'Reputations' tells of a political cartoonist, haunted for decades by the events of a single night

In Vásquez's new novel, the protagonist thinks of Colombia as an 'amnesiac country obsessed with the present, a 'narcissistic country where not even the dead are capable of burying their dead.'

Reputations Hardcover By Juan Gabriel Vásquez Riverhead Books 208 pp.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez is a cold-case novelist, a writer whose characters – though not detectives – investigate the long lost and almost forgotten. In "The Sound of Things Falling," the 2013 novel with which the Colombian Vásquez broke through to a large and appreciative North American audience, a law professor looks into the life of his murdered billiards partner, an inquiry that leads back to the death of the man’s wife years earlier and to the violence of drug cartels in the 1980s.

In this new novel, Reputations, the protagonist thinks of Colombia as an “amnesiac country obsessed with the present,” a “narcissistic country where not even the dead are capable of burying their dead. Forgetfulness was the only democratic thing in Colombia: it covered them all, the good and the bad, the murderers and heroes.” Vásquez doesn’t forget. The narrator of his first novel, "The Informers," attempts to understand why his father contributed to the detention of immigrants in Colombia during World War II. Vásquez’s second novel, "The Secret History of Costaguana," goes further back in history to imagine the protagonist’s relation to Joseph Conrad, his "Nostromo," and the creation of the Panama Canal.

The three earlier novels had the leisurely sprawl of oral storytelling, digressions and inventions, historical facts and temporal gaps. At 187 large-print pages, "Reputations" is shorter and tighter. It takes place in two settings over three days and resembles a closet drama, a play about closeting the past. The protagonist, the 65-year-old newspaper caricaturist Javier Mallarino, is being officially celebrated in Bogotá as a national hero for his 40 years of fearless political cartoons. The next day, a young woman named Samanta comes up to his mountain home, ostensibly to interview Mallarino for a blog – in fact, she wants access to his house. At the celebration she recognized slide-show images of the interior and remembered that she had been there once 28 years before to play with Mallarino’s daughter, Beatriz.

Samanta wants to know what Mallarino remembers of that night, so Part Two is a detailed but inconclusive flashback to the visit and its aftermath. During a housewarming party, the seven-year-old girls drained the dregs of drinks and were put to bed unconscious. Something happened (I’m being purposely vague here) that caused Mallarino to draw the next day a caricature that ruined the life of a politician attending the party – and perhaps eventually caused his death. Pressed to recall by Samanta, Mallarino, rather self-servingly, thinks of the “past as a watery creature with imprecise contours, a sort of deceitful, dishonest amoeba that can’t be investigated because, looking for it again under the microscope, we find that it’s not there, and we suspect that it’s gone, but we soon realize it has changed shape and is now impossible to recognize.”

Because only one person can resolve the uncertainties of that night, in Part Three Samanta and Mallarino come down from the mountain intending to interview this informant, though both are ambivalent about knowing the truth – Samanta because she was happy before memory intruded on her present, Mallarino because he may have defamed an innocent man in the past and may have his artistic reputation in the future soiled should the interview be made public.

The visit by Samanta seems like a recipe for a familiar sort of confrontation, but the appeal of "Reputations" is not its quickly concatenating plot but the questions about the motives for and the effects of events. Looking back at three days and 28 years, Mallarino and readers have to consider if his prideful certitude about the accuracy of his physical intuitions and about the gadfly effects of his art may have fractured three families: his own, because his wife and he split years before over the threat of reprisals from the powers he mocked; the family of the politician, who left behind two young sons; and Samanta’s family, abandoned by her father when she was 15, perhaps because of that evening at Mallarino’s house. Though his caricatures serve the public by speaking presumed truth to power in dangerous times, we discover that Mallarino enjoys his subjects’ “humiliation,” a much-repeated word rhyming with the title. Whether or not he achieves a saving humility at the end readers will decide.

Vásquez’s first historical inquiries were humble in their engagement with history, raiding archives but also proposing counterfactuals, playfully calling attention to their own fictionality, more surprised and bemused than enraged at the past unearthed. Their versions of history entertain and instruct but do not insist. The investigation of history becomes more serious for the protagonist of "The Sound of Things Falling," who ultimately recognizes his obsession with the past has endangered relations with his wife and daughter. "Reputations" extends the danger of remembering, for Samanta, Mallarino, the newspaper for which he works, and the public that believes in him as the national conscience may all be affected if a disturbing secret is exposed.

