Colombia 1988: Journalist Gabriel Santoro publishes a book about the life of a German-Jewish woman who arrived in Colombia shortly before the Second World War. His father, a well-respected professor of rhetoric in Bogota, lambasts the book in the national press causing a huge rift between father and son. Three years later and seriously ill, Gabriel’s father attempts to rebuild their relationship. Subsequent events lead to Gabriel’s exploration of Colombia’s involvement in World War II when many German immigrants, rightly and wrongly, were suspected Nazis and hence blacklisted and ostracised from Colombian society. The novel centres around the father-son relationship and how a father’s secret and the son’s inheritance of that past propel both on a journey of self-discovery and the search for absolution and forgiveness.
Long sentences, a consequence of the translation, and the meandering and self-indulgent first-person narrative by Gabriel at times hamper the pace of the story and intrude on the other characters’ telling of the story. However, Velasquez’s characterisation of Sara, Angelina and his father’s old friend, Enrique, are particularly memorable and lucid, as is his description of Bogota, which is evocative and redolent. Vasquez’s examination of Colombia’s past and how it encroaches on the present, in addition to his philosophical speculations about the nature of betrayal, honour and redemption, is often compelling.