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The shape of the ruins

A Colombian novel, “The shape of the ruins”, is easy to get into but a chore to finish. Most readers will be well-disposed to reading this book, a novel about the politics of Colombia by an established author from the country.


Sean Sheehan


The story begins like a mystery thriller. A man, Carlos Carballo, is arrested for allegedly attempting to steal the serge suit of an assassinated politician.

Not just any politician and not pure fiction: Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a left-wing presidential candidate was shot and killed by Juan Roa Sierra in April 1948. The assassin was identified at the scene and beaten to death by people on the street. Gaitán’s assassination and the slaying of his killer are facts; Carballo and his attempted stealing of the dead man’s suit is fiction.

The narrator, a ‘character’ called Vásquez, has met Carballo through his friend Benavides and in this way he becomes acquainted with Carballo’s conspiracy theory. Carballo is convinced that Gaitán was killed by more than one person and he draws convincingly on parallels with the assassination of Kennedy in 1963.

So far, so interesting; the reader is drawn in. Then another, non-fictional, political murder is introduced – the hacking to death of Rafael Uribe Uribe in October 1914, in Bogotá – the main narrative is side-tracked but the reader struggles on.

Jorge Eliecer Gaitan – Photo Commons Wikimedia

Carballo’s obsession with similarities between the three killings embroils first Benavides and then Vásquez. The novel gets bogged down in a far too lengthy melange of fact and fiction surrounding the circumstances of Uribe’s killing.

There is an encounter between the narrator and a woman called Andrea who has bravely decided to call a halt to medical treatment for her fatal illness.

Andrea is not important to the plot and her plight is dealt on, it seems, for little other reason than to gain some emotional mileage from her situation.

Carballo persuades Vásquez to write a book about his conspiracy theory and this, of course, becomes the novel by the real Vásquez that you are reading. A clever take on autofiction, granted, – but not so smart is the narrator’s/author’s summation on the nature of history.

He posits a binary choice: history is either pure contingency, unpredictable and devoid of meaning, or a conspiratorial theatre in which everything happens for shadowy reasons that nobody ever properly gets to know.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez – Photo: Daniel Mordzinski

Perhaps the real Vásquez.  knows that history cannot be reduced to such a simplistic polarization but there is little in his novel that conveys what does underlay the history of his country.

When Carballo is trying to persuade Vásquez, he criticises him for the failure, up to now, to address in his novels  what really matters:  “…a civil war here at home, with more than twenty thousand dead every year, with an experience of terrorism that no other Latin American country has witnessed’. He accuses him of passing over ‘the great themes as if stepping on eggs”.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel does not pass over the ‘great themes’ but it does bury them under a multitude of narrative trails that are ploddingly pursued to exhaustion.

“The shape of the ruins” by Juan Gabriel Vásquez is published by Maclehose Press.

(Photos provided by the publisher)

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