La forma de las ruinas (“The Shape of the Ruins”), the latest novel by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, owes its title to a beautiful line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Thou art the ruins of the noblest man…” After reading the 547 pages of this magnificent story, I can think of other words, also by Shakespeare, that would work just as well: “I know dead men, sir, who speak more than the living.”
These words are spoken by a gravedigger to Prince Hamlet, just before he discovers that the grave being dug will belong to Ophelia, his lover, who has just committed suicide. Like a distant relative of the Elizabethan gravedigger, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, armed with a skull, a vertebra, and a memory of García Márquez, has used all the painstaking detail of a forensic anthropologist to construct a novel that masterfully succeeds in encapsulating the history of Colombia in the twentieth century.
The vertebra belongs to Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the Liberal Party leader murdered on April 9, 1948. Upon finishing the first third of the novel, the reader could easily think that Vásquez had decided solely to address the Colombian bête noire of the Bogotazo. That is, to fictionally decipher Gaitán’s murder, whose terrible consequences permanently changed the political, social, and cultural map of his country. That’s the impression the reader receives from the dark fascination awakened in the novel’s narrator–also called Juan Gabriel Vásquez–by the character of Carlos Carballo, a cultivator of conspiracy theories, who tasks the narrator with writing a book.
The assigned book must flesh out a suspicion: that Gaitán’s true murderer was not Juan Roa Sierra, who merely pulled the trigger, but rather a man in a three-piece gray suit with the manners of a British duke. The italics come from the novel itself, as the quote is from a passage in the memoirs of Gabriel García Márquez in which the Colombian Nobel-winner describes his memories of the day of Gaitán’s murder, bestowing a significant testimonial and literary lineage upon Carballo’s ravings.
To give him some direction on his mission, Carballo provides Vásquez with documents and testimonies that form the palpable proof of a master plot. A conspiracy not limited to what took place on that ninth of April in Bogotá, but that also casts its shadow over November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas, when someone killed–in similar circumstances, according to Carballo’s thinking–U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
In spite of the evident attraction of such a provocative interpretation of history, the enigma of the story draws the reader toward the figure of the retrospective conspirator named Carlos Carballo. Who is he? What’s the source of this anachronistic obsession with solving the mystery of Gaitán’s murder? What is he really looking for?
Ceding to the momentary impossibility of answering these questions, Vásquez (the narrator and the character) turns down two other paths in his story, which he develops with great solvency. In one of them, from a clearly autobiographical perspective, he tells of the medical complications of his wife’s pregnancy, the birth of his twin daughters, life in Europe. Here he acknowledges, at the same time, the writing of his own novels. Among them is the award-winning El ruido de las cosas al caer (The Sound of Things Falling in English), which allows him to tangentially incorporate an indispensable memory from the recent history of Colombia: the vengeful afterthought of Pablo Escobar.
The second of these paths ends up being the true corollary of the novel. It tells the story of the murder, on October 15, 1914, of the liberal leader Rafael Uribe Uribe. This character’s skull, just like Gaitán’s vertebra, will circulate clandestinely between countless hands over the course of several decades as a relic and as proof of the crime. From a historical perspective sympathetic to Colombian liberalism and opposed to conservatism, Uribe Uribe’s murder has the foundational, mythical quality of a first crime. This gives way, inevitably, to the Biblical conception of a first murderer. And Carlos Carballo’s interpretation is no different: the race of Cain, which killed Uribe Uribe, is the same that killed Jorge Eliézer Gaitán and is the same that, openly or in secret, holds the country in its sway.
For the wide range of subject matter addressed over the course of the story, the murder of Uribe Uribe and the subsequent trial of his supposed killers is more than a divergent stream; it is the plot’s main tributary. Out of the nine parts into which the novel is divided, four are dedicated to this crime, as if the author wanted to make it very clear that from those rains came this mud (an expression in Spanish similar to the English “he who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind”). Nonetheless, beyond the specific circumstances of the murder, the character who (once again) absorbs the reader’s attention and becomes the center of the plot is the one charged with finding the truth: in this case, the young Public Works Inspector Marco Tulio Anzola.
Anzola is a sort of detective ancestor of Carbollo, the founder of the race of Abel, which is not only condemned to suffer the death of its leader, but is also persecuted by the race of Cain, with the blessings of God and the Catholic Church. This dismantling of the Biblical tale, whose teachings seem empty due to the essential amorality of worldly events, situates La forma de las ruinas within the “tradition of the defeated” acknowledged by Ricardo Piglia, in which the Novel is a bomb that detonates–or, at least, attempts to detonate–the centralized, singular story imposed by the State.
The intensity of this conflict between imagination and power fluctuates depending on whether or not the narrator concurs with Carballo’s obsession. At times, Carballo is simply a paranoid lunatic, a walking rhetoric of conspiracy. At other times, like Hamlet, he is a methodical madman who knows something is rotten in the state. Simultaneously, just as Vásquez questions Carballo’s motives, the reader does the same to Vásquez himself. In the end, what could two such dissimilar characters have in common? The answer, evidently, is no less complex: Colombia, the land that inspires their respective efforts.
The return of Juan Gabriel Vásquez to his native country, in fiction and in reality, implies a return to the coordinates and the mysteries of its origin. To those enclaves that, in spite of everything, remain identical to themselves and that, upon returning, allow us to say that we belong to a common place and a common history: another inheritance that parents pass on to their children as inevitably as genetics. A common place where, on insomniac nights, we can no longer distinguish what we live, what we dream, and what we fear, as if in a landscape melting into black.
Translated from the Spanish by Arthur Dixon