The drug trade in Colombia during the years of Pablo Escobar (the 70s to the 90s) looms large in Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s complex novel, The Sound of Things Falling, but that is also true of the difficulty of understanding the past, especially as it applies to family dynamics. Families are ripped apart; children want nothing to do with their parents; husbands and wives find themselves mistrusting one another. And above all, fear controls people’s movements because carnage and death become not a possibility but a reality. As one of Vásquez’s characters reflects years afterward, after Pablo Escobar is long out of the scene.
“A special time, no? Not knowing when it might be your turn. Worrying when someone who was supposed to arrive wasn’t there. Always knowing where the closest pay phone is to let someone know you’re okay. If there are no pay phones, knowing that anybody would lend you their phone, all you had to do was knock on a door. Living like that, always with the possibility that people close to us might be killed, always having to reassure our loved ones so they don’t think we are among the dead. Our lives were conducted inside houses, remember. We avoided public places. Friends’ houses, friends of friends, houses of distant acquaintances—any house was better than a public place.”
So how does Vásquez begin his story—with one of the remaining vestiges of Escobar’s reign: a hippopotamus. A hippopotamus? What did that have to do with the drug lord? Here’s the opening of the novel: “The first hippopotamus, a male the color of black pearls, weighing a ton and a half, was shot dead in the middle of 2009. He’d escaped two years before from Pablo Escobar’s old zoo in the Magdalena Valley, and during that time of freedom had destroyed crops, invaded drinking troughs, terrified fishermen, and even attacked the breeding bulls at a cattle ranch.” A perfect metaphor for Escobar’s destruction when he was still alive—a powerful force, capable of destroying everything in his wake. But also the ephemeral, the luxury of a zoo with exotic animals from around the world in the midst of so much poverty and squalor—let alone violence.
The main character is a young lawyer named Antonio Yammara, who lectures at a university in Bogotá. He strikes up a casual relationship at a pool hall with a man named Ricardo Laverde, whose past includes years in prison, though Antonio knows little about him other than that he was once a pilot.
When Antonio begins a relationship with one of his former law students, he stops frequenting the pool hall for a time, but after he finally returns and he is walking on the street with Laverde, both men are shot. Laverde is killed; Antonio survives, and once he is released from the hospital he’s obsessed with learning about Laverde’s past and why he was murdered.
The story becomes much more complex, as Antonio attempts to reconstruct Laverde’s past with the aid of the man’s landlady, who provides him with a copy (a cassette) of the black box of an airplane crash. It’s easy to conclude (and I think this is intended) that Laverde was the pilot of a plane that crashed and somehow he survived. But that’s not true at all. It was Laverde’s American wife who was in the crash. She had come to Colombia in the 1970s as a Peace Corps Volunteer, fallen in love with Laverde and married him. Worse, some of the early volunteers in Colombia (and I hope this is pure fabrication) who were there to assist with agricultural projects, altered those projects so that the farmers began growing marijuana. Soon the marijuana became a major export to the United States and, shortly, these same volunteers (ex-volunteers by then) realized that profits could skyrocket if the farmers began raising coca.
Did all this actually happen? Who knows, but it certainly makes a compelling story, especially as Antonio tries to reconstruct Laverde’s past and gets a message from the man’s daughter, Maya, who lives in a remote area of the country. Maya’s attempting to reconstruct the same story. What happened to her father and, to a lesser extent, what happened to her mother. It’s Maya who says to Antonio, “The saddest thing that can happen to a person is to find out their memories are lies.” And that’s when Antonio has his epiphany about his own past and why he was also shot on that fatal day when his pool hall friend was assassinated.
And the sounds of things falling? Among other things, “the sound of lives being extinguished but also the sounds of material things breaking. It’s the sound of things falling from on high, an interrupted and somehow also eternal sound, a sound that didn’t ever end, that kept ringing in my head from that very afternoon and still shows no sign of wanting to leave it, that is forever suspended in my memory, hanging in it like a towel on a hook.” The past, too much alive.
Vásquez’s story is cutting edge—almost too clever in its revelation of details, constantly keeping the reader in a tight grip. And Anne McLean delivers another one of her superb translations.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Sound of Things Falling
Trans by Anne McLean
Riverhead, 288 pp., $26.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.