Riverhead: 352 pp., $26.95
The past is a shadow-bound, elusive creature in Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez's "The Informers." When pursued it may flee, or, if cornered, it may unleash terrible truths. Disturb it even slightly and it can subsume the present, as a journalist learns when his memoir of a family friend inadvertently illuminates events his father -- and his country -- would prefer remained forgotten.
"The Informers" is narrated by Gabriel Santoro, a Bogotá reporter and author of a book that recounts the life story of a Jewish German immigrant named Sara Guterman whose family was one of many to escape to Colombia during the early years of Nazism. The primary distinction of "A Life in Exile," this book within a book, is the review it receives from Santoro's identically named father. The elder Santoro, a professor with a reputation as the moral conscience of the embattled nation, inexplicably savages the book in a prominent newspaper.
When his son confronts him, the scholar elaborates on his dismissal: "Memory isn't public. . . . [T]hose who through prayer or pretense had arrived at a certain conciliation, are now back to square one. . . . you come along, white knight of history, to display your courage by awakening things . . . you and your parasitical book, your exploitative book, your intrusive book."
What the book has stirred up -- or what the elder Santoro imagines it has -- is talk of the blacklists of the 1940s. German and Austrian immigrants suspected of Nazi sympathies were consigned to these lists, often as a result of the testimony of informants. In most cases, financial ruin soon followed. The vast majority of those blacklisted were innocent.
One such man was Konrad Deresser, the father of the elder Santoro and Guterman's childhood friend Enrique. His blacklisting led to confinement in a hotel-turned-internment-camp, the failure of his marriage, and finally his suicide.
After the encounter, the two Gabriel Santoros do not speak for three years. Their reconciliation is precipitated by the father's brush with death; a checkup reveals he is in need of a coronary bypass. He pulls through and recovers, thanks in large part to the ministrations of a physical therapist, Angelina, who soon becomes his lover. The two journey together to her hometown of Medellín, and there the elder Santoro dies when his car careens off a treacherous mountain road.
His son, who never stopped trying to piece together the rationale for his father's violent reaction to his book, is left with even greater mysteries to unravel. Even as he struggles to reconstruct his father's early life, and the tumultuous time in which it unfolded, Angelina goes public with a shocking revelation: The esteemed professor was an informer. It was his testimony that ruined Konrad Deresser, and a desire to track down Enrique to make amends that inspired his final, ill-fated journey to Medellín.
Soon, the younger Santoro is writing a second book, on the betrayal and its consequences. In it, he imagines the turmoil of his father's last days, the life of the vanished Enrique, even the agony of Konrad Deresser's decline. When it is published, Santoro finds himself tracing his father's path to Medellín to meet Enrique.
At its best, "The Informers" is chilling, but often it is merely chilly. The younger Santoro, who has "never known where friendship stops and reporting starts," is strangely bloodless. He is an instrument of his story, a receiver and inventor of histories -- an informer, and a good one, but not a fully realized character.
We are granted little access to either his emotional life or his practical reality: The pain of his father's betrayal remains unarticulated; his own love life receives less than a page's worth of attention; he appears indifferent to the success of his own books. Even his quest to uncover the truth seems academic, less personal than perfunctory.
The motivations of other characters too are often thinly dramatized. Angelina's treachery, Santoro writes, is committed because "my father condensed, involuntarily, every little tragedy Angelina had suffered in her life." It is an explanation that is satisfying only on the level of rhetoric; one has the sense that Santoro accepts it because his own emotional reality operates on a similar plane.
Vásquez is a hugely skilled writer, his prose weighted with authority and carefully observed detail, and he is a dexterous weaver of voices and time periods. "The Informers" fares best when he allows his protagonist to stay in the moment, to build scenes instead of imagining wide swaths of the past. The journalist's visit to Enrique Deresser is gripping: revelatory and elusive, understated and devastating. Sara Guterman's recollection of an explosive 1943 dinner the Deressers held for a Nazi named Bethke is deeply dramatic, rife with tension and complexity. The emotional impact of such scenes -- in which a nation's unresolved pain is distilled, writ small, in the actions of a single man or the volleys exchanged over a dinner table -- hints at the power of which Vásquez is capable.
Mansbach is the author of "The End of the Jews," winner of the California Book Award for Fiction.