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Novelist Revisits The Assassination And Conspiracies That Fueled Colombia's Civil War


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez grew up in Bogota, Colombia, when drug lord Pablo Escobar had declared war on the country, setting off car bombs in the capital and terrorizing its citizens. Vasquez himself was almost blown up in one of those bombings. In his novels, he's written about how his country's violent past shapes its present. His new novel, "The Shape Of The Ruins," looks at Colombia's history of political assassinations and the conspiracy theories that swirl around them.

In 1948, the liberal presidential candidate Jorge Gaitan was murdered by a lone gunman in the streets of Bogota. The assassination sparked a bloody riot that claimed the lives of 5,000 Colombians and began a period of political unrest called The Violencia. A decade later, over 200,000 people were dead. Many Colombians are obsessed with Gaitan's assassination the way many Americans are obsessed with President Kennedy's assassination. And conspiracy theories stick to both. Juan Gabriel Vasquez spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with a reading from the new novel.

JUAN GABRIEL VASQUEZ: (Reading) Like all Colombians, I grew up hearing that Gaitan had been killed by the Conservatives, that he'd been killed by the Liberals, that he'd been killed by the communists, that he'd been killed by foreign spies, that he'd been killed by the working classes feeling themselves betrayed, that he'd been killed by the oligarchs feeling themselves under threat. And I accepted very early, as we've all come to accept over time, that the murder of Juan Roa Sierra was only the armed branch of a successfully silenced conspiracy. Perhaps that's the reason for my obsession with that day. I've never felt the unconditional devotion that others feel for the figure of Gaitan, who strikes me as more shadowy than is generally admitted. But I know this country would be a better place if he hadn't been killed and most of all, would be able to look itself in the mirror more easily if the assassination were not still unsolved so many years later.

April 9 is a void in Colombian history, yes. But it is other things besides - a solitary act that sent a whole nation into a bloody war, a collective neurosis that has taught us to distrust one another for more than half a century. In the time that has passed since the crime, we Colombians have tried, without success, to comprehend what happened that Friday in 1948. And many have turned it into a more or less serious entertainment, their time and energy consumed by it. There are also Americans - I know several - who spend their whole lives talking about the Kennedy assassination, its details and most recounted particulars - people who know what brand of shoes Jackie was wearing on the day of the crime, people who can recite whole sentences from the Warren Report.

People are the same all over the world, I imagine - people who react like that to their country's conspiracies, turning them into tales that are told like children's fables and also into a place in the memory or the imagination, a place we go to as tourists to revive nostalgia or try to find something we've lost.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's Juan Gabriel Vasquez reading from his new book "The Shape Of The Ruins."

Juan Gabriel, welcome to FRESH AIR.

VASQUEZ: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

BRIGER: So on April 9, 1948, the Liberal leader Jorge Gaitan was assassinated in Bogota. And you call it the most famous political crime in Colombian history. Who was Jorge Gaitan?

VASQUEZ: Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was this Liberal leader who had been mayor of Bogota. During the '40s, he had become the most influential populist leader. He had a huge following. He was respected to the point of adoration. And he had become a presidential candidate, quite likely to become president. That was the moment in which he was killed.

BRIGER: The assassination had severe consequences for Colombia. The immediate repercussion was called Bogotazo...


BRIGER: ...Which was an incredibly violent riot that led to a 10-year civil war known as La Violencia. Can you describe those events for us?

VASQUEZ: The riots and the popular revolution that this crime provoked ended three days later with something like 3,000 casualties. The city became a city at war. It was burned down in the downtown neighborhoods. Snipers climbed onto the rooftops to shoot at everything that moved. The killing ignited this rage at a national level and turned the country into the theater of an unofficial civil war between the Conservatives and the Liberals that ended, more or less, in 1958, after a quarter of a million killings.

BRIGER: You say that there's a lot of similarities between Gaitan's assassination and that of Kennedy's. Like with the Kennedy assassination, the official history of Gaitan's murder states that there was one shooter acting alone...


BRIGER: ...Juan Roa Sierra, who right after the shooting was taken out and murdered, dragged through the streets by mobs. But there's a lot of Colombians who believe that he was just merely, you know, the instrument in a larger conspiracy. What are some of the beliefs swirling around Gaitan's assassination?

VASQUEZ: It's easy to see these points in common between the Gaitan assassination and the Kennedy assassination, both murdered by so-called lone wolves, both murdered by people who were murdered themselves immediately after the crimes - Lee Harvey Oswald a day later or something like that, if I remember correctly.

But Juan Roa Sierra, Gaitan's murderer, was lynched by a furious mob just minutes after the assassination. All these are issues that not only have been turning around in my mind for the longest time but also obsess my character, the main character in the novel. He's a man called Carlos Carballo, who is obsessed with the idea of a conspiracy behind the Gaitan assassination. And so he finds these threads, these points in common between the two murders that I wouldn't subscribe to necessarily myself. But you know, he's the one who holds those opinions.

BRIGER: This gets a little complicated, but you also compare this assassination to an earlier assassination in Colombia's history of another Liberal leader named Rafael Uribe. And I don't want to get too deep into that, but it does seem that conspiracy theories are becoming more mainstream, at least in the United States. And that...


BRIGER: ...Seems to coincide with a deep suspicion of journalism. Phrases like fake news and alternative facts are becoming more and more commonplace.

VASQUEZ: Yes, yeah.

BRIGER: I'm just wondering what you make of that.

VASQUEZ: Well, I think it's a symptom of one of the most dangerous moments we have suffered as democracies. A free press, a press that can work with no restrictions is absolutely essential for the well-being of a democracy. Democracy doesn't exist without dissent, without criticism, without debates, public debates. And journalism is the place where that goes on.

