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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Informers

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

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To purchase The Informers

Title: The Informers
Author: Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 343 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Informers - US
Los informantes - US
The Informers - UK
The Informers - Canada
The Informers - India
Les Dénonciateurs - France
Die Informanten - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: Los informantes
  • Translated by Anne McLean

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Our Assessment:

B : decent take on betrayal that ties itself into a few too many knots

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum A 9-11/2009 Matthew Shaer
Financial Times A+ 19/5/2008 Ángel Gurría-Quintana
FAZ . 17/3/2010 Paul Ingendaay
The Guardian . 24/5/2008 Nick Caistor
The Independent . 17/4/2008 Boyd Tonkin
Independent on Sunday B+ 26/10/2008 Tom Gaisford
The LA Times B 9/8/2009 Adam Mansbach
NZZ . 5/8/2010 Kersten Knipp
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/8/2009 Larry Rohter
The Spectator . 28/5/2008 William Brett
The Telegraph . 17/5/2008 Alastair Sooke
TLS . 18/7/2008 Natasha Lehrer
The Washington Post A+ 2/8/2009 Jonathan Yardley
Die Zeit . 5/8/2010 Verena Auffermann

  Review Consensus:

  Many, though not all, very impressed -- and everyone grants that he can write well

  From the Reviews:
  • "Vásquez’s great theme is memory: the nightmares, personal and political, that return to haunt us. But unlike Bolaño’s stolid, serviceable prose, Vásquez’s style is musical, occasionally even lush, and its poeticism remains unmuddled in McLean’s translation." - Matthew Shaer, Bookforum

  • "In the case of Vásquez, his debut novel, The Informers, is unlike anything written by his Latin American contemporaries. If there is any prevailing influence in this chilling work it is the late German writer, WG Sebald. (...) Vásquez offers no certitudes. His complex novel is discomfiting because it suggests that every one of us could be ethically compromised, given the wrong set of circumstances. More damningly, it tells us, making amends is impossible." - Ángel Gurría-Quintana, Financial Times

  • "Die immer kleiner werdenden Schachteln, in die Vásquez’ Story zurückweicht, muss man hier nicht aufzählen, doch der schöne Effekt soll benannt sein: Es ist wie die Suche nach einem Gespenst, das den Erzähler in verschiedene Räume, verschiedene Zeiten, verschiedene Bewusstseinswelten lockt." - Paul Ingendaay, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Vásquez shows a mastery of technique and language. The examination of the consequences that a single act can have not only for the person committing it but also, through the ripple effect, for many others brings us into the territory of Ian McEwan's Atonement. The novel may not have the fireworks of magical realism, but its sure construction of narrative and vivid portrayal of a wide array of characters build an extraordinary tale, one which reminds the reader that any novel can be a fascinating mixture of magic and realism." - Nick Caistor, The Guardian

  • "Anne McLean's translation captures every shifting tone in the novel's silvery palette." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "The translator, Anne McLean, successfully re-creates the fluid and, at times, colloquial Latin American tone of the original Spanish text, dexterously ensuring our immediate familiarity with its rich cast of sharply observed characters. Yet at times The Informers makes for frustrating reading: its plot is enigmatic and the narrator seldom trustworthy, while the style is so indirect as to become unnecessarily confusing. The reward for perseverance is not complete clarity, but at least a degree of understanding." - Tom Gaisford, Independent on Sunday

  • "At its best, The Informers is chilling, but often it is merely chilly. The younger Santoro, who has "never known where friendship stops and reporting starts," is strangely bloodless. He is an instrument of his story, a receiver and inventor of histories -- an informer, and a good one, but not a fully realized character. (...) Vásquez is a hugely skilled writer, his prose weighted with authority and carefully observed detail, and he is a dexterous weaver of voices and time periods. The Informers fares best when he allows his protagonist to stay in the moment, to build scenes instead of imagining wide swaths of the past." - Adam Mansbach, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Juan Gabriel Vásquez gelingt es, aus einer relativ überschaubaren Szenerie eine Geschichte zu entwickeln, die weit über sich hinausweist, die an eine Vergangenheit erinnert, die in Lateinamerika vergleichsweise unbekannt ist. Vor allem aber demonstriert er einen Geschichtssinn, der in den letzten Jahren in der zeitgenössischen lateinamerikanischen Literatur eher selten geworden ist. Die drängenden sozialen Probleme der Gegenwart, allen voran die kaum zu bändigende Gewalt in manchen Ländern des Kontinents, haben zu einer literarischen Hingabe an die Gegenwart geführt, wie sie in der Summe der Werke ermüdender nicht sein könnte." - Kersten Knipp, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "In sharp contrast to Mr. García Márquez’s levitating priests and very old men with enormous wings, The Informers is a straight-ahead, old-fashioned narrative, though not necessarily linear. Mr. Vásquez moves back and forth between the 1980s and ’90s and the 1930s and ’40s, but shows restraint, addressing history rather than myth. He avoids unnecessary pyrotechnics, perhaps out of respect for the gravity of his subject. If anything, he would seem to owe a debt to Joseph Conrad, of whom he has recently written a biography, and Borges." - Larry Rohter, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This isn’t Greek tragedy; this is modern tragedy. (...) At times the novel reads like an existential text. Its concern with the tension between word and deed (the father’s interest in rhetoric is reflected in the novel’s obsession with the spoken word) eventually explodes into a realisation that word is deed." - William Brett, The Spectator

