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Historic fiction about Politics in Columbia

La forma de las ruinas / The Shape of Ruins - Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Shape of Ruins: A Novel, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, author; Sheldon Romero, narrator

After listening to almost half of the book, I finally gave up. It just never grabbed or held my attention. It never called me back to its pages, although I made several attempts to reengage with the story.

From what I read, it is about the history and unrest in Columbia. Its politics and corruption are explored. The research is thorough, but the story travels in too many different directions that I found hard to reconnect as the novel continued. Characters appeared and reappeared, and I would have to struggle to remember what their place was  in the narrative.

It is historic fiction, peppered with a great deal of information. The author is playing the role of the main character who is telling the story. When it begins, the reader learns of a man who was arrested for trying to steal the bullet-ridden suit of candidate Jorge Gaitan who was murdered in 1948. Through the memories of Juan Vasquez, the story is told. The reader learns of the reason that brought Vasquez to Columbia. He and his wife were visiting relatives. His wife, pregnant with twins, had to be hospitalized there for a lengthy period because of complications from her high risk pregnancy. While there, Vasquez reunites with people like, Dr. Francisco Benavides, the son of the medical examiner who handled Gaitan’s body. He also learns more about, and meets, Carlos Carballo, the man was being accused of trying to steal the damaged suit belonging to Guitan.

In the course of conversations about possible conspiracies surrounding Guitans murder, Vasquez learns about the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Twin Towers attack on 9/11. The similarities are explored. Was the murdered Roa Sierra the real murderer of Guitan? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Who really engineered the terror attack on the Twin Towers?

Carballo, who tried to steal Guitan’s suit, wants Vasquez to write the true story of Gaitan’s death, as he sees it. He has all the information prepared. Presumably, he had wanted another author to write it, the renowned R.H., but he died before he was able to fulfill the task. It was at that author’s funeral that Vasquez was approached by Carballo. Vasquez refuses and when the twins are born, they all return to Spain. Years later, he is again in Columbia and tries to contact Dr. Benavides to apologize for his behavior. He had been really disrespectful to him when they last saw each other, with Vasquez misinterpreting the doctor’s  effort to help as interference and tainted in some way, Often the character Vasquez is rude and arrogant, making him a bit unlikable.

To enhance the narrative, ordinary occasions and events, that we all may experience, like funerals, births, are introduced. The reader feels drawn to consider their own reactions, along with the characters’ reactions, at those times. Unfortunately, it sometimes felt drawn out and tedious. There was an overarching philosophy introduced in the narrative. “The future of the babies being born was in their hands. The dead were no longer involved, nor were they capable of feeling or showing love”. The history was influencing the future.

Mixing fact and fiction, the author weaves a story that I found confusing, but fact-filled, which was its most redeeming feature.