BRIGER: The narrator of your novel has a very distinct name.

VASQUEZ: (Laughter).

BRIGER: He's called Juan Gabriel Vasquez.


BRIGER: And I always wonder why novelists sometimes use a version of themselves in their fiction. I think this is the first time you've done it. But sometimes...


BRIGER: ...It seems like they're doing it ironically or there's something postmodern about it. That doesn't seem to be your reason, though. Why did you decide to make yourself the narrator of your novel?

VASQUEZ: Yes, that's true.

Well, the reason had to do with the circumstances in which the novel was born. I met this surgeon who invited me to his place and showed me the human remains - right? - a vertebra that belonged to Jorge Eliecer Gaitan and then a part of the skull that belonged to Rafael Uribe Uribe. This happened in September of 2005. That was the same moment in my life in which my twin daughters were being born in Colombia - in Bogota. Now, they were born very prematurely - at 6 1/2 months - which is a complicated situation that led to my wife and me spending a lot of time at the hospital while the girls recovered in their incubators. So...

BRIGER: And it sounds like your wife was hospitalized before the delivery...


BRIGER: ...Too, in order to give your premature daughters time to develop before coming out into the world.

VASQUEZ: Exactly, exactly. So in those days - these were several weeks, maybe a month and a half in total, that we spent at the hospital. This is the time in which I met this doctor who showed me the bones that he had at his home. And so I saw myself immersed in this very strange situation in which I went to this guy's place to take in my hands the human remains of two victims of political violence in Colombia, and then I went back to the hospital to take my own girls into my hands.

And the situation was so - so potent with me that these questions began taking shape very slowly in my head. What relationship is there between the two moments? Is my country's violent past, is that transmissible? Will that go down generation after generation to reach, in some way, the lives of these girls that have just been born? How can I protect them from this legacy of violence? I have always been aware that my life has been shaped by the crime of Gaitan for personal reasons, family reasons, sociopolitical reasons. It has shaped my whole country and the life of everybody I know. And so I thought, will that happen to my girls?

And so I realized that inventing a narrator, inventing a personality different from myself would, in a way, diminish them - or rather, undermine the importance these events had for my life. So - making a narrator up would remove me from these events, these anecdotes. And I didn't want that to happen. I wanted to take moral responsibility, as it were, for everything that I was telling in the novel.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with one Gabriel Vasquez author of the new novel "The Shape Of The Ruins." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Juan Gabriel Vazquez, author of the new novel "The Shape Of The Ruins," about political assassinations and conspiracy theories in Colombia.

BRIGER: You grew up in Bogota when the city was suffering from the terrorism of the drug lord Pablo Escobar.


BRIGER: And Escobar was assassinating both political figures but he was also indiscriminately killing civilians...


BRIGER: ...In order to put political pressure on Colombia's leaders. He killed thousands of people, both with just random bombings in the city; he also blew up a passenger airplane.


BRIGER: I'd just like to hear you talk about what it was like growing up in that period.

VASQUEZ: I was born in 1973, so this means that drug traffic between Colombia and the United States had just begun. Richard Nixon closed the Mexican border in 1969 in order to prevent marijuana from entering the U.S. through the southern border. And this is when people began to look towards Colombia, and the first generations of smugglers began to appear. So I always like to remember that the DEA was created in the same year that I was born. So I'm part of that generation, that generation that was born with drug traffic.

When I was 11, Pablo Escobar had a minister of justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, murdered. And this was the event that just changed the whole situation. After that, this war between Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel and the Colombian states began. And it shaped my whole adolescence. Bombings were going off every day, political killings - but also indiscriminate killings of citizens, as you say. And that went on until Pablo Escobar himself was killed in 1993. I was 20.

So for a whole decade, my private life was organized around this idea that we were living with unpredictable violence and that any time, a bomb could go off in a shopping mall, on a plane, in any kind of building - and that was that.

BRIGER: Well, it sounds like you, yourself, narrowly escaped being killed in one of these bombs. There was a car bomb that went off right next to a stationery store that you were going into to look for a book, that killed many parents and their children buying school supplies.

VASQUEZ: Yes. I had just turned 20. This was January of '93. And I was studying law and already had decided that my law studies didn't interest me in the least because I wanted to become a novelist. And so what I did with my time in downtown Bogota was walk around and visit the many secondhand bookstores that downtown Bogota was filled with. And in one of those excursions, I had the intention of visiting this stationery shop which had a small bookstore at the end.

And that day, I went by the stationery shop, and it was filled with mothers and their children because it was the first day of school. And they were all buying their school materials. So there was - there were too many people. It was too much noise, too much movement. And I decided I would just go around the block to another place that I liked to visit, another secondhand bookshop.

Just as I was turning the corner, about maybe a minute or a couple of minutes after passing in front of the stationery shop, a bomb went off, a bomb that Pablo Escobar had placed in front of the building next door or across the street, which was a public building. So he was - that was his whole campaign against the Colombian state. That bomb killed 20, 23 people, and many of them were children and mothers who were in the stationery shop. So we all - I mean, we all - in Colombia, we all have that kind of anecdote. We all escaped a moment of unpredictable violence, as I say, in one way or another.

BRIGER: Well, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, thanks so much.

VASQUEZ: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Juan Gabriel Vasquez is the author of the new novel "The Shape Of The Ruins." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Our music critic Ken Tucker - excuse me; sorry. Our music critic Ken Tucker will review the new album by the country trio Pistol Annies after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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Sam Briger