'Reputations' by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean (Bloomsbury)

Depicting the slippery nature of the past and the unreliability of memory, Juan Gabriel Vasquez' fifth novel draws a convincing portrait of the complex world of Bogotá in recent years, adding to his own reputation as one of Latin America’s most outstanding authors.
Nick Caistor

Javier Mallarino is Colombia’s most celebrated political cartoonist. Every day for 40 years his caricatures have punctured the reputations of politicians, generals, drug dealers. As a good journalist, he knows it is his job to speak truth to power, whatever the consequences.

At the outset of the novel, we see him in downtown Bogotá, aged 65, on his way to receive the country’s highest accolade for his work over the years. The minister sees the medal of honour he is being awarded as ‘a tiny recognition of an artist who has turned into the country’s critical conscience’.

And yet already Mallarino is unnerved, not sure of what he has achieved, or even of what he sees around him: as he approaches the Teatro Colón for the ceremony, he thinks he catches a glimpse of a political cartoonist, Ricardo Rendón, from a previous age who committed suicide 70 years earlier. This leads him to reflect on ‘the erosion of his memory reflected in the city’s eroded memory, as exemplified in the fact that nobody knew who Ricardo Rendón was anymore’.

The past catches up with him once more when at the ceremony he meets his ex-wife Magdalena. They spend the night together, and he remembers the arguments they had in the past as to whether it was worth antagonising so many people with his cartoon. On that occasion he had told her that if need be, he would willingly change friends and family for the sake of his reputation as someone who always told the truth. As one of his own catchphrases tells us, ‘I don’t get into bed with anybody’, in his determination to remain independent whatever the consequences, which in the Colombia of the last few decades can be lethal.

But someone else has attended the award ceremony, and she will present Mallarino with an even greater challenge. This is Samanta Leal, a woman now in her thirties, who as a young girl came to the party he was throwing at his new house outside Bogotá as his daughter’s best friend. The two girls got horribly drunk, and there was a dreadful scene when a senator who had already been lampooned by Mallarino was thought to have abused them while they were in a stupor.

Mallarino reacted to this with another vicious cartoon against the senator, with tragic results. Now however, Samanta returns and wants to know exactly what happened on that night, as she cannot remember anything about it. He begins to share her uncertainty about the past: ‘Mallarino imagined the past as a watery creature with imprecise contours, a sort of deceitful, dishonest amoeba that can’t be investigated, for, looking for it again under the microscope, we find that it’s not there...’

If this is true, he anxiously asks himself, how can he have been justified all these years in spearing people with his pen, when he cannot decide on the truth or otherwise of an event like the one Samanta is desperate to have resolved? These doubts lead to the climax of the novel, and a dramatic change in the cartoonist’s destiny. 

The slippery nature of the past and the unreliability of memory are recurrent themes in Vásquez’s novels. His earlier novel The Informers looked back to the period of the Second World War in Colombia, and the difficulty of determining loyalties among the German population many years afterwards. In The Sound of Things Falling another young woman, Maya, has spent most of her life trying to discover the truth about her father’s death.

As in those previous novels, Vásquez’s approach and style avoids all flamboyance, but draws a convincing portrait of the complex world of Bogotá in recent years, and the way the turmoil its inhabitants have lived through has had a huge impact on their personal lives. This, the fifth of Vásquez’s books to be translated into supple and engaging English by Anne McLean is bound to add to his own reputation as one of Latin America’s most outstanding authors.  

Reputations is published by Bloomsbury http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/reputations-9781408852880/