Wednesday, May 10, 2017

REPUTATIONS by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (fiction)

This is the noted Columbian author, Juan Gabriel Vasquez's latest novel.  It follows the successful "The Sound of Things Falling," an enthralling novel placed during the time of the Colombia drug wars.  I enjoyed "Reputations" even more.  Vasquez usually writes of a period of time grounded in historical fact, and this is his first novel since moving back to Bogata after spending most of his life living in Europe.  The books was translated from the Spanish into English by the excellent Anne McLean, herself a recipient of a number of awards.

Although Columbia's difficult period in politics forms a discreet background for the story, Vasquez's focus is on Javier Mallarino, a noted and lauded political cartoonist.  Mallarino has weathered various threats on his life, forcing him in 1980 to move out of the city to a more rural area. It opens as he is about to receive an award for his work.  In the celebration following his honoring, he meets up with a young woman, a friend of his daughter's who is seeking the truth about an incident from her childhood that had occurred at Mallarino's home.  This is the catalyst that causes Mallarino to examine the past and in doing so it creates doubts about the part he played in the suicide of a former Congressman, Adolfo Cuellar, whom he had ridiculed in a series of political cartoons.

The young woman, Samanta, brings back memories of his relationship with his ex-wife and his distant daughter.  The incident, which may or may not have happened, took place at a celebration at the Mallarino's country home.  Cuellar came to the party uninvited in an effort to speak with Mallarino, who rebuffed his pleading to stop harassing him. At some point in the evening, it appeared that Cuellar had interfered with the young Samanta.  It remained unclear what actually happened and Samanta was on a mission to discover this incident in her life that her parents refused to speak about. Mallarino agrees to help Samanta, find the answer to the missing piece of her life.  In delving into the past, he begins to doubt that anything actually happened, and his quest leads him to seriously question his own motives in the downfall of Cuellar.  In reflection, Mallarino states, ...." there was only one thing the public liked more than humiliation, and that was the humiliation of the humiliator."

Vasquez's books often hark back to the theme of memory.  Like the belief of an indigenous tribe in Columbia, Mallarino muses, "...the past is what is in front of us, because we can see it and know it, but the future is what is behind, what we do not see and cannot know.....It is a poor sort of memory that only works backward." The past begins to haunt Mallarino; it has a way of returning to bite one's complacency.  He examines the breakdown of his relationships.  Characters drift apart, others return years later.  In attempting to reconcile with his wife, when Mallarino suggests they try to reunite, she replies:  "I like my life the way it is.  It has taken me years to get it together and I like it the way it is. I like solitude." Vasquez often shows us the solitude of city life where one is surrounded by people, yet in many ways, alone.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez is on of my favorite writers.  His books are thoughtful with insights into the human character and at the same time they are placed in specific times in history.  He is a fabulous writer and luckily has an excellent translator who is able to portray accurately the beauty of his spare but meaningful language.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.

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