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.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (with comments on the movie trailer)

The film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go came out last week.   I’ll be waiting for the DVD – but even without seeing it I know that whoever cast Keira Knightley as Ruth was inspired.  I wonder if Knightley realized that Ruth was the better role, despite Kathy being the book’s heroine and narrator?  Kathy is passive and accepting – a character that allows life to happen to her.  Ruth is angry, hungry, constantly needing something to believe in – she burns hot and fast like a comet.   Maybe Knightley just got lucky.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels are usually set inside the mind of the narrator.  They are memories – comprised almost entirely of flashbacks.  The facts have all been filtered through individual perception, interpretation and personal bias.  What emerges is complicated, fascinating and always skillfully written… but generally doesn’t contain a lot of action.  The narrators remain passive observers, even when they are in the thick of the action.  They are like Dickens’ Scrooge, revisiting scenes from their pasts with us as their spirit escorts.  Reading an Ishiguro novel is to be inside someone else’s head, peering out at the world through their eyes.  How will that translate onto a screen? I believe quite well. Despite the challenges the writers must have faced adapting this book for film, the trailer looks absolutely beautiful and the performances emotionally raw.

Never Let Me Go is the story of Kathy and her two friends, Ruth & Tommy.  It opens, again like most of the author’s novels, with the narrator nearing the end of her life and looking back on the path it has taken.  But Kathy is only 31 years old.   Most of her memories are of the  mysterious, private boarding school called Hailsham where she was a student.  It was an idyllic place somewhere in the English countryside – a non-magical version of Hogwarts.   In many ways she and her friends have had the perfect childhood.  Yet something seems… off.

Parents are never mentioned, instead the children are cared for by “guardians”.  They seem to have no memories of, or contact with, the world outside Hailsham.  We learn that they cannot have children of their own.  That it is much worse for a student of Hailsham to smoke cigarettes than it would be for anyone else.  Hailsham students are special and it is very important that they keep themselves healthy.  And then there is the unexplained requirement that all the children be artistic – their best pictures are taken away by “Madame” for her Gallery.  No one knows why.  Much is left unexplained, so the students create their own explanations.  Until one rainy day on the veranda one of their guardians, overhearing them, explains it all.  She does it quickly, brutally, like ripping off a band-aid.  Only, we are the ones who flinch.

If no one else will talk to you… then I will.  You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.  But I’m not.  If you’re going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and know properly.  None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars.  And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day.  Your lives are set out for you.  You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll…

What they’ll do, why they are special, is the pivot point of the novel – which I’ve decided not to spoil.  (Though, if you really want to know, Google is there for you).  One of the most beautiful aspects of the story is the way in which the layers of the plot are slowly and carefully peeled back.  Knowing the secret won’t ruin the novel – what their guardian reveals is shocking, but there are still 207 pages left to read.  I just believe that knowing it too soon compromises the book as a whole.   Never Let Me Go is Kazuo Ishiguro’s meditation on mortality and what it means to be human.  It is incredibly haunting.  Not just beautifully written, like all his novels are, it is also filled with beautiful ideas. ( Which is even rarer).  His characters face a horrible future.  Yet Ishiguro doesn’t seem to feel that future limits or defines them.  He doesn’t seek to shield them (or us)  from it.

“If you’re to have decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you, every one of you”.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree Are of equal duration”.  This novel attempts to prove Eliot’s hypothesis.  Kathy’s, Ruth’s & Tommy’s lives contain the complete human experience – innocence, love, loss, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness and the opposite of forgiveness.  Abbreviated.  Ishiguro uses his three characters and their very different personalities to explore the choices we make when faced with death.   And while the science fiction element of the story (the secret) and its ethical implications can’t be ignored, these are not his central motifs.  The author is much more ambitious than that.  Considering the subject matter he is taking on, perhaps because of it, Never Let Me Go the novel is amazingly successful and powerful.  The film has the potential to be absolutely devastating.

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2005)
ISBN: 1 4000 4339 5

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