This mystery is set in a Columbia emerging from the drug wars and haunted by memory and loss.
The Sound of Things Falling, a noir fiction account of Colombia’s drug wars and their devastating legacy, is at once a tormented chronicle of survival and a beautifully realised exploration of how we pick ourselves up from the brink of despair, where things ‘… seem bigger or more serious … the presence of evil closer, indifference more intense, solitude more profound.’
In 1971 US President Nixon announces the ‘War on Drugs’ and closes the US-Mexican border, effectively leaving distributors dry, at a time when the demand for illicit drugs is at a record high. Suppliers begin to look elsewhere. Columbia fits the bill and her drug cartels soon answer the call, aided and abetted by a stream of able US Peace Corps volunteers. In the years that follow, widespread corruption of Colombian officials and an escalating guerilla conflict enable a bloody war for supremacy between the cartels. Colombia’s ‘difficult decade’ begins. It’s a time marked by narco-terrorism, and as the drug wars intensify, death squads rule the streets. Pablo Escobar is about to become a household name. Colombia’s fate hangs in the balance and its people watch in fear.
Years later, Antonio Yammara, a young disheartened law professor, whiles away the hours in a Bogotá billiards hall. A chance encounter with an intriguing man called Laverde is about to change his life forever. But Antonio hardly registers the danger. Laverde is a man with a secret, that much Antonio suspects. What he fails to grasp, however, is about to bowl him over. Laverde has a past criminal connection to the drug lords – and his past is catching up with him. Although their casual association is hardly more than acquaintance, Antonio begins to delve deeper into Laverde’s past, until Laverde is shot dead on a street corner and Antonio is wounded in the attack. Traumatised and with a growing sense of impotence, Antonio embarks on a journey to uncover the truth behind Laverde’s shooting. Soon Laverde’s daughter, Maya, a woman also haunted by the past, comes knocking on his door.
In this first-person chronicle – the story is told by Antonio himself, years after the attack – Vásquez ingeniously juxtaposes the narrator’s post-traumatic stress disorder with the high anxiety of a nation emerging from the drug wars. This is also a story about memory, repressed or otherwise, ‘… in some dark part of my mind, down deep, very deep, in the archive of useless things.’
It’s a story about the past as an ‘ever present ghost’, and how its haunting echo encroaches on the present: ‘Here reality adjusted – as it doesn’t often do – to the memory we have of it.’
In this elegy to Colombia, ‘A country where everything is better if it’s done under the counter’, Vásquez brings the city of Bogotá to life with great dexterity. His is a Bogotá full of ironies and absurdities; a farcical city in the clouds, where the people are either soaking from the persistent drizzle, or ‘drowning in small talk’.
As the title and cover suggest, falling and flying are two pervasive themes in the narrative. Flying, and falling from great heights. There’s the rise and fall of a family, Antonio Yammara’s, as well as that of pilots and planes, with two extremely well depicted plane crashes punctuating the narrative.
Vásquez is a thoughtful and reflective writer, and much deserving of all his acclaim. Mario Vargas Llosa has said of him that he’s one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature, and there’s no doubting his talent. His use of language is distinctive, memorable and artful, and his descriptive passages offer great beauty. All the same, there are some slips in point of view here, where the narration becomes confusing, and some heavy-handed explanation where it’s hardly needed. These lapses, however, do not interfere with the pace of the narrative, as Vásquez uses tension masterfully. His style is fluid and matched perfectly by Anne McLean’s skill in translation. This book is, to use one of the author’s many charming analogies, ‘… absurdly satisfying, like finding a coin in the street’.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Sound of Things Falling Bloomsbury 2012 PB 320pp, $27.99
Rosana Bouzas is a Sydney-based writer who was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. She has an interest in Latin American literature, history and politics.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.