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In 'Reputations,' A Political Cartoonist Faces Crisis Of Conscience


The political cartoons of Javier Mallarino were so influential in his native Colombia that political fortunes rose and fell by the strokes of his pen. With that power came public adulation, but also death threats and ultimately the burden of responsibility for the impact of his drawings on the reputations of others. The crisis of conscience that plagues him feels very real, but Mallarino is not. He's a fictional character. He's the central figure in Juan Gabriel Vasquez's novel, "Reputations," and Juan Gabriel Vasquez joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

JUAN GABRIEL VASQUEZ: Thank you, Robert. It's very good to be here.

SIEGEL: Your protagonist, Mr. Mallarino, is an artist. We see people through his eyes - their bone structure, their posture, the lighting. Why a cartoonist instead of, say, a columnist, a writer?

VASQUEZ: Well, I was myself a columnist for several years, and I still write political columns in Colombian and Spanish newspapers. But I've always been drawn to the figure of a cartoonist, this kind of special relationship they have with the political world because they deal not in words, but in images, in our public image, which is something we care deeply about. And I guess the novel was born from my interest in this political cartoonist - this Colombian cartoonist from the '20s who was, as Mallarino in my novel, capable of destroying a political life with a series of cartoons.

His name was Ricardo Rendon. And his books were all around my house when I was growing up, so I used to read them not understanding anything about Colombian politics in the '20s or '30s. But I developed this curiosity and this interest about this tradition that is so strong in Colombia, probably through French influence, that tradition in which really cartoons can shape political debates and have an influence in the political life of the country.

SIEGEL: In your novel, Mallarino drew a cartoon that led a politician to commit suicide. The reporters from his own paper ask him about it, and they appear to be in awe of his power. Should an artist seek power and try to produce work that has consequences, even horrible consequences?

VASQUEZ: This is one of the great questions in the novel. The novel is built around several questions of importance, but ultimately it tries to deal with the relationship between the private and the public. I used to write - I've written several novels about how the public impinges on the private. But in this one, things work the other way around in the sense that this guy, Mallarino, has an actual power to influence national events and public lives. But, of course, he has a private life. And he has his own fears, his own troubles in his private life - his own troubles with his wife, with his daughter - and that builds a kind of personal situation invisible to the public eye. But that ultimately will have an effect on public life because it will shape his work, it will shape his cartoons, and his cartoons will at the return shape somebody else's life. So this is one of the great questions that I wanted to explore in the novel.

SIEGEL: You write at one point of the character who committed suicide, this wonderful passage about your country. The man, you write, has been swallowed up by oblivion. Not surprising in this amnesiac country where not even the dead are capable of burying their dead. 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, "Snow," falling upon all of them alike. Is Colombia special in its amnesia?

VASQUEZ: I've always thought so, yes. Of course, we all think our country suffers more than anybody else's country. But our present moment is so urgent and so demanding that I've always believed it prevents us from concentrating on the past and trying to understand - how did we get here? The pain and the suffering in Columbia's present moment are so strong that we, in a way, have been keen to forget where it comes from. And this is perhaps one of the things we're trying to do now as we are negotiating a peace agreement to end the war that has been going on for the last 50 years.

SIEGEL: You're talking about the recently negotiated agreement between...


SIEGEL: ...The Colombian government and the FARC, the rebel group that...


SIEGEL: ...Has been fighting against the government for many years. By complete coincidence, I started reading your novels just after binge-watching the second season of the Netflix series "Narcos"...


SIEGEL: ...Which is all about the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. And it seems that to be a novelist of your generation in Colombia, you have to write about politics, about fear, violence, death threats. Is it possible for a Colombian writer to extract human drama that is truly private and disentangled from that context?

VASQUEZ: Well, of course this is not mandatory. Literature in Colombia is now very, very rich and very diverse. But of course, the big question that has always haunted Colombian writers from early in the 19th century is violence. I've grown up with this. I've grown up with this - with these memories about conflicts in my parents' lifetime or my grandparents' lifetime and, of course, conflicts in my lifetime, and particularly the war on drugs. I was aware pretty early that there was a wealth of material about these things in TV, in documentaries, on the internet where you can go and watch a presidential candidate being shot in 1989. But where do we go - this was my question - where do we go to look for the private side, to look for the invisible side, to look for the ways this has shaped the moral and emotional beings of people? And that's what you write novels for.

SIEGEL: I've read your new novel, "Reputations," and your earlier novel, "The Sound Of Things Falling." And in each there's a mystery.


SIEGEL: And in each the mystery is unknowable. There's no answer. What's more important is what the question has done to the characters. Am I reading your intent correctly there?

VASQUEZ: That's very well-put, yes. I'm going to quote you on that. Yes, I'm more interested in the questions than in the answers probably because the whole idea of how literature works - this was - the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov said exactly this, said that literature's job was not to give answers but to find the most interesting questions possible. But of course, this is - in "Reputations," this is part of the subject of the novel, the fact that the past is unreliable, the fact that the only tool we have at our disposal to know the past is memory, and memory is unreliable.

And this is what the poor Mallarino finds out. He's trying to remember what happened in one mysterious night 28 years before. And it turns out that the truth in those - in that night, the truth about that night will have a strong consequence on his life and the life of this other character, Samanta Leal, who is asking him to remember, to try to remember what happened 28 years before. That problem, the problem of how unreliable memory is and how do we deal with that, is one of the possible readings of the novel.

SIEGEL: Mr. Vasquez, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

VASQUEZ: Thank you very much. It was great.

SIEGEL: Juan Gabriel Vasquez talking about his latest novel, which was translated into English by Anne McLean. The novel is called "Reputations." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.