After last year’s “Lovers on All Saints’ Day,” a collection of short stories set partly in France but predominantly in Belgium, Juan Gabriel Vásquez returns with a novel that plays out in his native Colombia. As with his best-known novel to date, “The Sound of Things Falling,” Vásquez begins “Reputations” in the capital — “inelegant, sour-faced, coarse Bogotá” — but as his drama unfolds, he changes scene to an off-the-beaten-track retreat where his characters are made to confront their pasts.
His protagonist is Javier Mallarino, Colombia’s most famous political cartoonist, whose incisive caricatures of influential figures have made him “a moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half.” After four decades spent honing his craft then wielding the power to repeal laws, topple mayors and destabilize governments, Mallarino is honored for his achievements in a lavish ceremony.
Among those in attendance is Mallarino’s ex-wife, Magdalena, a celebrated radio actress. We rewind to the early days of their marriage, and view her instrumental role in his big break. Following his grand tribute, we witness their rekindled relations and wait to see if she will take him back for good.
However, the reappearance of another woman from Mallarino’s past has far weightier consequences for his future. Samanta Leal shows up first at Mallarino’s tribute, and then at his home in the mountains where she introduces herself as his daughter’s former friend whom he met only once, almost 30 years ago at a fateful party.
Through Samanta, Mallarino reconstructs a dark chapter in which one of his cartoons precipitated a congressman’s downfall. It isn’t long before Mallarino finds himself examining his conscience, re-evaluating his life’s work, and wondering if he still has time to make amends.
“Reputations” is Vásquez’s fifth book to appear in English (translated seamlessly once again by Anne McLean) and while it may be his shortest, it doesn’t stint on incident, revelation or suspense. Mallarino is a fully-fleshed creation: an artist who in pursuit of the truth has assiduously humiliated and incurred the wrath of ruthless generals and drug barons, but who has also damaged weaker and more vulnerable personages.
As this realization dawns on him, the novel begins to explore bigger, meatier issues. Can a single, penetrating cartoon — what Mallarino calls “a stinger, but dipped in honey” — have the force to tarnish a reputation? And if so, “What good is ruining a man’s life, even if the man deserves ruin?”
Much has been made of Vásquez’s realism being the antithesis of the magic variety perfected by his compatriot Gabriel García Márquez. The grounded power struggles in “Reputations,” along with the palpable threat of violence and blend of the personal and the political, reinforces the fact that Vásquez’s fiction is closer to that of Mario Vargas Llosa. With more smart and provocative novels like this one, he could well become his natural heir.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated from Spanish by Anne McLean.
Publisher: Riverhead, 190 pages, $25.