ON THE AFTERNOON of April 9, 1948, a leading Colombian presidential candidate and liberal icon, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was shot three times by a disaffected young man named Juan Roa Sierra. The assassination would prove to be one of the most consequential moments in Colombia’s history. The mob that formed after the shooting tracked Roa Sierra to a nearby drugstore, and after killing the assassin they dumped his mutilated corpse in Bogotá’s central Bolívar Square.
As news of Gaitán’s death spread, the unrest and anger grew until it consumed all of the city. The weeklong riots, known at El Bogotazo, sparked 10 years of bloody political struggle — La Violencia — that claimed 200,000 lives and forced two million people to flee as refugees. Yet not all Colombians believed that only one young man and three bullets derailed the trajectory of their entire country — there had to be something larger, more sinister involved: a conspiracy.
Swirling conspiracies and obsessions surrounding the 70-year-old murder of Gaitán consume The Shape of the Ruins, the new novel by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez and translated by Anne McLean. At its opening, the character of Juan Gabriel Vásquez finds himself pulled into the murky world of counterfactual history after an acquaintance, Carlos Carballo, attempts to rob Gaitán’s bullet-ridden suit jacket from a museum. As Vásquez explains, “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 each other for more than half a century.”
By retracing Carballo’s steps and learning more about what really happened on April 9, perhaps Vásquez can redeem not just the liberal dreams of all the Gaitánistas, but the last half-century of Colombian history as well.
The appeal and endurance of conspiracy theories rely on some of humanity’s most powerful evolutionary tools gone awry, namely pattern recognition and proportionality bias. The useful ability to see connections between events and actions — the bedrock of scientific reasoning — can also be twisted by those desperate to strong-arm a chaotic world into some kind of order. This human tendency to apply misguided meaning to random data is known as apophenia, or in its visual strain — our ability to see images in everyday objects, such as the Man in the Moon and faces in rock outcroppings — pareidolia. Proportionality bias tricks us into thinking that big events must have big causes, thus the murder of Gaitán and its cataclysmic fallout is ripe for conspiracy: it’s impossible that Juan Roa Sierra could have brought about El Bogotazo without help.
As Vásquez dives further into the circumstances surrounding Gaitán’s death, he reconnects with Dr. Francisco Benavides, whose father exhumed Gaitán’s body during an inquest to determine whether there was a second shooter. Benavides notes, “Conspiracy theories are like creepers […] they grab on to whatever they can climb up and keep growing until someone takes away what sustains them.”
The urgency of Carballo, Benavides, and Vásquez to solve the “true” mystery of the assassination brews a quixotic sort of magical thinking as the novel slowly reveals that each has personal connections to the assassination. The search for this conspiratorial truth soon becomes less about ferreting out a plot by the conservative government or the CIA and more about attempting to reconstruct history, as if in doing so they’ll find a secret that will not only undo the terrible legacy of La Violencia but also lift the specter of insurmountable violence that has haunted the country for centuries. Vásquez thinks,
Now it seems incredible that I hadn’t understood that our violences are not only the ones we had to experience, but also the others, those that came before, because they are linked even if the threads that connect them are not visible, because past time is contained within present time, or because the past is our inheritance without the benefit of an inventory and in the end we eventually receive it all: the sense and the excesses, the rights and the wrong, the innocence and the crimes.
The Gaitán assassination is most often compared to the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy: both were young liberal leaders whose murders marked periods of unrest and birthed rampant conspiracy theories. According to a Gallup poll from 2013, 61 percent of Americans believe that Kennedy was killed as part of a larger plot, and only 30 percent believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. In Ruins, Vásquez weaves in Kennedy’s controversial death as well as prominent conspiracies about the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip and the sinking of the Lusitania, which pushed the United States to join World War I in 1915.
The second half of the novel, however, largely concerns another Colombian assassination: the 1914 murder of liberal leader, general, and senator Rafael Uribe Uribe by two disgruntled, hatchet-wielding workers. Vásquez stumbles upon the story of Marco Tulio Anzola, who was hired by Uribe’s brother to find the truth about the killing and its perpetrators. As Vásquez fades from the narrative, the book centers on Anzola’s obsessive discoveries: the shadowy evidence of a third attacker, a third hatchet, an “elegant man” who met with the assassins, Carvajal and Galarza, to order the attack on Uribe. Anzola’s theories and investigations lead him to the conservative government and a sinister cabal of Jesuit priests, all of whom felt threatened by Uribe Uribe’s liberal politics.
