Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s ‘Reputations’ Explores the Slippery Nature of Memory

Vásquez’s work shows how reputation is its own hermetic chamber, sealing the person off from his self.

Reputations is the sixth novel by Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, though his Wikipedia entry explains that he has only written four “official” novels and would like to forget the existence of the two earlier novels written in his 20s. All four of his official novels have been translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, who also did the translation for this novel. Vásquez’s previous novels have done well among English-speakers, particularly The Sound of Things Falling, which went on to win the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Reputations, however, is my first exposure to Vásquez.

Behind every great man…

At just under 200 pages, Reputations is a slim, taut, nervy novel that tells the story of a great man, the reputation he has come to enjoy in his position as a great man, and the slow unravelling of his self-conception after a chance meeting with a young woman. Set in an elegant three-act structure, the first section lays down the groundwork for the character, Javier Mallarino who, when we meet him, is 65 years old and having his shoes shined on a street in Bogotá ahead of an event which will honour his work as a political cartoonist.

The irony of his anti-establishment cartoons being lauded by the establishment is not lost on Mallarino who, despite his greatness and his reputation cemented by the position of his cartoons “in the very center of the first page of opinion columns, that mythic place where Colombians go to hate their public figures or find out why they love them, that great collective couch of a persistently sick country”, goes unrecognised by the person shining his shoes. In that moment of non-recognition, Mallarino also has a moment of misrecognition — in his case, he thinks he sees the figure of the “greatest political cartoonist in Colombian history”, Ricardo Rendón, walk past him on the street “despite having been dead for seventy-nine years”.

The death of the political cartoonist is a foreshadowing of what happens later in the novel, in the metaphorical sense of a social death, and how people continue to live on in the public imagination. After a fluidly-written first part that builds up Mallarino’s life and his ascent into his current status, a younger 30-something woman named Samanta Leal approaches him at the ceremony, introduces herself as a journalist, and comes up to his house in the mountains the next morning to interview him. Mallarino “liked the idea of living up at those altitudes and frequently used it to impress the gullible, even if it was an exaggeration: my house is in the Bogotá highlands”.

That Mallarino likes being above it all is one of the small, discreet clues about his character that foreshadows the revelation that comes in the second part. Up until the current point, the reader has gone along with the pleasing, seductive, wry voice of the narrative that has revealed Mallarino’s life with entertaining nuggets of anecdotes and events. We slowly learn that Mallarino moved into this house after his wife Magdalena split up with him, as she found it difficult to recognise the man she loved in this new public figure who is admired and praised by the intellectual class. It’s tough to love a Great Man, much less live with him, and behind every one there is a woman who has been privy to the deterioration of his original values and character. But when Mallarino tells his story to Samanta, he says he moved into this house simply because he “got tired of Bogotá”. It gives us a glimpse of Mallarino as someone invested in his own self-image as a person far removed from the petty concerns of the materialistic population of the crowded city.

In the second section, the reader learns about Samanta’s true intentions: she’s not a journalist and the interview was a pretext to find out about something that happened to her as a child, when as a friend of Mallarino’s daughter Beatriz, she attended a party in Mallarino’s house and a “scandal” took place. This is a somewhat confusingly-rendered story: Beatriz and Samanta, left alone to their devices during the party, accidentally drink the alcohol that was served to the adult guests and are consequently unconscious. A pediatrician is summoned; he prescribes small doses of sugared water and says that everything will be fine.

But something happens during this party that might involve the sexual molestation of Samanta by an uninvited conservative congressman, who encouraged by Mallarino’s editor at the paper, makes a visit in order to plead his case and beg Mallarino not to humiliate him in Mallarino’s cartoons. This particular section doesn’t work as well after the confident opening of the book’s first section. Memories are hazy and fractured, and perhaps Vásquez wants to imitate something of its disjointed, nebulous properties in his telling. The assured fluidity of the narrative in the novel’s first part is at odds with narrative in this section; Vásquez’s writing still wants to retain control and authority, instead of truly attempting to wrestle with memory’s splintered properties. In that sense, the assured control of the prose wrestles with how to depict the uncertainty of Mallarino’s recollections.

