Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interesting is not enough | The Informers

I don't recall where I first encountered Juan Gabriel Vasquez's The Informers, but at some point it stumbled across my radar. Maybe I saw it at the library. Maybe I never even heard of it. Eventually I bought the book in the Hebrew translation. Eventually I also read it. I did both without really knowing anything about the book, going in mostly blind and allowing myself to get swept in another mysterious story that wasn't bogged down by expectations or overly revealing plot points.

Even with this advantage, The Informers disappoints. It's a book that is based on a surprisingly interesting aspect of world history (Colombia's part in World War II), and deals with a lot of big, important issues. It looks at a difficult history and delves into the mistakes people make, and the consequences of those actions. But it deals with these issues clumsily. For all its fascinating premise, for all its historical relevance, The Informers stumbles on the very basics - storytelling, writing, and character development.

The Informers is written in a strange style, and in a strange tense. The book alternates between standard first person, to first person telling actual first person narrator, to third person omnipotent, to first person omnipotent. It's weird, and jarring, and rather ineffective. The reason for this writing style is because Vasquez lets his characters tell very long stories, essentially straight-narrating the main plot of the book. But it doesn't work. Forgetting the fact that it doesn't sound believable in the least, the layers get confusing and eventually the whole structure ends up feeling clogged and awkward. It doesn't work.

The narration problems spill over into other fields. There are three truly main characters - Gabriel Santoro the son (the narrator), Gabriel Santoro the father, and family friend Sarah. Sarah is the primary source of stories for Santoro the son - she is the one who goes off on incredibly detailed stories from forty years earlier. Yet despite the sheer amount of pages she narrates, she remains a fairly distant character as whole. All of the characters are like that. Santoro the son is dry and not particularly appealing, Santoro the father is vague and unreliable, and other side characters remain fairly bland and/or undeveloped. Characters are viewed without passion and through a cold, distant lens. It puts the story even further away from the reader, making it very difficult to truly appreciate.

Then there's the fact that the story drags on. And on. Vasquez has a slightly rambling style, and by the end of the book, I couldn't always understand why certain scenes or incidents were worthy of attention. It felt uncomfortably incoherent, in desperate need of a better structure and some harsh editing. The Informers may be fascinating stuff, but at the end of the day, it's a fairly bad book.

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