Who Killed Colombia?

The Shape of the Ruins

by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Riverhead, 509 pp., $27.00
Vasco Szinetar
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Bogotá, Colombia, 2009

“At what precise moment had Perú fucked itself up?” (“En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?”) That is the question that Zavalita, the protagonist of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), asks himself at the beginning of the novel. By using the verb joderse, Vargas Llosa is implying that something has been aborted or ruined in his country, with the passive voice se underscoring that the fuckup cannot be attributed to one person or incident but that everyone, including Zavalita—who has made a mess of his life—is responsible.1 Though the question referred to the years of the Manuel Odría dictatorship in Peru (1950–1956), it was to resonate across Latin America for writers and readers anxious to pinpoint the moment when everything had gone wrong in their own frustrated nations.

For Gabriel García Márquez, according to his memoir Living to Tell the Tale (2002), there was no doubt about when Colombia had descended into hell, on which particular day “the history of the country split in half.” On April 9, 1948, the future Nobel laureate was placidly eating lunch at his boardinghouse in Bogotá when, a bit past noon, he was interrupted by a breathless friend with the news that Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the charismatic liberal politician and likely winner in the upcoming presidential elections, had just been killed. Significantly, the friend added, “Se jodió este país”—this country is fucked. Those bitter, biting words—anticipating what, twenty-one years later, Vargas Llosa would write about a different country—turned out to be prescient.

The immediate result of Gaitán’s murder was El Bogotazo—riots, looting, and burning that left the capital smoldering and thousands dead, most of them massacred by army troops.2 The long-term consequences were even worse: Gaitán’s death led to a decade of bloody civil strife known as La Violencia, with a death toll of at least 200,000, and then, eventually, to guerrilla insurrections and death squads, the narcos with their bombs and kidnappings, and the slaughter by sicarios, or hitmen, of many of the land’s most prominent leaders.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who, it could be argued, has succeeded García Márquez as the literary grandmaster of Colombia, a country that can boast of many eminent authors, grew up in the world created by Gaitán’s assassination and returns to it frequently in his monumental novel The Shape of the Ruins (2015), now available in a fluid and faithful translation by Anne McLean.3 “If Gaitán had not been killed,” its narrator asks, “how many anonymous deaths might we have been spared? What sort of country would we have today?” Like his fellow Colombians, the speaker of these words has found himself caught up in an interminable cycle of violence that he does not control and that he fears his progeny will inherit. Unless, that is, he finds a way…

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