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.