THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Reviewed by Michael Jacobs
COLOMBIA, according to Juan Gabriel Vásquez, one of its leading novelists, is an ill-fated country where no one wants to admit that anything is wrong. In this, the most recent and memorable of his fictional explorations of his nation’s history, he tries to come to terms with an aspect that most Colombians would prefer to forget: its years of drug-related violence.
The Sound of Things Falling opens with the chance encounter in a Bogotá billiards hall between a disaffected young law professor, Antonio Yammara, and the secretive and prematurely aged Ricardo Laverde. Several months later Antonio is wounded while witnessing Ricardo being shot dead. Ricardo turns out to have been a pilot involved in drug smuggling during the seventies.
However, Vásquez deals only marginally with the world of drugs, preferring instead to create a compelling, original psychological thriller whose tension derives from how the past preys on the present.
Antonio, traumatised by his wounds and the memories these invoke of Colombia’s years of fear, avoids watching any national news, and tries to keep his wife and daughter safe from his country’s “recent afflicted history”. But his obsession with finding out more about Ricardo eventually brings him into contact with another person whose life has been taken over by the past – Ricardo’s daughter Maya, who has spent most of her 28 years believing her father was killed long before he actually was.
There are other recurring themes, including Bogotá itself, evoked here in all its doom-laden oppressiveness, with its “cold and distant” inhabitants, body-affecting altitude, and noticeably long nights, which can descend after “you close your eyes for a second”. Above all there is the image of flying and falling, the narrative being punctuated by two plane crashes, one of which takes place during a daring aerial stunt performed in the course of lavish celebrations commemorating the city’s foundation.
The other accident, involving a passenger plane bringing back to Colombia Ricardo’s long-estranged American wife, has as its legacy the black box recording of the pilots’ last words, “Up, up, up!” Adulthood, Antonio reflects, “brings with it the pernicious illusion of control”, but this is always followed by the realisation that circumstances over which you have no power are liable to cause the most carefully planned lives to come hurtling to the ground.
Binding all this together, and ensuring that the pervasive symbolism never becomes heavy-handed, is the fluidity of Vásquez’s style. Aided by the characteristic excellence of Anne McLean’s translation, memories, multiple ironies and descriptive passages of great force flow effortlessly into each other.