The Shape of the Ruins: Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Translated from Spanish by Anne McLean

“There are truths that don’t happen in those places, truths that nobody writes down because they’re invisible. There are millions of things that happen in special places… they are places that are not within the reach of historians or journalists. They are not invented places… they are not fictions, they are very real: as real as anything told in the newspapers. But they don’t survive. They stay there, without anybody to tell them.”

“Contact sustained with other people’s paranoias, which are multifarious and lie hidden behind the most tranquil personalities, work on us without us noticing.”

This book is about these truths, or conspiracy theories, depending on where you stand.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez takes two political assassinations in Colombia, over 30 years apart, and pulls them together in a story that reads like faction (a blending of fact and fiction). This feeling is made stronger because the protagonist is also called Juan Gabriel Vásquez and his life is exactly the same as the author’s (I checked).

Vásquez is on a visit home to Bogota, when he meets Carlos Carballo at the house of Dr. Francisco Benavides, a doctor who had cured Vásquez of a growth on his jaw. Carballo is obsessed with the assassination of the popular politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on 9 April 1948. He is convinced that the man convicted of the murder, Juan Roa Sierra, was not acting alone (the parallel with the Kennedy assassination in the US is striking). Roa was arrested and taken into a pharmacy. But the crowd outside was baying for his blood, and he was dragged out and killed.

There is a reason that Benavides introduced Vásquez to Carballo. Vásquez is the nephew of José María Villareal, a Conservative politician who, on the orders of the then president, allowed an “overtly politicized police force” to turn into “a repressive organisation with pernicious consequences”. Carballo is convinced that there is a link between Villareal and a man mentioned in Gabriel García Marquez’s book, Living to Tell the Tale, when he talks about a “tall man wearing an irreproachable gray suit as if he were going to a wedding” inciting the crowd outside the pharmacy on that fateful day. Was Roa killed because he knew the identity of the men behind the murder?

But it’s not just Vásquez who is linked to the assassination: Benavides’s father, Luís Ángel Benavides, was the doctor who examined Gaitán after he was shot. And his assistant was none other than Carballo, whom the doctor saw as a son. Luís Ángel Benavides created a museum at the National University to house objects that he had collected. However, in the 1990s, with the museum about to close, Francisco Benavides brought home some of the more precious objects so that they didn’t fall into the wrong hands, including the fragment of Gaitán’s spinal column which was hit by the bullet.

Carballo doesn’t know about these objects but Vásquez inadvertently spills the beans, and one day the objects are stolen. Benavides holds Vásquez responsible. Meanwhile, Carballo is trying to talk Vásquez into writing a book that draws parallels between Gaitán’s assassination and that of General Carlos Uribe Uribe, leader of the Liberal Party, senator and veteran of four civil wars, on 15 October 1914. Initially Vásquez declines but Benavides persuades him to agree so that he can spend time with Carballo and find the stolen objects.

General Uribe Uribe was assassinated by two men carrying machetes under their ponchos. The men were arrested and went to prison but were treated well and lived in relative comfort. They were rumoured to have met with certain “well-dressed men” before the assassination. So was there a bigger plot behind this assassination too? Marco Tulio Anzola, a lawyer starts to look into it, but there are forces that do not want him to find the truth and eventually he has to flee.

The book goes into a lot of detail about both assassinations, which is interesting, given I knew almost nothing about either of them. Vásquez describes them as if they were happening in front of us and slowly pulls us into the conspiracy theory, just as the character Vásquez was being pulled in by Carballo.

This is an excellent, complex political thriller, that mixes history, detection and speculation. It examines the stories behind the history that we know (or we think we know) and raises questions about whether the whole truth behind some of the events will ever be told. History, Vásquez says, does not consists of facts: it’s what we make out of what has been left over—the shape of the ruins.

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