Sidharth Vardhan

Of the shape of the ruins – a review

The shape of the ruins Juan Gabriel Vásquez sidharth vardhan review analysis
 When a man is arrested at a museum for attempting to steal the bullet-ridden suit of a murdered Colombian politician, few notice. But soon this thwarted theft takes on greater meaning as it becomes a thread in a widening web of popular fixations with conspiracy theories, assassinations, and historical secrets; and it haunts those who feel that only they know the real truth behind these killings.

(A review of 'The Shape of the Ruins',
a novel by Juan Gabriel Vásquez,
English translation by Anne McLean
short-listed for International Booker in 2019
Review first written on March 10, 2019)

I do love how the books are growing shorter. This is the biggest (the only big) book in 2019's long list of International Booker (now in short list) and it didn't feel that long. I think what makes it a quick read is that much of it is narrating facts and events Which kind of offer much less food for thought per minute.

The main theme is conspiracy theories. And it had a putting off effect on me. I find some of them interesting (Dan Brown novels are interesting) but not the ones that concern the death of political figures (Kennedy, Bose, etc), definitely not enough to read 600 page long novels on them.

The Marquez Connections

This one interested me because of the mention of the name of Gabriel Marquez in some of the reviews. Apparently, Marquez happened to be in place of murder of a famous Colombian politician, Gaitain, just after the murder took place and would remember, in his autobiography (Living to Tell The Tale), a mysterious elegant man that played a major role but was not remembered by anyone else at the scene.

Rafeal Uribe Uribe
Rafeal Uribe Uribe, Whose assasination is one of the many discussed in 'The Shape of the Ruins'

Another Marquez link is part of the story being based on the assassination of a politician, Rafael Uribe Uribe, which was a major inspiration for the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendía in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Btw Vasquez loved that book but is critical of its Magical Realism as he is quoted saying when talking about his other book 'The Secret History of Costaguana'

"I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel, there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics. Let me be clear about this quote, which I suppose refers, in a caringly sarcastic tone, to One Hundred Years of Solitude. I believed that with this novel, and I can say that reading One Hundred Years ... in my adolescence contributed much to my vocation, but I believe that all of the sides of magical realism is the least interesting part of this novel. I propose to read One Hundred Years like a distorted version of Colombian history. That is the interesting part; in what makes One Hundred Years ... with the massacre of the banana workers or the civil wars of the 19th century, not in the yellow butterflies or in the pigs' tails. Like all grand novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude requires us to reinvent the truth. I believe that this reinvention is to make us lose ourselves in magical realism. And what I have tried to make in my novel is to recount the 19th Century Colombian story in a radically distinct key and I fear to oppose what Colombians have read until now.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Yet another Marquez trivia, mentioned in the book, is that he claimed to be born in a different year to make the year of his birth same as that of Banana Massacre, an event he was greatly obsessed in and that, as Vásquez tells us found its way into 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'. I don't know why Marquez thought that the coincidence of his birth with a major political event made it any special, it is kind of like old superstitions where people would consult horoscopes or stars (Mark Twain was born shortly after an appearance of Halley's Comet, and he predicted that he would die as well; he would die the day after the comet returned.) but Salman Rushdie, another admirer of both Marquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude (without any qualms about magical realism) also shared Marquez's love for big events. Born about two months before India's independence, he changed the date of birth of his fictional counterpart, Saleem Sinai, to coincide not only the month and date of independence but also the time to exact same second in the Midnight's children.


While the book does mention these Marquez facts, that is all we hear about him. Nothing more. Same with 9/11 conspiracy theory and a couple of others - nothing more than a mere mention in passing 'The Shape of the Ruins' is mostly focused on assassinations of politicians (mostly Columbian, but also Kennedy) and how all of them seem to have more parties involved than the killer or killers that were caught, the involvement of a secret powerful organization. It gets into minds of conspirators, how to them everything seems to be a result of plans from a strong force:

“In politics, nothing happens by accident,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said. “If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.”

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Shape of the Ruins)

But that is going too far and:

"it’s very easy to ignite suspicion but what is necessary is to prove it."

