‘Reputations’ by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (2013) – 187 pages Translated by Anne McLean
The previous novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, ‘The Sound of Things Falling’, was spectacularly good in my opinion, and it made my Top Ten list for 2014. That was a moving novel about the violent Pablo Escobar years in Vasquez’s home country of Columbia.
‘Reputations’ does not quite measure up to that performance for me. ‘Reputations’ is about a renowned political cartoonist, Mallarino, who becomes powerful through his newspaper drawings. The story is told from the perspective of the cartoonist, and he just seems a little too self-satisfied with his life for me to entirely empathize with his situation. The cartoonist job, the house in the mountains, the beautiful ex-girlfriend Magdalena, the understanding daughter, everything seems just a little too perfect for Mallarino for him to be believable. If our hero had been a bit more conflicted, I could have accepted him.
At the same time the writing here is crystal clear and fun to read. The plot premise is a good one. Early in his career Mallarino drew a cartoon about an ambiguous situation involving a politician he didn’t like and an eight year-old girl which destroyed the politician’s career and caused the said politician’s early death. Twenty-five years later, Mallarino is confronted with the girl who was involved, grown up now. Mallarino must relive the circumstances of his drawing the cartoon which he had pretty much forgotten.
“Forgetfulness was the only democratic thing in Columbia: it covered them all, the good and the bad, the murderers and the heroes, like the snow in the James Joyce story, falling upon all of them alike. Right now there were people all over Columbia working hard to have certain things forgotten – small or big crimes, or embezzlements, or tortuous lies – and Mallarino could bet that all of them, without exception, would be successful in their endeavor.”
If Vasquez had taken his plot to its logical conclusion and once and for all given us the absolute facts of the case, I believe the novel would have been stronger for it. However Vasquez gives us an open-ended conclusion so we don’t know whether or not the cartoonist had made a terrible mistake early in his career or not. Mallarino does not fully confront his demons. I felt the author had let Mallarino off the hook just like he had let Mallarino off the hook by having his ex-long-term girlfriend still be his lover. Neither Vasquez or his protagonist Mallarino never really confront any difficulties head-on, and the novel is weaker for it.