Juan Gabriel Vásquez (1973)
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Although most of us care about how we are viewed by others, for people in the public eye these concerns can come to dominate their lives. Desperate to hold on to the position they have achieved or the power they wield, such public figures can become extremely sensitive to anything that might raise awkward or unflattering questions about them or their actions. Given that situation, among their most hated and feared enemies must rank political cartoonists, caricaturing their appearance, personality and policies in a most public and visible manner.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s intriguing novel Reputations tells the story of just such a caricaturist, Javier Mallarino. Mallarino draws a daily political cartoon for one of the leading newspapers in Columbia. Over several decades of work, he has skewered a broad swath of people among the Columbian political and elite classes with his drawings and accompanying brief, but often pointed and potent, captions. For the common people in Columbia, he has become the conscience of the country, someone trusted to tell it like it is.
But Mallarino lives in the public eye too, and though he does not carry the weight of having to make policy, his career nonetheless rests on the tenuous and fickle foundation of public perception. He lives --- and draws --- with the knowledge that readers’ trust in him can, no matter how strong it may appear, evaporate overnight if his integrity and truthfulness suddenly come into question. The weight of this reality has led Mallarino to sacrifice everything and everyone, including friends and family, on the altar of his reputation.
As the story opens, Mallarino, in his sixties, prepares to be feted by the Columbian political and media establishment, in recognition of his many decades of work. It should be the crowning achievement of a successful career, a moment of contentment and celebration; instead he finds himself ruminating on the fame he has achieved, on both its value, as well as its personal ramifications and costs. He recalls an early 20th century Columbian caricaturist who had become the “moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half,” (7) and who had nonetheless since “been devoured, like so many other [public] figures, by the insatiable hunger of oblivion.” (6)
Mallarino’s vague doubts and uneasiness unexpectedly find concrete form the day after the celebration, when a chance meeting leads him to recall an event from early in his career --- a moment based on which he had drawn a particularly impactful political cartoon, one that had launched his career to new heights. As he looks back at his motivations for drawing that particular piece, and the dramatic consequences of its appearance in print, he comes to recognize and re-evaluate the over-riding importance that considerations of his position and legacy have played in his work, and the resulting impact on how he has lived his life. He must consider how he to move forward in the wake of his new-found awareness.
The themes in Reputations recall Vásquez’s 2013 novel The Sound of Things Falling (my review here), though this latest novel has a more deliberate pace, feeling almost claustrophobic compared to the variety of settings and drama in the earlier one. In both stories, characters reflect back on their lives, attempting to understand and come to grips with dramatic events that have had lasting impacts. While in The Sound of Things Falling these events were largely random and unpreventable, in Reputations, Mallarino comes to realize the level of complicity he has had in the outcome of critical events in his life. While he had long considered his actions and their impacts as having been largely inevitable and unavoidable, when forced to face their long-lasting consequences, he comes to realize how thoroughly he had rationalized away the control he had had over his choices and so his future.
And so, as the best stories do, Reputations becomes a tale that leads us to ask questions about our own lives and choices.
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Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf