Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Reputations was originally published in 2006 in the author’s native Spanish. Ten years after publication, English-speakers finally get the chance to read this novel by the award-winning and often-lauded Colombian writer. I don’t read nearly enough translated fiction, especially from South American authors, so Reputations sounded like the perfect book for me.
The premise of Reputations is quite compelling and was the reason I decided to read it. The story follows a political cartoonist named Javier Mallarino who, over the course of his career in Bogotá, Colombia, has garnered so much power and influence that he is able to ruin a career or repeal a law with a single cartoon. We meet Mallarino late in his life, decades after he started his illustrious career that will one day make him a legend. He attends a ceremony in his name that celebrates his many successes, and it is after this ceremony that a woman named Samanta Leal enters his life to change it irrevocably.
Samanta is the same age as Mallarino’s daughter, Beatriz. In fact, these now adult women were once childhood friends when they were 8-years-old. Samanta approached Mallarino because she wanted to remember a critical moment in her childhood that was inextricably linked with a cartoon Mallarino created years ago that went on to ruin a senator’s career and life. The rest of the novel explores Mallarino’s complicated feelings of guilt and complacency, as he grapples with the knowledge that his cartoons and the influence they carry have the power to affect lives profoundly.
The book is divided into three parts. All parts are written gorgeously in language that is succinct, but clear and elegant. Part 1 was my favorite, as I easily became immersed in Mallarino’s Bogotá and thoroughly enjoyed learning about his career and how he attained such a prominent status as a cartoonist. It’s difficult to imagine a cartoonist being catapulted to such heights in the 21st century, especially in this current decade, but since Mallarino gained his fame during the 80s and 90s, it’s entirely believable. I breezed through the first half of the book and optimistically expected a satisfying second half. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
Critique, with some spoilers
Discussing my issues with the book would be very difficult for me and unclear for my readers if I don’t provide more context and dive into spoiler territory for a little while. Read on at your own peril.
My issues with the plot started to appear when Samanta Leal enters the story, after which it takes some unfortunate and unusual turns. As previously stated, Samanta wants to remember an event from her childhood that happened in Mallarino’s house many years ago, when Samanta and Beatriz were friends. This event involves a senator who may or may not have sexually assaulted her all those years ago. It was this senator whose reputation Mallarino ruined with a cartoon. They’re both desperate to know the truth, but for different reasons. It is never clear if the attack actually happened, and this is one of the things that bothered me about Reputations. Samanta’s potential sexual assault appeared to be more of a plot device that brought crisis into Mallarino’s life than into the victim herself. The main reason he wanted to help her uncover the truth of what happened that day was to confirm if his damning cartoon of the senator had any basis in truth. Samanta’s victimization appears as a side issue both in Mallarino’s mind and in the way it is depicted in the spirit of the novel.
The last third of the novel is dedicated to Mallarino and Samanta attempting to uncover the truth of what happened on that fateful day. What was at first a simple yet compelling story about a caricaturist with immense influence suddenly becomes confusing and problematic. There is a scene in particular involving Samantha that plays into harmful stereotypes of sexual assault victims. I found it to be both offensive and unsettling. The ending also felt rushed and inconclusive. Unfortunately, this last section of the book marred my enjoyment of a story that started full of promise.
Reputations was compelling enough to elicit a range of emotions, from rapt amusement to consternation and disappointment. And despite any issues I may have had with the story itself, I found few faults with the language. So I must praise Anne McLean for translating Vásquez’s sparse and elegant prose so expertly. I only wish the entire story had lived up to the promise it initially presented.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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