Book review: The Shape of the Ruins

The Shape of the Ruins

The Shape of the Ruins
by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Translated by
Anne McLean
Riverhead Books

Originally published as La forma de las ruinas
in 2015
Genre: Literary fiction/Historical fiction
528 pages


This Man Booker International 2019 longlist has definitely an issue with genre. I already presented a novel that was supposed to be a historical novel but was not; an autobiography included as a novel, though it was not a novel and even received a nonfiction award last year; and today I’m presenting The Shape of the Ruins, a novel that actually offers a sweeping modern history of the Republic of Colombia, with the author himself deeply inserted within the narrative.

The Shape of the Ruins opens and ends in 2014, with Carlos Carballo arrested for possibly trying to steal a museum piece, the suit of a politician he revered: Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.  Gaitán was assassinated on April 9, 1948. The novel is presented as Carballo’s story, and the author specifies,

this book written in atonement for crimes that, although I did not commit them, I have ended up inheriting.

This right away sets the tone of the book: a powerful hymn to the Republic of Colombia and its national heroes. If these were saints, it could even be a hagiography, with items almost treated as relics (a suit, part of the skull, a vertebra). To these men, Vásquez offers “a mausoleum of words”.
He also tries to analyze what happened in his country’s most recent history. Indeed, Gaitán’s assassination looked a lot like Uribe Uribe’s in 1914, and could even announce Kennedy’s.
As such, the work is a fascinating look at ways of interpreting history, with a central emphasis on conspiracy theories. Is history a collection of random events, or an organized set of causes and consequences, all manipulated by an unknown someone, and where “the causes of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows” (page 500)?

The Shape p441

(quotation continued) not, could not be, more than elaborate displays of disorientation: extensive and multifarious declarations of perplexity.
pages 441-442

The Shape p451

Page 451

Elements of the author’s personal life are also included, especially the birth of his premature twin daughters, experiencing first-hand how “the whole world had turned into a threat”. Well, I assume these events truly happened to Vásquez, but how can I know for sure?

The Shape p161

Page 161

As for the form of the book, actually a book within a book, it contains a lot of digressions, and stories within stories within stories, not unlike Georges Perec’s or Gabriel García Márquez‘ (the Colombian giant of literature) style, two writers even mentioned in the narrative. There are also humorist reflections on politics.

The book reads very fast, even though it has a bit over 500 pages. Kudos to the translator Anne McLean for the fluidity of the writing. Unlike the last book I reviewed for the Man Booker International 2019 longlist, I never had the feeling I was reading a translation.

I really enjoyed the book, though I felt frustrated each time I reflected on what the book was: knowing almost nothing about the history of Colombia, and unfortunately not having the time to research about it at this point, I have no idea what elements I can trust in the book as events that really happened as described. Or if I should just consider them as fictional elements. On the one hand, the author’s disclaimer at the end of the volume highlights the novel characteristics of the work, but on the other hand, the narrative is accompanied by pictures illustrating real events, the type of visual documents a history book would offer. So it could be history/autofiction/fiction, take your pick!

Should it be on the MB12019 shortlist? 

VERDICT: A sweeping view of Colombian modern history, within the framework of possible conspiracy theories.  Different.

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Any other book by this author I should read?



7 thoughts on “Book review: The Shape of the Ruins

  1. Another great review, Emma. That first quote expresses the way I feel about my own country! In fact, I often feel I learn more truth about history in novels. From your review, I would say this one belongs on the shortlist. I have read most of GGM’s novels and more about Columbia would be great.


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