  • "The structure of the novel is complex, and summarising it here does not do it justice. This is a subtle book about the ways in which the past can inform and shape the present. More fundamentally, it is a moving study of betrayal." - Alastair Sooke, The Telegraph

  • "It is a novel about many things, all of them interesting and explored by Vásquez with acute moral sensitivity, but at its core is one of the greatest of all literary themes: betrayal. (...) Nothing works out quite the way anyone expects, which is just one of the many strengths of this remarkable novel. It deals with big universal themes -- betrayal, the war between fathers and sons, cowardice and valor -- and big particular ones: the mix of peoples and histories that is Latin America, the painful political and social history under which Colombia suffers, the poison that Nazism spread throughout the world. It is the best work of literary fiction to come my way since 2005" - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • "Und das Merkwürdigste an diesem Buch ist, dass Juan Gabriel Vásquez keinen einzigen moralischen Triumph exekutiert. Seine sanfte, raffiniert-komplexe Aufklärungsarbeit ist wirkungsvoll -- und radikal." - Verena Auffermann, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Informers is narrated by Gabriel Santoro, who shares his father's name. Several years earlier, in 1988, the younger Santoro had published a book called A Life in Exile, about the life of a Jewish woman -- a family friend -- who had come to Colombia from Germany as a girl before World War II. The elder Santoro did not take well to the book:

This book is an attack on me, no more, no less, an attempted homicide.
       That wasn't what the son intended -- and for years he wasn't sure why his father reacted so strongly to the book. And the reaction was not simply quiet, seething outrage; instead, the elder Santoro published a vicious review of the book -- and so:
On its own merits, A Life in Exile would have gone unnoticed; my father -- or rather his disproportionate, impetuous, unthinking reaction -- took care of putting the book center stage and focusing all spotlights on it.
       In 1991 father and son are more or less reconciled after the father undergoes a heart operation and turns to his son again, after three years they had spent at a distance. The son felt betrayed by the father's overreaction -- but the father felt betrayed by the book, and it is this betrayal (and what his father is hiding of his past and feels so tremendously guilty about) that the son slowly comes to understand, and that makes up this book, The Informers.
       (Vásquez nests betraying book inside betraying book: an eighty-page postscript describes the reactions to this second book, The Informers, which is, of course, also seen as a betrayal .....)
       Colombia was allied with the United States during World War II, and the Americans pressured the Colombians to clamp down on the local German population. Other vested interests gleefully joined in as Germans were blacklisted, forced to move from coastal areas, and detained. Among the Germans was Konrad Deresser, who wound up an apparent suicide. As, however, becomes clear, the elder Santoro's conduct during this time was not entirely honorable -- and his son's book threatens (so he thinks) to bring all that into the open:
The whole book seemed like a giant trail leading to him, pointing at him. Every time the Hotel Sabaneta is mentioned, he felt incriminated, discovered. Every time the blacklists are discussed in the book, lives damaged or simply affected by the lists, he felt the same.
       Yet the father's final fall comes from yet another betrayal -- a figurative fall that follows a literal (and fatal) fall:
If it was about revising his history, my father -- my revisionist father -- had achieved it with success. But then, he'd committed the error that we all perhaps commit: telling secrets after sex.
       Vásquez ties himself in a few knots with his layers of betrayals -- made all the more obvious with his choice of narrator, as the younger Santoro remains a slippery fellow who offers some documentary evidence (the father's review, obituary, speech) but also some recreated dialogue (in Q & A form) and relies a great deal on hearsay. Structurally the novel is more complex than need be (and/or Vásquez is not quite in adequate enough command of his material to construct his novel as he does). There is some fine writing here, but the betrayals are also not nearly as dramatic as Vásquez tries to build them up as being, which flattens much of the narrative.
       There are obvious similarities between present-day Colombia and the historical wrongs Vásquez addresses, but the most successful part of the novel is the father-son relationship, leaving history, for the most part, aside.
       At one point the father complains:
Later in books we see the important things. But by the time we see them it is already too late. That's the trouble, Gabriel, forgive my frankness, but that's the fucking trouble with books.
       That's also a major part of the trouble of this book, as in The Informers Vásquez tries far too hard to make that point (rather than just letting the story and the telling make the point for him).

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 September 2009

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The Informers: Reviews: Other books by Juan Gabriel Vásquez under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez was born in 1973.

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