The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

One of the many reasons for reading literature in translation is the window it can provide onto experiences other than our own, sometimes experiences we never knew existed.  The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez provides a window on life among German nationals living in Columbia during the second world war.  Because of diplomatic pressure from the United States, the government of Columbia published a list of German nationals deemed security risks.  Many of these men were arrested and confined for the duration of the war.  After their release, they were not allowed to work in certain areas for several years.  Many lost their livelihoods, their homes, the families; some lost their lives.

In the chaos of the early days of the war, many German nationals were added to the list whether or not they were fascists, supporters of fascists, even Jewish.  In the hotel that served as a prison, it was not uncommon to find Jewish men and Nazi party members sitting poolside waiting for a friend or family member to arrange their freedom.

This event provides the background for Mr. Gabriel Vasquez’s look at the nature of informing and its consequences.  Mr. Gabriel Vasquez is not really interested in the ins and outs of these arrests but in those who informed and what happened to them.  The novel’s narrator, Gabriel Santoro, is a Columbian author of German descent.  His own father was not imprisoned during the second world war but many of his peers were.  After Gabriel Santoro published a book based on interviews with a family friend about her family’s experience as German Jews living in Columbia during the war, his father refuses to speak with him for many years.  His father sees this act as a betrayal, a revelation of family secrets best kept quiet.  Why bring up the past?  No one is interested anymore.

In a sense the younger Santoro has informed against his father, though he does not know it yet.  Years later,  the two reconcile after the father suffers a near fatal heart attack only to die six months later in an automobile accident.  After his father’s death, Gabriel finds out that he once informed against an innocent family friend.  While Gabriel’s father survived the war unarrested, the family friend was unable to find a way off of the government’s list and consequently lost everything.  In the end, he killed himself.

While there are several thriller like elements in The Informers, what makes it an interesting novel is this look at the nature of informing and its consequences.   Gabriel’s father informs on a friend to escape prison.  Gabriel informs on a friend to publish a book.  Later, a television crew will inform on them both for a sensational story.  All three acts have complicated consequences, some generational.  In the end, the reader must ask himself just how much should have been kept quiet.  Are we really better off knowing?


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011.  Before re-reading this review today, I had no memory of this book.  That’s one powerful thing I’ve come to understand while moving all my old reviews over to this newer site, just how fragile our memory of what we read is.  Somethings vanish from our minds moments after closing the book; some very good books go this way.  But the benefit of having a blog, and rereading it, is that most of those books come back to you once your re-read a well written review.  This review is pretty well written, I think.  Not the best, but decent.  It certainly does the job in-so-far that I kind of want to read this book now.