In depicting what may have been the sexual assault of an unconscious child, there’s a sense of studied casualness among the middle-class people who were present at the party or who heard about it later. It’s rendered as a kind of vague situation where even Mallarino’s former wife, a woman whom we might expect to have more curiosity and empathy than Mallarino, learns to forget about what might have happened to Samanta. The casual forgetting of what is a serious ethical violation is disturbing. Mallarino’s focus, as expected, is on himself. Without knowing for sure what really happened, and if the congressman did harm the child, he exploits the issue to his own ends and draws a cartoon that cements his fame. The girl, Samanta, is forgotten until she shows up as an adult wanting to remember what she cannot remember. As she tells Mallarino, “I don’t know if I’m remembering because I remember, or if I’m remembering because you told me”.

After many years, at the ripe old age of 65, Mallarino finally begins to feel bad about his use of the event and of his callous disregard for Samanta in his lack of curiosity about what really happened. But it took Samanta’s appearance as an adult to get that remorse going. For Mallarino, it was a career-making moment.

The later sections of the book involve Mallarino’s ill-thought out scheme to take Samanta to visit the former wife of the possibly pedophilic congressman, who committed suicide after “the irreparable loss of his reputation” brought about by Mallarino’s cartoon. Something about Mallarino’s character is revealed when he thinks about what happened to Samanta, feels sorry for her, but can only consider her situation from an intellectual standpoint: “In a Holbein painting there is a skull you can only see from the side, not when you look straight at it. Was something similar happening to Samanta Leal?” Does Samanta feel similar to the position of a skull in a Holbein painting? seems to be Mallarino’s limit of engagement and empathy.

Mallarino continually rails again Colombian public perception and politics, calling it an “amnesiac country obsessed with the present”, but for a political cartoonist acclaimed by newspaper editors, journalists, writers, artists, and intellectuals of the Colombian middle-class, there’s no real reckoning of the political and social situation that might have lead to this nationwide amnesia. Mallarino can be contemptuous of ordinary people who want to forget, because Mallarino as a Great Man has the privilege of not having to remember in the first place. He can forget about a young girl who might have been sexually assaulted in his own home. He draws his cartoons, earns his praise, and carries on.

Living above the city, Mallarino is above it all, and it’s only at the age of 65 that he finally has to reckon with his own reputation and how easily and casually he has accepted reverence and admiration for doing work that has essentially not altered a single thing about the political situation in Colombia. To have gone through life unburdened by the doubt and worry about the usefulness of one’s life is a privilege indeed. To an extent, Vásquez’s work shows how reputation is its own hermetic chamber, sealing the person off from his self; perhaps part of the book’s point is that it is damaging, that the capacity for self-intervention comes too late. However, there’s no getting around the sexual assault issue as a ham-fisted plot device, complete with a grown victim whom Mallarino finds sexually alluring (pink tongue, mouth “like a strawberry”) and who for some reason reveals her body to him, all so that he can notice her “insolent vulva” and confirm for himself and for us that “he desired her”, but that he is a Good Man, nevertheless, who “detested himself for desiring her”.

But the book’s narrative tone is not satirical; it might take small, sly digs at Mallarino’s own self-perception; the irony is often delightful and the insights are smart and knowing, but by the end the narrative is completely invested in his regret, confusion, and existential malaise. It’s hard not to be annoyed by a grown man who was able to carry on until his 60s before he seriously questioned his life’s work and its consequences. Even then, it still occurs in his own head, and in a milieu of middle-class comfort, far removed from the political and social upheavals that the Colombian ruling class has inflicted upon the people.

The public nature of memory-making and the role of the newspaper and the media in creating false consciousness or even diverting the public’s attention with spectacle is hardly considered. In the end, we are only left with the possibility of Mallarino might make a decision that will make it easier for him to live with himself. The political cartoonist might have to manufacture his own death, but the Great Man must be saved.

RATING 6 / 10