The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

by Robert A. Parker

This is an excellent novel, written with a blend of emotional, psychological, and poetic sensibility. It begins as a story of human relationships, evolves into a story of modern Colombia, and then returns to the human relationships, but on a less emotional, more rational level—a level perhaps meant to match the barren, isolated character of mountain-enclosed Bogota.

The narrator of this story is Antonio Yammara, a young law professor. He becomes fascinated by Ricardo Laverde, a mysterious character he encounters in a billiard parlor. Curious, Antonio befriends him. One day, he helps Laverde find a cassette player, sees him crying as he listens to it, and then follows him into the street to learn what prompted those tears.

Whereupon, Antonio’s life changes. For Laverde is assassinated on the street by two men on a motorcycle, and Antonio himself is seriously wounded—a wound in the groin which will slowly affect his marriage to his new wife, Aura. But the immediate question is: why was Laverde killed? And the more Antonio probes the stranger’s past to find the answer, the more the reader becomes involved in that mystery. As the Impac Dublin Award cites: “Through a masterly command of layered time periods, spiralling mysteries and a noir palette, [the work] reveals how intimate lives are overshadowed by history; how the past preys on the present; and how the fate of individuals as well as countries is molded by distant, or covert, events.”

The intrigue begins when Antonio discovers the cassette Laverde was listening to. It is the recording of a plane descending over the mountains of Columbia at night, and crashing. Why was Laverde so moved? Antonio then receives a note from Laverde’s daughter Maya, a bee-keeping recluse who has left behind cold and rainy Bogota for the hot and humid lowlands. She wants to know the last moments of her father’s life, while the professor wants to learn more about Laverde and why he was killed. Their journey into the past will flower, even if frustrated by a failure to communicate sexually.

The author delves for much of the book into that past, and a slow, process of discovery and revelation will follow rather than a chronological story. Maya describes how Laverde met her mother, an American Peace Corps worker named Elaine Fritts, and how they settled in the lowlands and raised Maya. The author also creates in interesting side story about how and why this American girl came to Colombia, and her reaction to helping its people. The girl also encounters other Americans, ambitious youth who later contribute their own efficiency to the drug trade, and whom Vasquez uses to implicate America’s involvement at both ends of the drug war.

But the focus is on the elusive Laverde. He is a pilot, and Antonio learns that a job of smuggling marijuana into the United States corrupted him. Which is when this novel becomes the story of Colombia in the last half of the 20th century. It is a story of suspicion and violence, of fear, helplessness, and change. Colombia’s loss of integrity, and of illusion, will be caused by the drug lord Pablo Escobar; but Vasquez will reveal the consequences through the story of Laverde, first his capture and then his return.

Except, Antonio still doesn’t know why his friend was killed in front of him. Indeed, the reader himself can only guess. For that death is not the point of the book. The point is what it symbolizes, the fear and violence that took over Columbia in the second half of the century, and the uncertainty that ruled people’s lives. Perhaps Antonio’s impotence that follows his own wounding is also a symbol of Colombia’s impotence during these drug wars, except it is carried too far for me in the novel’s final pages. We are apparently meant to see in the loneliness and helplessness of Antonio the same qualities in the life of his country. But for me, that climactic return to Antonio’s personal story leaves an open end, and a resulting emptiness.

It is really the telling of this story that raises this novel to the level of literature. Not the story itself, which is about the death of two people, one in the present and one in the past. It is in the multi-levels of the search for an explanation of those deaths. It is in that search, one by Antonio and one by Maya, for different reasons; and then the raising of that search to represent the search by all of Colombians for the answer to the uncertainty, the violence, and the lack of control in their daily life.

The sound of things falling also represents the many levels of this novel. It begins with the cockpit sounds when the plane is falling but includes Antonio’s falling when he is wounded, as well as lives falling apart, such as his life with Aura, Elaine with her American idealism, and Colombian society as a whole, with its own tears and its bodies falling in drug-related murders. The symbolic use made of falling also mirrors the many social and political meanings that the events of this novel represent.

Edmund White, in The Times Book Review, calls this novel “a page turner, but it’s also a deep meditation on fate and death.” As it surely is. The fates, especially, of Antonio, Aura, and Maya, are changed by the independent deaths of Laverde and his wife Elaine—with those deaths being separate on one level and connected on another. Just as the events of these personal lives are disconnected on one level to the lives and all Colombians, but yet are connected on another.

Indeed, Vasquez hits home to me when he writes: “No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions.” Thus, there are “subterranean currents” that shape our lives. Indeed, my own life was radically changed by the Korean War and then by a casual encounter with the girl I married. All of which re-enforces my justification of the arbitrary decisions that authors will make when they introduce something new into the lives of their characters. For in the world of fiction, the author is his own God, and is the arbiter of each character’s fate.

The strength of this novel lies in the complexity of a drug- contaminated society that has been distilled into the personal lives of a law professor, an airplane pilot, a Peace Corps worker, and a bee-keeping recluse. It is not a story of violence but of human relationships, and of the complex tie that links memory and trauma. (August, 2017)

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