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Shape of the Ruins)

Way too easy. If you look long enough and with full concentration of thought at anything, say a chair in your room, or your own navel, you will suspecting everything including the existence of those very things and yourself. That, in fact, is how yogis and philosophers are born. When it comes to major political events though, there are people whose lives are unfortunately so far affected by them, that they can't help thinking too much at them.

The truth has no obligation to show itself, it can remain hidden, unknown, forgotten, unproven. And majority needs proofs (unless it is a question of faith), and so the versions of events that can't be proved become conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theorist thus must suffer the anguish of a hallucinating person whose private version of reality makes him/her lonely. Many of them waste their lives away trying to prove their version of events. Something that does happen to a character in the book.


Another theme is violence. The assassinations are important because of violence they provoked - in one case discussed in the book, killing thousands within the first few days. The author was especially sensitive to the violence that we have got used to in our modern day lives at the eve of the birth of his daughters. And thus the book is born - and the book is dancing alternatively between reality and fiction.

Love For Leaders

Personally, I think the problem is with our unhealthy obsession with individual political leader rather than the idea or ideas the leader represents (assuming existence of such ideas, most modern day politicians don't have any) - and that is something I think should have been brought up in the book. Much of action of the book (unless it is almost Wikipedia like narration of assassinations) is about blood, bones, clothes, etc of these dead politicians, how some people love them as treasures. In fact, it was the author's (and narrator's) holding the rib of one such politician in his hand which was what inspired this book. Take museums containing historical objects like mummies, Gandi's Charka and alike. I mean really? Isn't it all a kind of necrophilia?

But I think that unhealthy obsession with politicians is the problem. This kind of blind devotion to a single leader, considering him a kind of god, was warned against by Dr. Ambedkar in his speech while introducing the Indian Constitution.

Also, when people are doing something not because they think it is right but because a leader told them to do it, it just makes sense to kill the leader to make people back off. In one of the sequels of Godfather, the writer points out that what is strange is that there are any more assassination attempts on the lives of the political figures given how many enemies they have.

And if there is a lack of investigation in such crimes, it is because the assassin who actually does the killing is of far little importance that the person he kills, to prosecute the assassins diminishes the godlike value of those politicians further (and that is why the descents of the assassinated members of Gandhi and Nehru-Gandhi family find it easy to forgive the assassin).

Anyway, the problem with the 'The Shape of Ruins' is that it rarely goes beyond the superficial scratching of its themes.

And now my favorite quote, especially because Indian elections are coming, and this one perfectly captures the attitudes of most Modi bhakts and twitterites:

"Many years ago I’d dropped the habit of reading the online comments my column inspired, not only from lack of interest and time, but out of the profound conviction that they displayed the worst vices of our new digital societies: intellectual irresponsibility, proud mediocrity, implausible denigration with impunity, but most of all verbal terrorism, the schoolyard bullying that the participants got involved in with incomprehensible enthusiasm, the cowardice of all those aggressors who used pseudonyms to vilify but would never repeat their insults out loud. The forum of opinion columns has turned into our modern and digital version of the Two Minutes Hate: that ritual in Orwell’s 1984 in which an image of the enemy is projected and the citizens ecstatically give themselves over to physical aggression (they throw things at the screen) and verbal aggression (they insult, shriek, accuse, defame), and then go back to the real world feeling free, unburdened, and self-satisfied."

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Shape of the Ruins)

Goodreads comments are still awesome though!

More Quotes:

"maybe because marble plaques are reserved by some implicit or silent tradition for those who drag others to their deaths, those whose unexpected fall can take down a whole society and often does, and that’s why we protect them—and that’s why we fear their deaths. In ancient times no one would have hesitated to give their life for their prince or their king or their queen, for all knew that their downfalls, whether due to madness or conspiracy or suicide, could well push the whole kingdom into the abyss."

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Shape of the Ruins)

“It’s one of two things: either my wife is drowning or we’ve run out of ice.”

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Shape of the Ruins)

"I dislike willful irrationality and I can’t stand people hiding behind language, especially if it involves the thousand and one formulas language has invented to protect our human tendency to believe without proof."

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Shape of the Ruins)

“Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric,” wrote Yeats. “Out of the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry.”

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Shape of the Ruins)

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