“The Sound of Things Falling” by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (Random House, 288 pages, $27.95)
Colombian writer Vasquez has been acclaimed as one of South America’s greatest writers but is little known here. That may change with his latest novel.
“The Sound of Things Falling” is a story of one man’s search for why something happened to him. But is also much more. Vasquez makes his native Colombia a major character in the novel as he recounts, through the lives of his other characters, the changes that happened there in the last several decades.
Antonio Yammara is a young law professor in Bogota, Colombia’s capital city, situated in the mountains. Around 1996, at a billiards club, he meets and becomes friends with a man named Ricardo Laverde. One night, while Antonio and Ricardo stand on a street corner, assassins on motorbikes shoot them, killing Ricardo and seriously wounding Antonio. He suffers PTSD, which affects his relationship with his girlfriend Aura and their daughter Leticia, born later.
Antonio embarks on a mission of finding out just who Ricardo was and why he was shot. He uncovers a recording from Ricardo’s apartment that haunts him. It is from the black box of a plane that crashed, killing Ricardo’s wife, Elaine Fritts.
Ricardo was a pilot who spent 19 years in prison for smuggling drugs. Antonio’s search takes him to the house of Ricardo’s daughter, Maya, who lives in the tropical countryside and works as a beekeeper. She, too, wants to know more about her father and why he died. She tells Antonio about her parents and how they met.
Antonio learns that Ricardo used his skills as a pilot to transport marijuana, which paid much more than he or Elaine, a Peace Corps worker, could earn. But one last flight, this time carrying cocaine, ends in disaster.
Vásquez moves across different periods of time, using these stories to tell the story of Colombia’s fall into an era of violence and fear. The novel begins in 2009 with Antonio reading in the newspaper about a hippo that escaped from a derelict zoo once owned by the drug lord Pablo Escobar. This leads Antonio to reflect on his first meeting Ricardo and what happened afterward.
Through Maya’s account we go back to the late 1960s, when the drug trade first began, and poor compesinos were able to make a living by growing marijuana and helping feed the drug habits of millions of U.S. residents.
During the 1970s and ’80s, the drug trade led to the violence “that transcends the small resentments and small revenges of little people, the violence whose actors are collectives and written in capital letters: the State, the Cartel, the Army, the Front.”
Such violence led to a fear that permeated the country – and particularly Bogota. “Fear was the main ailment of Bogotanos of my generation,” Antonio’s therapist tells him.
“The Sound of Things Falling” is a sensuous novel. Vasquez writes often of the effects of reality on people’s bodies. Antonio’s PTSD affects his libido. Maya talks about “the pure fear” she felt in her stomach, how she lived “always with the possibility that people close to us might be killed.”
Vasquez details the effects of the weather on people and pays close attention to geography. That Bogota is in the mountains affects the safety of people flying into it on planes. When Antonio returns to Bogota from the countryside in the lowlands, he has trouble breathing. He experiences “a slight tachycardia unleashed by efforts as minimal as climbing the stairs or getting down a suitcase.” He says that “exercising one’s memory is an exhausting activity.”
The book’s title reminds us of being startled by such sounds. It reminds us of planes falling from the sky, of cities or individuals falling into fear. Vasquez shows he is influenced by other Latin American writers, such as Roberto Bolano, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and he even includes a humorous reference to the latter’s famous “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which one character calls “exaggerated and melodramatic.” Vasquez also references poems by Colombians, as well as Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince.”
“The Sound of Things Falling” has much going on beyond its rather straightforward plot, and some may find it slow reading. But Vasquez puts us in touch with the fear many Bogotanos and others had to live with and continue to live with every day. He also shows some of the many ways our actions and those of others affect our bodies. We are more than mere minds or individuals, and our humanity and our health is tied up with one another’s stories.