Latin American literature is experiencing something of a renaissance in the wake of Roberto Bolano. With The Sound of Things Falling, Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez has created a story that can be appreciated purely for the dramatic way it dives into the black hole of his country’s past – the drug cartels and paramilitaries that scarred a generation – although the supple thought-weave of the prose won’t be lost on anyone with a taste for more reflective fiction.
Vasquez is a wonderfully agile writer, moving from a tangential, almost essayistic mode to direct and unassuming storytelling, and The Sound of Things Falling will please admirers of authors as diverse as Graham Greene and W.G. Sebald and, at a slightly more distant degree, Bolano himself.
He has the rare gift in an author of being able to evoke a strong sense of the particularity of a place at the same time as universalising aspects of it in the reader’s imagination.
His Colombia is uniquely Colombian in character, a remote and unfamiliar mountain world where suspicion and politesse, violence and denial, vie for supremacy, but the streets of Bogota also seep with flowing insights into urban life that transfigure them into a sort of anywhere.
It begins with as weird and striking a symbol as you could hope for – the shooting of a hippopotamus escaped from the decaying zoo Pablo Escobar built on sprawling estates, with the fortune he made from the cocaine trade. Escobar’s mansion and the countryside around it have fallen into desuetude after his death, the government too incompetent, powerless or afraid to maintain it.
The dead hippo – ”a fallen meteorite”, as Vasquez describes it – is both monstrous and poignant, and a touch Borgesian, and introduces us to the interior life of one Antonio Yammara, a law professor who has come to be intimately wounded by the same alien and shadowy provenance that led to the animal’s demise.
The professor’s misfortune can be traced to a passing acquaintance, a secretive drifter whose story, at once romantic and criminal, Yammara eventually reconstructs, narrative being the only way he can start to recover from the trauma of what happens to him.
One of the delights of this book is the author’s vivid and sensitive treatment of a patient’s experience of medical emergency, the anguish of convalescence, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Yammara in hospital, on morphine, recalls: ”I fell asleep at any moment, without apparent routine, like prisoners in stories; I opened my eyes to a landscape that was always strange, the most curious characteristic of which was that it never became familiar.”
Or his visit to a psychiatrist, which takes place months later: ”The doctor talked to me about my fear of going out on the street, he proffered the word agoraphobia as if it were a delicate object that mustn’t be allowed to fall …”
The narrator’s quest for the story behind the incident becomes a consuming quest that folds the personal into the broader contours of Colombia’s past. He engages in an imaginative third-person reconstruction of an aerial disaster that marked the drifter’s family, generations ago, a distant harbinger of things to come.
This then yields to a tale of innocence lost, taking in the naivety of the US Peace Corps in the early ’70s, the exhilaration of marijuana trafficking before the emergence of the cartels, and the slow bleed into nightmare as the US cocaine market radically expands, drug-lords with personal armies emerge, the ”war on drugs” starts in earnest, and murder and assassination become part of the furniture.
It’s a novel that dwells on freakish catastrophes and the creeping and – in some ways more terrible ones – of history (in which we’re all complicit), alert to the reality that the ethical quagmire of the latter proceeds partly from the fact that much human experience is lived in a state of vulnerability, without the benefit of hindsight.
The portraits of the walking wounded in this book take small comfort from sleuthing through the past and uncovering the matrix of desire and coincidence and tragic irony that binds their histories to others, utterly outside their control. But the layers of uncanny beauty Vasquez traces in the face of the essentially inexplicable render that search as something that goes to the heart of the literary enterprise – something that makes life no happier or easier, but in some sense more dignified.
And yet there’s an insistence, too, that the opposite is true – that quests for meaning, if they become obsessive, can demean the mind. There’s an emptiness at the end of this book – a future that waits for the narrator to start living again.