The Shape of the Ruins

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, and Anne McLean

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By Juan Gabriel Vasquez, and and, Anne McLean

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It takes the form of personal and formal investigations into two political assassinations – the murders of Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914, the man who inspired García Márquez’s General Buendia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and of the charismatic Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the man who might have been Colombia’s J.F.K., gunned down on the brink of success in the presidential elections of 1948. Separated by more than 30 years, the two murders at first appear unconnected, but as the novel progresses Vásquez reveals how between them they contain the seeds of the violence that has bedevilled Colombia ever since.

The Shape of the Ruins is Vásquez’s most ambitious, challenging and rewarding novel to date. His previous novel, The Sound of Things Falling, won Spain’s Alfaguara Prize, Italy’s Von Rezzori Prize and the 2014 Dublin IMPAC literary Award.

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02 Jun 2019


It’s difficult to categorise this book. It’s part memoir, part investigative journalism with the lines between fact and fiction incredibly blurred.

The strength of this novel lies in its championing of the power of literature. Vasquez presents a world where literature is a noble pursuit whose purpose is to articulate the values and sensibilities of the time. Writers in the novel have a duty to investigate and unravel truth and share that with their country in order to clarify its sense of national identity.

If that sounds heavy, it is. This book is not a lightweight thriller; it’s a deep, detailed trawl through historic documents and conspiracy theories to get to the truth of two murders that have defined Colombia’s identity for decades. The passion Vasquez has for his country and for his craft is evident and this book will surely convince you that literature has a major role in shaping the consciousness of nations.

This book is hard. Not because it reaches 500 pages or tackles a troubling subject; because it is densely written and swamped in the minutiae of archived documents, newspaper articles, autopsy reports and conspiracy theories. These details failed to drive the plot forward or engage my attention, instead making the already lengthy sections (they’re much longer than chapters) plod rather than canter at the pace I’d expect from this type of novel.

I really struggled to get through this book and cared little about the outcome because it was so arduous to gather the scattered details of the plot that would allow me to reach the conclusion.

The Shape of the Ruins has been lauded in prizes and prestigious nominations so it’s clearly found its audience. But, I’m afraid I’m not it.

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