The Sound of Things Falling is a melancholy tale of a man trying to make sense of his friend’s death in a country ravaged by drug wars.
It begins somewhat obliquely with media reports of the fatal shooting of a hippo the “colour of black pearls”. The creature had wreaked havoc on farms and communities after he and his mate escaped from a private zoo owned by the legendary cocaine baron Pablo Escobar. For the narrator Antonio Yammara, the killing re-awakens memories from 13 years earlier when he became friends with Ricardo Laverde, an enigmatic former pilot he met in a billiard hall in Bogotá.
Over the course of a few months Yammara comes to sense that his friend is harbouring a secret; a belief that is reinforced on the day when Ricardo receives a mysterious, unmarked cassette. Shortly afterwards the pair are shot by a motorbike rider as they walk through the cobbled streets of the city’s La Candelaria quarter towards the billiard hall. Laverde dies; Yammara survives but is seriously injured. Though he recovers physically he suffers such severe post traumatic stress disorder he loses the joy of his marriage and his newly born daughter.
Most of the novel relates Yammara’s burning need to understand the significance of the cassette tape and why his friend was killed. His inquiries lead him to Laverde’s estranged daughter Maya, who holds the key to her father’s role in cocaine smuggling and a possible link to an aircraft tragedy.
It’s a beautifully narrated portrait, revealed layer by layer, of a man who found it impossible to live with many unanswered questions about his dead friend. Yet now, in later life he questions the value of his desire to recall the past and to uncover the truth about Lavere.
I was surprised by the alacrity and dedication we devote to the damaging exercise of remembering, which after all brings nothing good and serves only to hinder our normal functioning.The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
The Sound of Things Falling focuses on the individual but in doing so it throws a light on the dark days of Columbia in the 1990s, a time when cocaine gangs waged war against the state on land and in the air. Yammara and Maya are innocent victims of the battle for control, representatives of a generation growing up in a city “that sank into fear.” How many people fled the gunshots and bombs as soon as they could, he wonders, feeling guilty that in saving themselves they were betraying Bogotá and its people?
Behind them they left a city that collapsed, and became but a shadow of its former resplendence. When Yammara and Maya visit Escobar’s zoo, the dilapidation they discover is symbolic of the legacy left upon Columbia by the reign of the disgraced drug baron:
The humid air filled with a dirty smell, a mixture of excrement and rotting food. We saw a cheetah lying at the back of its cage. We saw a chimpanzee scratching its head and another running in circles with nothing to chase. We saw an empty cage, the door open and an aluminium basin leaning against the bars.”The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
The overwhelming feeling is of sadness and disillusion; of lives destroyed and a country left in tatters. The framed narrative jars slightly, most noticeably in a crucial middle section which felt like a bit of an info dump but otherwise this is a novel that is superbly evocative and achieves its aim: to reveal the scars left on Columbia and its people by the trade in drugs.
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez was initially published by Alfaguara in Spain in 2011. The English translation was published in the UK by Bloomsbury with an excellent translation by Anne Mclean.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez was born in Bogotá where he has returned to living after years spent in France, Belgium and Spain. He has been nominated as on of South America’s most promising writers. This is his third novel.