...[a] clever, labyrinthine, thoroughly enjoyable historical novel ... Ironic one moment, earnest the next, Vásquez presents himself as the central character of his own book. We learn about his career as a novelist, the state of his marriage, the birth of his daughters; we learn to be uncertain about what is fiction and what is not, what’s history and what’s debatable ... Even at their most grotesque or bloodstained or slyly comic, these anecdotes and observations retain their humanity. Vásquez assembles them into a discursive, mischievous autofiction, combining forensic medicine with hearsay, revealing a third-hand source behind a first-hand account, setting public memory against private, chatter against documentation, until The Shape of the Ruins is less an album of stickers than a comprehensive critique of conspiracy aesthetics.
Readers might expect...a noir detective novel that investigates a crime that has gone unpunished for seventy years and restores some semblance of justice. Nothing, however, is that orderly in The Shape of the Ruins, which subverts the crime genre, presenting the hunt for culprits within the frame of what seems to be a Sebaldian memoir ... Throughout the novel we see the narrator (or is it the author?) trying to isolate himself and his family from the past that threatens to devour him and from the violence broodingly incarnated in Bogotá, described as a cemetery city, murderous, schizophrenic, poisoned, deceitful, furious, blood-stained ... Halfway through the book, the investigation into [Colombian politician] Gaitán’s murder comes to a standstill. It is now that the novel swerves in a startling direction ... Vásquez executes a risky literary maneuver that pays off brilliantly ... Vásquez, for his part, has no problem embracing the titanic intellectual ambition of the great Latin American novels of the past, exploring, as these works did, the ways in which the grand events of history intersect with individual lives in all their intimacy and lay waste to them ... The Shape of the Ruins is suffused with the hope that there is a way to escape the traumas of the past as well as the fear[.]
Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy 15 years later, the brazen killing of Gaitán has forever been wrapped in a shadowy aura of conspiracy theories that swirl around the notion that Roa Sierra was either a pawn in a wider plot or was not the real killer. The long-lingering questions and breathless speculation about Gaitán’s assassination form the framework of The Shape of the Ruins, a sweeping and magisterial novel by master Colombian storyteller Juan Gabriel Vásquez ... The book might easily have settled into the conventions of police procedurals or political thrillers. But Vásquez, whose previous novels have delved into his country’s drug wars and the secret world of Nazi informers in Colombia, takes those forms deeper, examining the nature of truth, the resilience of historical narratives and the subtleties of human obsession.
The Shape of the Ruins might try your patience. The wandering can be a challenge, and its structure takes a long time to cohere. Though each of the novel's sub-stories echoes and influences the rest, they still feel sub-. You will still wonder when you get to return to the present day, to Vásquez and his cranky muse, and that wondering sometimes slows the book down. In those moments, you will be thankful for Vásquez's faultless prose. Be thankful for his translator, Anne McLean, too. She's worked with Vásquez on all his official novels, and is so talented she might be psychic. In her English iteration, The Shape of the Ruins moves forward with gravitational pull. Move with it. The novel's many fake-outs, its resets and restarts, are worthwhile.
Vásquez the author dives deeply into a nuanced, fictionalized history of Colombia. At times, this plunge pushes the story to the point of tedium and redundancy. The heart of the novel may be Vásquez’s grappling with the legacy of these dual conspiracy theories, but it often takes a backseat to meanderings ... Why write a novel about conspiracy theories only to assert that nothing the reader has read can be considered reliable? Perhaps Vásquez is underlining the impossibility of a certain, objective truth.
...a masterly story of conspiracy, political obsession and literary investigation ... This novel explores the darkest moments of a country's past and brings to life the ways in which past violence shapes our present lives. A compulsive read, beautiful and profound, eerily relevant to our times and deeply personal, The Shape of the Ruins is a tour-de-force story by a master at uncovering the incisive wounds of our memories.
...a layered, meticulously observed new novel ... Vásquez’s pacing is leisurely, but a story-within-a-story emerges ... Dense and allusive, with a broad cast of characters, The Shape of the Ruins may tax the patience of American readers. It occasionally comes across as an obscure lecture on Colombian history rather than a deep dive into a country’s damaged soul ... Dense and allusive, with a broad cast of characters, The Shape of the Ruins may tax the patience of American readers. It occasionally comes across as an obscure lecture on Colombian history rather than a deep dive into a country’s damaged soul ... But stick with it. The Shape of the Ruins is far more than a tutorial; it’s a gripping Deep State novel that richly illuminates how the powerful brutalize the powerless. Its implications should serve as a cautionary tale for other nations under authoritarian threats. Vásquez has written the epic of his people.
This book, by design, is immersive in the way quicksand is, pulling the reader in directions often best resisted. Like any conspiracy theory, it’s overly thick with information, but Vásquez successfully gives it a novelistic shape. A fine work of art about the blurry line between truth and artifice.
As he explores suppressed evidence, vanished witnesses, and distorted reports, Vásquez is left with more questions than answers. The novel, bolstered by humor and irony, includes photos, literary references, and intimate family moments, but the most memorable passages depict the assassinations and their aftermath. Vásquez’s captivating, disquieting account of a writer’s journey through the shadowy terrain of his country’s past dynamically illustrates how violence damages survivors, lies erode society, and fiction can convey truths history omits.