‘The Shape of the Ruins’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Review – MBIP 2019, Number 6)

After fleeing from a war in eastern Europe, we now find ourselves in South America, reminiscing on a conflict of a very different kind.  Today’s Man Booker International Prize journey takes us to Colombia, a country with a sad history of internal fighting and assassinations, and it’s this past that we are about to examine.  You see, not everyone agrees with what the history books tell us, and over the course of our latest read, the writer is to learn that the truth is a concept that can be rather difficult to pin down.

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
– MacLehose Press, translated by Anne McLean
What’s it all about?
In 2014, as Juan Gabriel Vásquez is idly watching a late-night newscast, he sees an old acquaintance, Carlos Caballo, being led away into a police van.  The old man has been arrested for the attempted theft of a brown suit worn by the famous lawyer and politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on the day he was murdered back in 1948, and the image on the screen brings back powerful memories for the writer.  The truth is that our friend knows only too well what Caballo was up to, and he’s about to tell us the whole story, one that will span a century – and five-hundred pages.

We first head back to 2005, where an invitation to a soirée at the house of a new acquaintance, Doctor Francisco Benavides, leads to a tumultuous first encounter with Caballo, and a long story about the past.  We learn more about the assassination of Eliécer Gaitán, and Caballo’s obsession with the affair, but it takes more than a decade for these revelations to bear fruit.  Having finally returned to Colombia after an extended period overseas, Gabriel Vásquez runs into Caballo again, and this time the writer is prepared to listen to the old man’s tale.  It’s a story that will take a while to tell, describing a conspiracy of monstrous proportions – and all Caballo wants is for the writer to tell it to the world.

The Shape of the Ruins is the first real success from the 2019 longlist, an absorbing, slow-burning story that skillfully weaves fiction and historical events together while featuring the writer as one of the main characters.  JGV is both a protagonist in, and the chronicler of, the tale, examining the official account of several tragic events and wondering whether that’s all there is to the story.  In the only previous book of his I’d read (The Sound of Things Falling), the focus was on the late-twentieth-century drug wars, but this one takes us further back, examining some older crimes.  Bogotá seems to have always been a dangerous place, and one of the features of this novel is how the writer shows a country divided along partisan lines, where opposition justifies aggression, and even murder (I hate to say it, but there are so many echoes of Brexit Britain here it’s just not funny…).

The thread holding the work together is Caballo, an obsessive conspiracy theorist whose fanatic interest in the Eliécer Gaitán murder hinges on his belief in ‘the elegant man’, a shadowy figure he believes to be behind the assassination.  He repeatedly approaches Gabriel Vásquez, hoping to persuade him to write a book about the event (mainly by wearing down his defences…), and when Dr. Benavides asks the author to retrieve an important artefact Carballo took from him, our friend reluctantly agrees to consider the task.

It’s at this point, though, that The Shape of the Ruins takes a new direction.  A nocturnal visit to a radio station where the old man presents a show for conspiracy theorists leads to JGV being presented with some interesting reading matter, and the realisation that it’s not just the 1948 assassination that Caballo’s interested in.  Now he must hear about the 1914 murder of another famed politician, Rafael Uribe Uribe, and the more he learns, the more similarities he discerns between the two cases.  It seems that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

The conspiracy-theory theme runs throughout The Shape of the Ruins.  Caballo is initially presented to readers as a fool, an old fraud, and yet the writer himself gradually comes to question this belief.  As the old man himself says, when discussing these fanciful theories:

“It is the noblest task a person can carry out, Vásquez: to thwart a lie the size of the world.  To confront people who wouldn’t think twice before doing him harm.  And to run risks, always running risks.  Searching for the truth is not a hobby, Vásquez, it’s not something one does because one’s idle.”
p.276 (MacLehose Press, 2018)

At which point, even the more cynical among us might acknowledge that there’s usually more to matters than meets the eye.  This is particularly true of the Uribe Uribe story, which takes up a large chunk of the book.  This section features Marco Tulio Anzola, a young lawyer whose energetic work in uncovering a conspiracy produces shockwaves in Colombian society, threatening to unmask the real architects of the assassination plot.  That is, until the moment he overreaches and falls from grace…

There are obvious parallels here with other Spanish-language writers.  The Shape of the Ruins has much in common with last year’s longlister, Javier Cercas’ The Impostor (with certain similarities between Cercas’ anti-hero, Enric Marco Battle, and Caballo) while Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Like a Fading Shadow, a take on the flight of famed assassin James Earl Ray, is also a very similar work.  However, stylistically Gabriel Vásquez’s novel reminded me more of the work of Javier Marías.  Many of the scenes here, particularly the alcohol-fuelled night-time conversations in dark rooms, could have come straight out of the Spanish writer’s novels, and his Colombian counterpart even manages to work his own Shakespeare reference (Julius Caesar) into the novel.

