Review: Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

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.

Plot Overview

 

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.

 

Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Thoughts

 

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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33 thoughts on “Review: Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

  1. The minute that I read this was a translated work of fiction I was intrigued. I spent so many of my younger years reading hardcore Fic that now I find myself in a YA flow but I’m slowly looking for a way back to the genre that started my love of reading. I rarely if ever come across South American authors so I must stop what I am doing when I do. It saddens me though that the sexual abuse of the character was used as plot device that took away from the victim, which I agree is extremely problematic. Hmmm…I will hold out hope that you come across a good one since you are my Go To for Diverse Reads 😉

    1. Juan Gabriel Vasquez has written others boos, so may look into some of them? I don’t think I can recommend this book, but many people have enjoyed it and most reviewers don’t even mention the issue I had problem with.
      If I come across a book by a South American author that I love, I’ll let you know!

  2. Sounds like one of those books which, after reading it, you really don’t know what the ‘correct’ thing to feel is. I’m starting to think there’s no such thing as a non-problematic book :/

    Still, there’s good and bad in everything, and hopefully there was enough good here to make it worth your time.

  3. Thanks for the review Naz! So odd of a political-esque novel to suddenly delve into events like that, although la Fiesta del Chivo also paid lip service to the notorious acts of Trujillo.

  4. First off, I appreciate your indication of the spoilers. That said, I did read it all because I wanted to know– and honestly, if you don’t connect well with a book, I’ve found over the past year I probably won’t either. Particularly over this content.
    It’s a shame that Samanta’s character didn’t bring a stronger voice about sexual assault and what we can do about resolving it. Any form of abuse as a plot device has often led me to DNF’ing a book. I love the idea– I wish you had found it to be better executed. Thank you for sharing your opinions, Naz!

  5. Bleh, the sexual assault thing is disappointing, for the author to have included it as part of a story that didn’t belong to the survivor. It’s especially a shame because I really want to read more fiction from Latin America in the upcoming year — it’s a huge gap in my reading life and I am trying to fix it — and this was one that was on my list!

    1. Yeah, it’s such a shame! I may try some of his other work because I really did like his voice and writing. It was only when the SA as a plot device came in that he started to lose me. And there was no coming back from that in my eyes. :/

  6. I am always happy when the work of the translator is mentioned. I have worked on many works translated in French and never did the teachers even acknowledge it. I like the sound of the book but after reading your issues with it I wonder whether I should actually add it to my wish list. I’m curious but my TBR is so big now that I have to be careful about adding anything! Great review.

    1. You should be careful about what’s added to your TBR! I think some readers will like this book and some reviewers have actually praised the story without mentioning the issues I had with it. But if you’re like me and don’t like reading sexist nonsense or stories that diminish the experiences of sexual assault victims, this book isn’t for you.

      And yes, I had to at least mention the translation because it really was well done.

  7. Oh wow. I was really interested in this book. Using SA as a plot devise irks me a lot, particularly when it upholds culture of victim blaming and all that crap. I appreciate your honest thoughts and critiques of the book. You are one of the voices in the community who I respect the most. And I will take this review as I decide what books I read and what books i pass on.

    1. Thank you, Brendon. I appreciated and respect your voice in this community as well.
      Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book to you. It’s such a shame because I was so excited to get this book for review, as it was one of my first ones from a big publisher. I hope they don’t mind my honesty. But I figured they know I had to be honest!

  8. I guess we can’t love them all! This is a great review of the book, though, and you explained well what your issues with the book are. It never hurts to come across a book that I *don’t* want to add to my list!

    1. I tend to only review books on my blog that I actually enjoyed! But we can’t love them all, as you said. In this case, I had to write up a review because it was sent to me by the publisher, but I had to be honest. I hope they don’t mind!

  9. I have seen the book on social media. Reading a review for the first time. I did not read the whole para of your thoughts on the book because of spoilers. By how you ended the review I think you were bothered by some parts of the book. But also glad the book moved you in some places.

    1. It was difficult not to talk about spoilers in my discussion of the issues I had with the book. Maybe you’d be able to overlook them, though. The author has other books, of course, so perhaps one day I will read them because I do want to explore more South American authors.

  10. Wonderful review as always Naz! The concept for this one sounds so good! I’m sorry this fell short for you in the second part of the book.

    “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.”

    This is such a shame. Harmful stereotypes in sexual assault victims hinder society from dealing with the issue itself. The idea that the victim did something to bring it upon themselves makes me sick.

  11. Man, it sounded so promising until you dove into those issues that are rather problematic. Sucks that the whole victimization side of the tale wasn’t executed properly. It is still pretty cool that they translated the author’s work in English. Even if this might not result in the same reading experience as the original book in its original language, I find that translations can still be very powerful! 😀 Great review, Naz!

    – Lashaan

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