When was the last time you laughed at a caricature of a politician? With political rhetoric in high gear on the eve of the Presidential election in the United States, I could not have found a better story to capture the power of the media than Columbian Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s Reputations. Translated from the original Spanish, the language is clear and incisive as the life of political cartoonist Javier Mallarino unravels in this short but powerful novel.
When Javier receives an award for his forty years of creating caricatures by using “a stinger dipped in honey,” he is startled into a reexamination of the value of his observations. A thirty-five year old woman attending the ceremony asks for an interview but later challenges his memory of a party she attended years ago as a seven year old girl at his house. Unsupervised, Samanta and Javier’s daughter drank leftover whiskey from the adults’ half-empty glasses and passed out. A congressman who had come to plead for mercy in Javier’s portrayal of him discovered the sleeping girls. The day after the party Javier creates a damaging caricature of the local politician in the newspaper.
Vasquez frames the story like a mystery. The reader wants to know what horror happened on the night of the party, but the revelation leads to more serious questions. Did it really happen? Was the cartoonist correct to publish his perception and ruin lives? What if he were mistaken in his satire?
Interspersed with his retelling of the event, Javier describes his arrogance in his portrayals as he pursues truth over compromise, and wonders about the loss of his idyllic life with his former wife and daughter. Vasquez also echoes the political and social tumult of his home country Columbia as Javier recalls some of his political cartoons over the years.
As the story ends, Javier and Samanta find the wife of the accused congressman, who killed himself years earlier, and are about to find out the truth – or perhaps a version of the truth. The line I found most appropriate for the election eve was Vasquez’s dry note:
“…the important thing in our society is not what’s going on, but who tells us what’s going on.