer'
-- Nicole Krauss, author of The History of Love

'Juan Gabriel Vásquez is one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature. His first novel, 'The Informers' ... is testimony to the richness of his imagination as well as the subtlety and elegance of his prose.' -- Mario Vargas Llosa

'Subtle, assured, artfully told and painted in delicate Le Carre-style shades of moral ambiguity, The Informers shows how mightily the novel in Columbia is thriving after the Marquez era.' -- Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

Review

'From the opening paragraph of The Informers, I felt myself under the spell of a masterful writer'

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and thought-provoking 14 Oct 2009
By Sofia
Format:Paperback
'The Informers' is a novel that deals with the echoes of the Second World War, namely: how do you live with the choices you made in wartime? However, though it concerns Colombia's murky wartime policies and people who both exploited them or fell victim to them, Vasquez's novel is far from just a book about the war.

Focused on the life of Gabriel Santoro, an ailing legal academic, 'The Informers' is narrated by his son (who has the same name) as he slowly unravels everything he thought he knew about his father. The novel is packed with ideas and theories. It obviously looks at the war and how Colombia responded to international pressure, but it also looks at how Colombians dealt with European immigration and how those immigrants (German Nazis and German Jews) dealt with each other. There is much here about fathers and sons, truth and deception, alienation and identity, assimilation and its value all of which is deftly woven into a gripping book.

Vasquez makes this an intensely readable book, with enough suspense to keep you hooked but above all with a real love of language. Both Gabriel Santoros revel in the use of language and much is said about native languages and the comfort that can be found in speaking them. Vasquez displays a real knowledge of the complexities of conversation (the tensions of things left unsaid, the awkwardness of talking face-to-face, the discomfort of hearing too much from a speaker) and cleverly juxtaposes this with the apparent certainties of the written word as Gabriel Santoro jr attempts to write his book as honestly as he can.

This is an unusual war story but a fascinating one with much that lingers beyond the final page. Definitely worth a read.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
I only really picked up this book because I am a bit of a Joseph Conrad fan. I had acquired Juan Gabriel Vasquez's The Secret History of Costaguana to see what he did with Conrad as a character even though I am normally wary of books that use dead authors as characters. On a whim I thought I ought to read his earlier book `The Informers' first.

That worked out rather well as decision as this was such a good read that I am looking forward even more to `The Secret History of Costaguana' - so much that my reflex dislike for the use of real authors as fictional characters has dissipated - well at least in the case of Juan Gabriel Vasquez's writing for now....
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For three paperbacks by Juan Gabriel Vasquez 12 Sep 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I have read all of Juan Gabriel Vasquez in English one book after the other. they are all very good and he is a new find for me.
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3 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars he's got talent 18 May 2009
Format:Paperback
There are some flaws and short cuts in this novel, but there is no doubting the author's talent and capacity to keep you reading. Watch out for more good things from him.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The delicate space between public and private 28 Mar 2010
By Jay P - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The Informers is a case study of words: words uttered carelessly, meaningfully, traitorously. It concerns itself with not only the interpretations, but also the appropriateness, of these words, of rhetoric itself, and in so doing questions the way we write and understand histories.

Yes, histories. What Juan Gabriel Vásquez has constructed is a web of intermingling stories, centered on the World War II era and thereafter in Colombia. These narratives alternatively corroborate and contradict; even in recounting the same events, one's telling is always somewhat different from another's. Calling on historical orators -- from Demosthenes to Jorge Eliécer Gaitán -- the author draws attention to the lasting and powerful effects of speech and memory on the lives of those who have spoken and heard.

On the surface, The Informers is the tale of Gabriel Santoro, the son and namesake of a venerated Colombian rhetorician, and his stubborn attempt to recapture and reassemble the missing pieces -- the deliberate omissions and deceptions -- from his late father's life. Much of Gabriel's (the father's) story is related by a lifelong friend: Sara Guterman, a Jewish German emigré whose father was among the lucky few of his compatriots to successfully invent a new life in Colombia, was instrumental in helping Gabriel (the son) put together the various components that comprised his father's life.

What is reality to one is fiction to another, however, and it is soon apparent that the son understood very little of the truth of his father's past. Deep in the throes of an apparently life-ending illness, the senior Santoro tells his son, "Memory isn't public, Gabriel." This proclamation is indirectly the result of the dying man's scathing review of his son's book, A Life in Exile, which chronicled the life story of Sara Guterman and the struggle of German immigrants to find acceptance in a Colombia beset with war-heightened xenophobia.

The son, however, feels differently than his father on the subject of remembering. Meanwhile, Sara remains almost indecipherable, seemingly ambivalent at times, suspended as she is between the imperative to record a tragedy for posterity and the loyalty she feels to a lifelong friend. What is left in the end is Gabriel the younger's version of events, a retelling of past cowardice that suggests a personal betrayal of its own. The Informers is neither a political nor a journalistic endeavor, but the ideas within resonate in both arenas, as Vásquez masterfully shoves the public and private spheres into an uncomfortably small space. The result is an unsettling, and highly relevant, set of difficult questions. In an era of unprecedented media ubiquity and the much-ballyhooed shrinking of personal privacy, The Informers provides no easy answers, but at least it has done us the service of starting a necessary conversation.

