Brace for Impact

The Sound of Things FallingTitle:  The Sound of Things Falling
Author: Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Translator: Anne McLean

The Sound of Things Falling takes a little while to get rolling.   Or perhaps I should say that the story builds slowly.  Either way, it is a book that relies on the reader’s willingness to gather the loose pieces of the plot together and examine the sad, fragmented picture they form.

Antonio Yammara is a young lawyer and college professor who has spent his life in Bogota, Colombia – witnessing with his fellow countrymen the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar’s drug empire.   The novel opens in 2009, with the killing of the male hippo which escaped from the dead drug lord’s famous – and famously abandoned* – zoo. This event, which received international attention, stirs up memories in Antonio of his strange friendship with a man named Ricardo Laverde.  That friendship ended tragically 13 years before the narration begins with Laverde’s murder.

…I don’t know what good it does us to remember, what benefits or possible penalties it brings, or how what we’ve lived through can change when we remember it, but remembering Ricardo Laverde well has become an urgent matter for me.  I read somewhere that a man should tell the story of his life at the age of forty, and this deadline is fast approaching: as I write these lines, only a few short weeks remain before this ominous birthday arrives.  The story of his life.  No, I won’t tell my life story, just a few days of it that happened a long time ago, and I’ll do so fully aware that this story, as they warn in fairy tales, has happened before and will happen again.

That I’m the one who’s ended up telling it is almost besides the point.

Much of The Sound of Things Falling is spent on Antonio’s quest to learn this dead man’s history, but some time is also spent on Antonio’s own life and relationships.  He is almost 40 when he begins writing the book.  He tells us he was 16 when Guillermo Cano (a Colombian journalist) was killed by the cartel in 1986; making him 26 when he meets Laverde in 1996; and 29 when he seeks out Laverde’s daughter in order to learn more about the man’s past.  As you can see, it’s difficult not to get a bit obsessed with the timeline of the events.  Because the parallels being drawn between the two men are being calculated in years.  Juan Gabriel Vásquez has placed his characters in similar positions (though not unique positions by any means) at the same points in their lives- when they are young men, each in love with a beautiful girl, each with a baby on the way. It is inevitable that the tragedy of their individual lives, though they come from two different generations of Bogotans, can be traced back to the drug trade.  And though the tragedies play out in two vastly different ways, discovering exactly how is one of the many bittersweet pleasures to be derived from reading this book.

I’m part of the generation that grew up during the war on drugs.  As a result the history behind The Sound of Things Falling fascinates to me.  Antonio is the narrator, but the hero of the book is indisputably Ricardo Laverde.  Laverde when we meet him has only recently been released from prison (three years after Escobar is killed).  He is a hollow, tired man.  The disconnect which Vásquez creates in this character – between Laverde’s cocky younger and broken older self – is moving.  At its heart Vásquez has written a love story.  Two love stories, actually. But tied up in it all is the story of the beginning of the Colombian cocaine trade in the 1970’s, how it was revolutionized by Carlos Lehder’s idea of using small aircrafts to smuggle the drugs into the U.S., and (through Antonio) the toll the drug cartels’ reign took on ordinary Colombians.

For fans of contemporary Latin American literature Juan Gabriel Vásquez is atypical.  Here is  a completely different voice from, say, Aira, Bolaño or even Saer.   But the seemingly conventional language and form in which Vásquez chooses to write, and Anne McLean interpret, his novel can be misleading.  There are interesting things happening here for those willing to take the time to look.  The title appears again and again throughout the text, though never in so many words.  It is in the pauses.  As if Vásquez wants to remind his readers of what the sound of things falling precedes.  Something Antonio seems to understand too well and Laverde not at all.

Publisher:  Riverhead Books, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 59448 748 4

*For those wondering, the hippos didn’t fare so badly in the end.

3 thoughts on “Brace for Impact

  1. I read this during my 2013 IFFP stint, and while it was entertaining enough, it was never anywhere near the shortlist for me. I’ve heard a lot of good things about his books, but this was just OK.

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  2. Looking back at my review, I think the story suffered from a really slow middle section, which detracted from the book as a whole. Definitely nothing there to make it stand out.

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