The Informers - By Juan Gabriel Vasquez



On the morning of April 7, 1991, when my father telephoned to invite me to his apartment in Chapinero for the first time, there was such a downpour in Bogota that the streams of the Eastern Hills burst their banks, and the water came pouring down, dragging branches and mud, blocking the sewers, flooding the narrowest streets, lifting small cars with the force of the current, and even killing an unwary taxi driver who somehow ended up trapped under the chassis of his own vehicle. The phone call itself was at the very least surprising, but on that day seemed nothing less than ominous, not only because my father had stopped receiving visitors a long time before, but also because the image of the water-besieged city, the motionless traffic jams and broken stoplights and marooned ambulances and unattended emergencies, would have sufficed under normal circumstances to convince anyone that going out to visit someone was imprudent, and asking someone to come to visit almost rash. The scenes of Bogota in chaos attested to the urgency of his call and made me suspect that the invitation was not a matter of courtesy, suggesting a provisional conclusion: we were going to talk about books. Not just any old book, of course; we'd talk about the only one I'd then published, a piece of reportage with a TV-documentary title--A Life in Exile, it was called--that told or tried to tell the life story of Sara Guterman, daughter of a Jewish family and lifelong friend of ours, beginning with her arrival in Colombia in the 1930s. When it appeared in 1988, the book had enjoyed a certain notoriety, not because of its subject or its debatable quality, but because my father, a professor of rhetoric who never deigned to sully his hand with any form of journalism, a reader of classics who disapproved of the very act of commenting on literature in print, had published a savage review of it in the Sunday magazine of El Espectador. It's perhaps understandable that later, when my father sold the family home at a loss and took a lease on a refuge for the inveterate bachelor he pretended to be, I wasn't surprised to hear the news from someone else, even if it was from Sara Guterman, my least distant someone else.

So the most natural thing in the world, the afternoon I went to see him, was to think it was the book he wanted to discuss with me: that he was going to make amends, three years late, for that betrayal, small and domestic though it may have been, but no less painful for that. What happened was very different. From his domineering, ocher-colored armchair, while he changed channels with the solitary digit of his mutilated hand, this aged and frightened man, smelling of dirty sheets, whose breathing whistled like a paper kite, told me, in the same tone he'd used all through his life to recount an anecdote about Demosthenes or Gaitan, that he'd spent the last three weeks making regular visits to a doctor at the San Pedro Claver Clinic, and that an examination of his sixty-seven-year-old body had revealed, in chronological order, a mild case of diabetes, a blocked coronary artery--the anterior descending--and the need for immediate surgery. Now he knew how close he'd been to no longer existing, and he wanted me to know, too. "I'm all you've got," he said. "I'm all you've got left. Your mother's been buried for fifteen years. I could have not called you, but I did. You know why? Because after me you're on your own. Because if you were a trapeze artist, I'd be your only safety net." Well then, now that sufficient time has passed since my father's death and I've finally decided to organize my head and desk, my documents and notes, to get this all down in writing, it seems obvious that I should begin this way: remembering the day he called me, in the middle of the most intense winter of my adult life, not to mend the rift between us, but in order to feel less alone when they opened his chest with an electric saw and sewed a vein extracted from his right leg into his ailing heart.

It had begun with a routine check-up. The doctor, a man with a soprano's voice and a jockey's body, had told my father that a mild form of diabetes was not entirely unusual or even terribly worrying at his age: it