[...]
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shadows of history: Case for Colombia 5 Feb 2010
By B. Oza - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
One hallmark of a gifted novelist is the ability to see the potential for compelling fiction in an incident, anecdote or scrap of history, no matter how dry or seemingly obscure, that others have overlooked. By that standard and several others, the career of Juan Gabriel Vásquez, a Colombian writer born in 1973, is off to a notable start with "The Informers," his ambitious first english translated novel from his native spanish.

His topic is one of the least-known episodes of World War II. Fearful of Nazi influence in Latin America, the United States, acting through J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I. and the State Department, compiled a list of suspected Axis sympathizers and then pressured compliant governments to intern those named, often on the basis of sketchy or dubious intelligence.

Anti-Fascist refugees from Germany and Italy, along with the descendants of immigrants from those countries and Japan, were snared in that net and frequently imprisoned together with real Nazis. There were other abuses: corrupt government officials and covetous neighbors would sometimes falsely accuse prosperous émigrés, hoping to gain control of their expropriated businesses and homes.

"The system of blacklists gave power to the weak, and the weak are the majority," one character in "The Informer" muses bitterly. "That was life during those years: a dictatorship of weakness. The dictatorship of resentment," in which there were thousands "who accused, who denounced, who informed."

The parallels with the contemporary war on terror are clear, though Mr. Vásquez chooses not to make them explicit. In remarks last year to the PEN American Center, he recalled Balzac's maxim that "novels are the private histories of nations," and that is the approach he deftly applies here, telling his story through the experience of three families.

At the start of "The Informers," a young Bogotá writer named Gabriel Santoro has just written a book about the Enemy Alien Control Program, as Washington called it, based on the recollections of Sara Guterman, an elderly German Jewish émigré and family friend. To his shock and distress his father, a distinguished professor of law and oratory also named Gabriel, savages the book in a review, causing a rift between the two.

The novel is constructed across four dates. The first is 1988, when journalist Gabriel Santoro stumbles on one of the hidden parts of Colombian history: the story of how Germans and Austrians were treated during the second world war. At first, those who opposed Hitler were regarded in the same way as Nazi sympathisers, but when President Santos took Colombia into the war on the side of the allies, Nazi sympathisers had their businesses confiscated and found themselves interned as possible spies and fifth columnists. The book Gabriel writes about this, A Life in Exile, is generally well received, except by his own father, who writes a damning criticism of it.

Gabriel's father then distances himself from his son, only relenting when he faces a heart operation and asks to see him. The operation gives the old man a new lease of life, but he dies suddenly in a car crash a few months later. As a result of his death, Gabriel tries to discover more about his father's early life; he is horrified to find out from an old friend that his father was one of the second world war informers. Worse, he informed on a family of close friends, who were resolutely anti-Nazi, with terrible consequences.

Gabriel wants to know more about the exact circumstances surrounding his father's death. He knows that he travelled to the city of Medellín with the young woman who had become his lover, but not why he wanted to make the trip. When he does find out, it takes him back once again to the tragic days of the war, and the betrayals and failed loyalties that seem to characterise the life of almost every character in the book.

What the narrator learns about his father spurs him to write another book, this time a fictional recreation of what might have happened not only during the war, but in his father's last moments. There is a further twist when the friend betrayed by his father reads the book, and tells him his father came to see him the day before he died. Gabriel sets out for Medellín with the hope of uncovering what transpired between the two men, who had not seen each other for more than 40 years. As so often in real life, the result leaves more questions than it answers.

Vásquez shows a mastery of technique and language. The examination of the consequences that a single act can have not only for the person committing it but also, through the ripple effect, for many others brings us into the territory of another Spanish writer, Miguel de Unamuno and his novel "Mist"(Niebla). The novel may not have the fireworks of magical realism, but its sure construction of narrative and vivid portrayal of a wide array of characters build an extraordinary tale, one which reminds the reader that any novel can be a fascinating mixture of magic and realism.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "You will never wash out that stain" 16 Jun 2011
By R. M. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
During WWII, the United States compiled the Proclaimed List of Certain Blocked Nationals, which was essentially a blacklist of people and organizations thought to be supporters or sympathizers of one or more Axis countries. (A successor to that List is the current "Specially Designated Nationals List", on which, until his recent demise, Osama bin Laden was the most infamous designee.) Both then and now, the U.S. has pressured other countries to adopt its blacklist and extend sanctions to those on the list. In WWII, the sanctions often went beyond a simple prohibition of doing business with those listed to expropriation of private assets and internment.