“Life turns us into caricatures of ourselves,” Mallarino says at the celebration of his career. Vásquez’s characters are not exactly caricatures but are given little space to develop. The novel, though, is like a mathematical gnomon, adding to and caricaturing Vásquez’s earlier works, presenting a small sketch in black and white of their complex amplitude. When Mallarino can’t think of a contemporary political subject to satirize, he sends his editor a caricature of himself.

Perhaps "Reputations" is a self-examination, Vásquez’s second – or fourth – thought about his cold case orientation and earlier narrative methods. Mallarino wonders if his amusing caricatures have served only to defuse political discontent. Maybe Vásquez wonders if his entertaining stories could have more efficaciously attacked the Colombian “forgetfulness” Mallarino diagnoses. At 65, Mallarino has difficulty imagining his future. At 43 and recently returned from many years in Europe to live in Colombia, Vásquez may be imagining in "Reputations" his possible future as an artist, creating a self-cautioning tale about the temptation of artistic and cultural pride. Most probable, though, is that "Reputations" intends to comment on tendentiously political artists, novelists, and others who are, like Mallarino, cocksure about their representations of and interventions in public life. Vásquez’s plural title refers to his protagonist’s repute, to the reputations of others whom he may have sullied, and possibly to artists who achieve their reputations through ideological affinities in the politicized literary landscapes of Latin America.

Vásquez’s first three novels have first-person narrators with distinctive voices. Vásquez uses limited omniscience in "Reputations," and I think it an unhappy choice. As I said in my review of "The Sound of Things Falling," Vásquez has a remarkable lightness of touch given his subjects. Though briskly paced, "Reputations" is sometimes heavy with the kind of ponderousness that omniscience seems to encourage, as in the following passage about couples:

"They too were worn down by the diverse strategies that life has to wear lovers down, too many trips or too much togetherness, the accumulated weight of lies or stupidity or lack of tact or mistakes, the things said at the wrong time, with immoderate or inappropriate words, or those that, the appropriate words not having been found, were never said; or worn down too by a bad memory, yes, by the inability to remember what’s essential and live within it (to remember what once made the other happy: How many lovers had succumbed to that negligent forgetting?), and by the inability, as well, to get ahead of all that wearing down and deterioration, to get ahead of the lies, the stupidity, the lack of tact, the mistakes, the things that shouldn’t be said, and the silences that should be avoided...."

Because the passage doesn’t really sound like Mallarino, its repetitiveness leaves the impression that Vásquez is trying to add weight, as well as length, with generalizations about situations that have been only minimally dramatized in the novel. While Vásquez’s other three novels seem to have been selected from a large stock of materials outside the works’ frames, "Reputations" appears to have been expanded from limited material to novel length. Mallarino paraphrases Michelangelo when the caricaturist thinks about “trying to extract the sculpture from the stone.” It’s difficult to imagine what Vásquez may have chipped away from "Reputations."

Vásquez has said "Reputations" “was written in the spirit of the short novels I love, those concentrated studies of one character in his predicament.” Although he doesn’t specify those novels, in interviews he often mentions American writers – such as DeLillo and Roth – as influences, and has said "Reputations" seems to him more like an American novel than his other books. The context here remains political, but the past to be investigated is highly personal and, as Vásquez has said, “intimate.” Both DeLillo and Roth have written short novels about old male writers reconsidering their personal failures – "Point Omega" and "Exit Ghost" – but Reputations is closest in its outlines to a novel that Vásquez has specifically referred to: Bellow’s "Mr. Sammler’s Planet," in which an elderly, isolated, and proud commentator on contemporary politics and sexuality learns humility at the end of the novel.

An admirer of Vásquez’s wider and larger novels, I’m both disappointed by and fascinated with "Reputations." I can say that for those who don’t know his earlier work, this new novel may be a good place to begin, a Vásquez primer in cold-case forensics and unsolved mysteries, an introduction with American echoes. "Reputations" also shouldn’t diminish his faithful readers’ respect, for Vásquez is an artist who experiments with the form, narration, and tone of his work – unlike the artist he puts at the center of his novel. For those familiar with his fiction, "Reputations" is a provocative coda to what’s come so far, a work that again solicits reexamination of the past – this time Vásquez’s own.

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