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.

Reading Assignments for the 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival

Fall is here… more or less.  The weather is still closer to 80 than 70 degrees.  And the view from my window looks nothing like the cover of the L.L. Bean catalog that just arrived in the mail (a couple sitting on the tailgate of an old pick-up truck, a lake surrounded by pines, fall leaves covering the grass).  But it is September and in a few short weeks it will be one of my favorite days of the year.  The Brooklyn Book Festival is being held on Sunday, September 22nd.

I’ve already put together my spreadsheet (yes, I put together a spreadsheet) of the panels I’ll be attending.  I’m a sucker for panels.  I always overbook myself, forget to eat and leave way too little time to tour the tables set up in Brooklyn Borough Plaza.  This year’s line-up looks especially distracting with a number of translated authors in attendance.

There are at least three books I hope to read before the Festival day arrives.

The Assignment: The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Sound of Things FallingMy Reason:  There’s been a ton of buzz around this novel.

The Panel:  Personal Stories, National Memory: Fiction can be as narrow or contained as a single consciousness, or open up and embody something intrinsic to an era or nation. Alexander Maksik (A Marker to Measure Drift), probes the shattered inner world of a Liberian war refugee; Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Sound of Things Falling) captures the dread and violence of his country’s drug war years, and Oonya Kempadoo (All Decent Animals) offers a polyrhythmic, panoramic view across contemporary Trinidadian society. Moderated by Anderson Tepper. Special thanks to the Colombian Film Festival New York.  (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street)

The Assignment:  HotHouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux by Boris Kachka

HothouseThe Reason:  History about books, where can you go wrong?  Plus, I always like to attend at least one “industry” panel.

The Panel:  Publish and Perish? E-books are killing publishing! The corporations are killing publishing! Self-publishing is killing publishing! While headlines continually bemoan the end of the literary world as we know it, others argue that the reports of publishing’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Janet Groth (The Receptionist) and Boris Kachka (Hothouse) take a look inside two of our most storied institutions—The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux—and consider the past while taking the pulse of the literary world today. (Brooklyn Historical Society Library, 128 Pierrepont Street, 3PM)

The Assignment:  The Corpse Washer By Sinan Antoon

The Reason:  This was a coin flip – between The Corpse Washer and Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s Where the Tigers Are At Home (Roblès sits on a 4PM panel called Lost and Found: The Journey Begins At Home).  I’ve been reading a lot of French novels lately and decided on something different.

The Panel:  What Fills the Void After War? Three acclaimed writers from countries that have known conflict and political unrest discuss war’s aftermath and how it informs their work. With Irish writer Colum McCann (TransAtlantic), Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane) and Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon (The Corpse Washer). Moderated by Rob Spillman (Tin House)  (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street, 5PM)

If you’ll be in Brooklyn on the 22nd here’s the link to the 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival events schedule.  You know, so you can make your own spreadsheet!

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