Recent Latin American literature is mostly comprised of tales about drug wars and/or writers trying to emulate masters of magical realism. Most of these stories concentrate on the seething corruption that permeates countries south of the US border and rarely try to go beyond superficial drama. Even if Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling is a tale about drugs, its compassion for its characters and its mastery of the form, make it quite the pleasant surprise.
The book’s narrator is Antonio Yammara, a university law professor who begins his story with quite an unexpected event; a hippo has just escaped from the zoo once owned by infamous drug pin Pablo Escobar. This strange anecdote leads Antonio on a trip down memory lane as he remembers the violent Bogotá from the mid-‘90s where he saw his friend Ricardo Laverde get assassinated by hitmen on motorcycles. During the assassination, he was also wounded, which leads to irrecuperable mental and emotional wounds.
Mystified by the reasons behind his friend’s murder, and trying to make sense of why he almost lost his own life in the process, the young Antonio begins an investigation that leads him to Laverde’s estranged daughter, a beekeeper who lives in the country by the name of Maya Fritts. Over the Easter weekend, Antonio travels to her house where he discovers his mysterious friend’s life had more surprises in store than he ever bargained for. Here, to reveal more about the plot would be to rob readers of the pleasure of losing themselves in a narrative that takes unexpected twists and turns that never feel contrived.
With a Russian doll structure (much less strict than the concept would suggest) The Sound of Things Falling is a wonderful novel that’s not only exciting to read, but also wise beyond our expectations. A treatise on the perils of memory, Vásquez’s narrator is a man who often finds himself having internal battles about the concept of looking back into his history.“I was also surprised by the alacrity and dedication we devote to the damaging exercise of remembering,” he confesses within the very first pages of the book.
In Antonio’s history—which eventually becomes entangled with Ricardo’s—the author suggests the urgent need to preserve the past, because it’s the most important tool to understand the present and future, even if these concepts give Antonio a hard existential time. “The present doesn’t actually exist: all is memory” he says “this sentence that I just wrote is already a memory,” he continues, alluding to the fact that he knows we’re reading his story.
Tracing back into Ricrdo Laverde’s life, Antonio discovers a rich series of events that involve transcontinental doomed affairs, American influence in Latin America and slight cultural shock by way of a key character in Laverde’s life. Even if the book is impossible to put down, it takes a while to realize that there are very powerful ideas behind Vásquez’s addictive narrative. His prose is simple and concise but so honest that it takes on truly beautiful forms. “No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography was molded by distant events,” expresses the narrator, and it’s through moments like these that we realize that more than a plot driven work, Vásquez is trying to emulate structurally what his characters are going through.
Even if Laverde’s life is filled with events that seem to come straight out of a soap opera, concealed within them are larger truths not only about Colombia’s history, but also about spirituality and the idea of fate. Antonio begins to wonder why he was put in Ricardo’s path and on countless occasions reminds us that they weren’t even that close to begin with, it was only his murder that really brought them together. What could this be if not an allegory for the way in which Colombians became forced siblings under Escobar’s reign of horror? Antonio remembers how there was a time when the drug lord blew up airplanes to kill a single target, kidnapped people from their own homes, and even organized the assassination of a political candidate who opposed him.
The Sound of Things Falling should be required reading for those interested in a history of Latin America. It’s objective enough to be fascinating and subjective enough to work as wonderful literature. Full of marvelously constructed moments (there is a scene set in Escobar’s zoo that’s as charming as it is heartbreaking) the novel is a perfect introduction to Vásquez’s revolutionary work.
The author himself might wish his readers enjoyed the worlds he builds, rather than immerse themselves in a painful past. This is expressed beautifully in the book’s best scene, where Antonio stops thinking about his mission and shows compassion to someone else, “Thinking in the darkness is not advisable: things seem bigger or more serious in the darkness, illnesses more destructive, the power of evil closer , indifference more intense, solitude more profound.”