The Shape of the Ruins

Written by Anne McLean (trans.) Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Review by Mike Ashworth

While in a Bogota hospital awaiting the premature birth of twin daughters, the narrator Julian Vasquez encounters a friendly doctor, Doctor Benavides, whom he quickly befriends. Through the doctor, Vasquez meets Carlos Carballo, a man consumed by a conspiracy theory regarding the assassination, in 1948, of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, politician and JFK-like character. Reluctantly, Vasquez is persuaded to write a novel about the murder. Vasquez draws together a collection of evidence varying from anecdotes, hearsay, forensic evidence, witness statements and even faded photographs. He finds himself drawn into the conspiracy, likening it to the assassination of Rafael Uribe in 1914. Is there a link between them, or is this just a classic conspiracy theory?

Vasquez presents himself as the central character of the book. We learn about his career as a novelist, the state of his marriage, the birth of his daughters. The other main characters, Benavides and Carballo are revealed as the book progresses. This is simultaneously a criminal investigation, historical narrative and auto-fiction. Brilliantly translated from Spanish, it is a descriptive and revealing story of Colombian life and culture, wrapped up in an enigmatic search for the truth.