Yet Anzola’s investigation blossoms into a fanaticism that alienates his employer and leads, ultimately, to exile after a failed attempt to make his findings public. Like Carballo’s obsession with the assassination of Gaitán, Anzola’s zeal to find some greater “truth” in the death of Uribe Uribe becomes a foreboding omen, a warning to Vásquez as he digs further and further into the unknowable mire of an impenetrably chaotic historical moment.
Conspiracy theories, by their nature, are convoluted and intricate, and in making sure to fully enunciate the supposed plots surrounding Gaitán and Uribe Uribe, Vásquez the author dives deeply into a nuanced, fictionalized history of Colombia. At times, this plunge pushes the story to the point of tedium and redundancy. The heart of the novel may be Vásquez’s grappling with the legacy of these dual conspiracy theories, but it often takes a backseat to meanderings such as a protracted day Anzola spends in court and the painstaking recreation of Gaitán’s routine on the day of the assassination that includes his jogging route.
In the assassinations, Vásquez sees his own generation’s quandary of bloodshed and despair prompted by the rise of Pablo Escobar. The terror of Escobar’s Medellín cartel is a central theme in Vásquez’s 2011 novel, The Sound of Things Falling — the 1984 assassination of Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, the country’s top law enforcement official, and the 1989 bombing of the DAS Building in Bogotá, which killed 52 people, gave Colombia a deathly aura throughout the 1980s and ’90s:
[F]or the morbid curiosity or fascination were just as strong as the visceral rejection of the city I was beginning to feel in those years, the murderous city, the cemetery city, the city where every corner had its corpse. That’s what I was discovering in myself with something like dread, the dark fascination with the dead who swarmed the city: the dead of the present and of the past as well.
In the fabric of the country’s history all the dead are connected, and the urge to find a pattern becomes overwhelming: what could give rise to a city where 52 innocent people are murdered from a bomb or the Minister of Justice is gunned down in his car? In Ruins, Vásquez writes, “We pretended it was normal to sleep in other people’s houses each time that, after a bomb exploded or a politician was murdered, a curfew was declared before we managed to get home.”
Throughout the novel, Vásquez includes images of artifacts and relics — a photo of Gaitán at the time of his death, news articles, frames of the Zapruder film — and more grisly reminders of the human toll, including photos of a segment of Gaitán’s spine in a mason jar and a section of Uribe Uribe’s cranial vault. For Carballo, Benavides, and Vásquez, the relics hold tremendous power to commune with the past and the dead. These saintly objects from Colombia’s martyred liberal heroes, wrapped in the shroud of conspiracy, transform the novel into a reliquary of history.
Yet the story becomes distractingly self-aware — the character of Vásquez even references the book as a “reliquary” — and, ultimately, Vásquez the author frames The Shape of the Ruins as the meta-culmination of Carballo’s request that he do justice to Colombia’s bloody history. An endnote reinforces that what the reader has just read is, in fact, a novel and not a representation of true events. But by placing this reminder just beyond the final page Vásquez has done his best to obscure the work’s true nature.
Why write a novel about conspiracy theories only to assert that nothing the reader has read can be considered reliable? Perhaps Vásquez is underlining the impossibility of a certain, objective truth. But does that mean there is value in these conspiracy theories, in this fanaticism, if approached from that vantage? As the character of Vásquez asserts near the end of the novel,
I don’t know when I started to realize that my country’s past was incomprehensible and obscure to me, a real shadowy terrain, nor can I remember the precise moment when all that I’d believed so trustworthy and predictable — the place I’d grown up, whose language I speak and customs I know, the place I was taught in school and in university, whose present I have become accustomed to interpreting and pretending I understand — began to turn into a place of shadows out of which jumped horrible creatures as soon as we dropped our guard.
The world of conspiracy theories is deeper and more sophisticated than it was in 1914, 1948, or even 2005. From chemtrails to the Comet Ping Pong child-sex ring, from crisis actors to the unfolding Russia imbroglio, conspiracy theories have flourished in recent years thanks to the rise of misinformation on the internet. These theories are now used as a destructive means to their own ends, not just to cause chaos in a political process but also to delegitimize the enterprise of democracy as a whole. After all, people who have shown a willingness to believe in conspiracy theories are also less likely to trust the democratic process. Carballo, the most militant conspiracy theorist in The Shape of the Ruins, becomes trapped within his fanatic beliefs:
I’m talking about a monster, an immortal monster, the monster of many faces and many names who has so often killed and will kill again, because nothing has changed here in centuries of existence and never will change, because this sad country of ours is like a mouse running on a wheel.
This threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we believe in the mouse on the wheel, the more circular our path becomes.