Where The Shape of the Ruins is more similar to the Cercas book, though, is in some of the meta-fictional elements, with JGV as a character in his own book.  There’s some frank handling of his moods, and his temper (with one memorable scene involving a glass of whiskey…), as well as the depiction of his inability to completely walk away from Caballo’s offers, tempted as he is by the old man’s stories.  This causes him to neglect his family during an important time in their lives, following his wife’s difficult pregnancy and the premature birth of his twin daughters, with his wife eventually forced to set him straight:

“What’s happening to us is important.  You have to pay attention.  We still haven’t come out the other side, there are still lots of things that could go wrong, and the girls depend on us.  I need you to be with me, concentrated on this, and you seem more interested in what a paranoid madman says.” (p.161)

This clash of family duties and authorial curiosity has a rather Knausgaardian ring to it, and the wife’s warning comes as a timely reminder for Gabriel Vásquez that there’s more to life than writing and conspiracies.

It all makes for a wonderful, absorbing story, and while it could be overwhelming, what with the various recounts and Russian-doll structure, it never outstays its welcome (although some readers might disagree).  Gabriel Vásquez manages to bring the story full circle by leaving the motive for Caballo’s crime (detailed on the first page) to the very end of the book, and the old man sums up the motive of the book in his anguished pleas:

“But there are other truths, Vásquez,” he said.  “There are truths that do not come out in the papers.  There are truths that are no less true due to the fact that nobody knows them.  Maybe they happened in a strange place where journalists and historians can’t go.  And what do we do with them?  Where can we give them space to exist?  Do we let them rot, only because they weren’t able to be born into life correctly, or because they let bigger forces win?” (p.448)

In effect, then, The Shape of the Ruins is paying homage to the people who refuse to accept questionable truths, those who fight the good fight against the forces of darkness.  The problem is that it isn’t always easy to tell who’s telling the truth, and who’s manipulating the public for their own benefit.

And speaking of Brexit…

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Absolutely.  This is the first of this year’s longlisted books that has really resonated with me, and I suspect that it will be a contender for my personal winner.  Despite the extended detour in the middle of the book, one some readers may find rather too long, JGV kept my interest over the whole five-hundred pages, and his (and McLean’s) writing is never less than excellent.  One of the aims of my MBIP reading is to find great books I either hadn’t heard of or somehow missed earlier in the year, and The Shape of the Ruins is a definite success on that count.

Will it make the shortlist?
I suspect so.  In a slightly disappointing longlist with very few stand-out works, this one looms large, and not only for its length.  The writer has form, with previous success in the (IMPAC) Dublin Prize and an IFFP shortlisting, so you’d expect him to be in the judges’ thoughts. The only problem might be the book’s length.  Looking at this year’s longlist, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they have a distinct preference for short books – let’s hope they also find the patience to give this one a third read-through 😉

Having returned various body parts to their rightful owners, we must hit the road again, and we have another lengthy journey in store.  Next time, we’ll be following a German academic with a mid-life crisis as he jumps on an aeroplane and heads off to Japan.  Sushi, suicide and pine trees by the sea – we’re certainly not in Bogotá any more…

6 thoughts on “‘The Shape of the Ruins’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Review – MBIP 2019, Number 6)

  1. ‘The Sound of Things Falling’, the previous novel by Vasquez, was wonderful. I’ve been a bit hesitant to read ‘The Shape of the Ruins’ due to its length, but at least I now know it is an0ther worthy read by Vasquez.


  2. I don’t share the love for this book that most people do. It was strong in the first half but fell apart in the second. It became tiresome for me, even though the research was admirable. His initial conspiracy theories were fascinating, and I wished he’d maintained that energy but his digressions were tedious and the story lost momentum. Let it be said, however, that I compare (perhaps unfairly) all books on this subject to Don DeLillo’s Libra – still, in my opinion, the best of this genre.


    1. Scott – I have to say that I really enjoyed the Uribe Uribe bit once I’d got over the switch of topics. What really helped is knowing that something like that was ahead and reading the book chapter by chapter, not rushing it too much. Yes, that part could have been shorter, but overall I thought it was worth it 🙂


    1. Kaggsy – I think that you can enjoy a book even if it’s not amazing, and there are several of those in the longlist (but yes, it would be nice to have some more gems!).

      Liked by 1 person

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