Placement on the Proclaimed List was far too often based on nothing more than national heritage, suspicion, and lies, some venal. "The system of blacklists gave power to the weak, and the weak are the majority." So says Gabriel Santoro the elder, the central character of THE INFORMERS. His son, Gabriel Santoro the younger, is the principal narrator of the novel, which is about how the blacklist in Colombia destroyed the lives and haunted the families of two people - one, a nationalized German who was surreptitiously and unjustly denounced as a Nazi-sympathizer, and the other, the person who had informed on him. Santoro the younger tells the story from the perspective of fifty years later, and through the course of the novel he revises and amends that story as he continues to receive new information from a succession of new "informers".

One of the questions raised by the novel is the reliability of all this fresh information. Memory plays its tricks as do both the conscious and subconscious psychic needs and impulses of the new informers. Is historical truth possible, given these circumstances? (In other words, is the author any more privileged or noble or right than all those informers?) Other themes are loyalty and betrayal and the inherent tensions between fathers and sons. The novel also is notable for its picture of Colombia and, more specifically, Bogota.

THE INFORMERS is an intricately plotted novel. It also is ambitious; Vásquez (this is his first novel to be translated into English) aims to write literature, not just entertainment. Yet even so, the novel is moderately entertaining. Although it reads easily enough, at times the novel is over-written. Several times I was reminded of Javier Marías, especially in the mining of alternative explanations, but Vásquez (at least in this novel) does not display the subtlety, the elegance, or the wisdom of Marías. Still, it is a promising work, and I will keep my eye out for the next English translation of a work by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Superb writing, overlong 1 Aug 2012
By Librum - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Vasquez is a terrific writer, and The Informers is an outstanding piece of prose. I recommend it without reservation, save to note my personal impression that it ran on too long. The Informers is a nuanced meditation on history, genealogy, memory, the possibility of redemption, and a host of related themes. The first couple hundred pages of this novel are superb and constantly illuminating of both its characters and the story of which they are part. The remainder of the book, in my view, was equally finely wrought, but did little to add further flesh to the characters or to shed light on darkened corners of their story. As such, it seemed superfluous. Enough of this novel is truly great, though, to merit a wide readership. I look forward to seeing what Vasquez has in store. He is a very talented writer on the rise.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Words Matter 6 Aug 2013
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
"Here words matter. Here you can still shape your surroundings. It's a terrible power, isn't it?" The conclusion of a letter written in 1968 by a Colombian law professor, Gabriel Santoro, to Sara Guterman, a family friend. Not terribly significant, you might think, but in a way it is what the entire book is about. Gabriel the professor is as much concerned with the sound and persuasive power of words as with their meaning; he teaches a celebrated course on rhetoric at the Supreme Court. His son, also called Gabriel and the ostensible author of this book, is a journalist, who uses words to sift for facts, advance theories, obtain an audience. Three years before the novel opens, he published a book about Sara Guterman, a Jewish refugee who escaped with her parents in 1938, and whose grasp of language later made her useful as a translator between German leaders in Colombia and some of the highest officials of the government.

The younger Gabriel Santoro wrote his book as a kind of holocaust narrative from an unusual perspective, hoping for at least mild acclaim. But his father immediately rushed into print with a scathing repudiation, his vehemence inadvertently turning the modest little book into a cause célèbre. They have barely spoken to one another since. Now the father is desperately ill, and calls his son to his bedside to make amends. So begins the painstaking unpeeling of why the father really felt so threatened by his son's book, and the dark passage of Colombian history that it fitfully illuminates. For words spoken at the wrong place or the wrong time or even in jest can become matters of life and death.

The three Vásquez books that I have read so far seem to be working their way through that history. THE SECRET HISTORY OF COSTAGUANA (2007) focuses on the turn of the century and the seccession of Panama. The wonderful THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING (2011, just now coming out in English) focuses on the rise of the drug cartels around 1980. THE INFORMERS (2004), his earliest novel, is concerned with Colombia during the Second World War, and especially its attitude towards its German immigrant population. All three books, however, tell their stories from a later perspective, so they represent a process of uncovering rather than simple telling.

I have to say that I found THE INFORMERS the most difficult of the three. It deals with matters that are doubtless of great significance in Colombia, but may not have the same resonance outside.* There are only a handful of significant characters, and everything is focused on one single act, relatively small in the context of history. It is a dense book that requires sustained concentration, as the layers of the onion multiply; there are passages where one person records what a second person said about a third in a conversation being reported by a fourth, many years after it took place. But one reads on, because other themes emerge that are universal: the relationships of fathers and sons, the many betrayals we commit towards each other all the time, the fragile (and sometimes not so fragile) bonds between men and women, forgiveness and forgetting, loneliness, trust and doubt. It is a slow, difficult book, but ultimately a satisfying one.

*There are three pages of helpful historical footnotes, but unaccountably these are not cued from the text itself; it was by sheer chance that I discovered they even existed.
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