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Review: Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s “Reputations”

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The author of The Sound of Things Falling has written another unforgettable novel, probing a subject—our public images—with irony and deepening humiliation. An event (a public celebration of a man’s life), which ought to be an occasion for joy and contentment, quickly turns sour as the figure of consequence begins to realize that his reputation has been built on sand. We all have incidents in our pasts that we would like to forget when we did not act honorably; but if we don’t face those mistakes as they occur, they are likely to rip our lives to shreds, much, much later, especially during public moments when others are likely to remember those incidents when we did not act appropriately.

For forty years, Javier Mallarino has been the conscience of his nation. As a cartoonist for one of Bogotà’s major newspapers, he has drawn a daily cartoon, touching on every aspect of his country’s political life. Feared by politicians and judges, but loved by his readers, he understands the power of pen and ink, his ability to enhance or destroy reputations—or, more likely, his ability to make fools of people. He’s been a widely-praised cartoonist, choosing his subjects carefully, and though he has outraged many of his subjects, he’s a survivor. Other cartoonists have not been as fortunate; they’ve had to flee the city to save their lives. But Mallarino is more beloved than anything else and—as the novel begins—walking to the site of a public reception for his lengthy years of work.

Mallarino’s humility is typified by his decision to walk to the event, to refuse the offer of a limousine. He rarely seeks the limelight, lives outside the city in a reputationsfairly isolated house in the mountains. He often walks the streets of the city unrecognized. He enjoys his anonymity and his solitude, especially after his marriage ended in divorce. It’s a credit to his character that the woman who was once his wife, Magdalene, will be present at the honorific event. There’s still, in fact, a spark between them. She remarried and quickly divorced her second husband; he never remarried.

As he approaches the ceremony, these are Mallarino’s thoughts: “His political cartoons had turned him into what Rendón [another cartoonist] had been in the 1930s: a moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half, and for all of them a man able to cause the repeal of a law, overturn a judge’s decision, bring down a mayor, or seriously threaten the stability of a ministry, and all this with no other weapons than paper and India ink.”

At the event he speaks these words, “Great caricaturists don’t expect applause from anyone, and that’s not what they draw for: they draw to annoy, to embarrass, to be insulted. I have been insulted. I’ve been threatened, I’ve been declared persona non grata, I’ve been denied entry to restaurants, I’ve been excommunicated. And the only thing I always say, my only response to the complaints and aggression, is this: Caricatures might exaggerate reality, but they can’t invent it. They can distort, but never lie.”

The middle section of Reputations flashes back to an incident more than two decades earlier shortly after Mallarino and Magdalena divorced and they were still working out the living arrangements for their six-year-old daughter. Their daughter invited another girl to spend the day with her. Mallarino had a party that day and during that event a minor politician showed up at the party unexpectedly and begged the cartoonist to stop drawing him, humiliating him. He was embarrassed to have his children see the cartoons. The afternoon might have been forgotten except for the discovery that the two six-year-olds had passed out because they had swallowed the dregs of all the guests’ drinks. A doctor was called and Mallarino was told what to do to revive the girls. But, then—perhaps more unsettling—the girls were discovered (still pretty much unconscious) with their legs spread apart and their privates displayed—all this immediately after the politician who begged Mallarino to cease drawing him was observed leaving the room where the girls were still recovering.

Mallarino’s subsequent cartoon destroyed the politician, who later committed suicide. Mallarino and his co-workers at the newspaper showed little remorse, and then the incident was forgotten. How odd, then, that on the day of the celebration of Mallarino’s career a woman whom he does not recognize asks if she can interview him at his house, under the pretext that she can observe him in his working environment. And although something tells him he should not agree to the request, he does and everything in his life changes after that. Vásquez’s plotting to bring about these altered events is brilliant. Reputations is a story that creeps up on you, catching you off guard in order for the writer to destroy what he has told us about his characters earlier and to make a profound commentary on the way we hide things from ourselves.

What a wise novel, beautifully translated by Anne McLean.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Reputations
Trans. by Anne McLean
Riverhead, 190 pp., $25

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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