In this auto-fictional novel from the author of The Sound of Things Falling, a man is arrested at a museum for attempting to steal the bullet-ridden suit of a murdered Colombian politician, few notice. But soon this thwarted theft takes on greater meaning as it becomes a thread in a widening web of popular fixations with conspiracy theories, assassinations, and historical secrets—on that haunts those who feel they know the truth behind these killings.
...[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.