Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Sound of Things Falling

The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez.
The Sound of Things Falling is set in the dark Bogotá of the 1980s. Dark perhaps because the story's protagonist spends his evening in billiard halls. And moreso because of the backdrop of Colombia's drug cartel violence.

Entrance to a billiard club
near La Candelaria.
The central character of this novel by Juan Gabriel Vásquez - considered to be one of Colombia's best current writers - is Antonio, a young law professor at an unnamed university in La Candelaria. He begins the story living a life many would envy, lecturing to 'rows of naive and impressionable young men and girls whose eyes were perpetually open.' His lectures are of dubious academic value, but lecturing teaches him about 'the drug of power' - one of this novel's innumerable references to Colombia's drug war. After class, Antonio heads off to the pool hall and sometimes takes home coeds for deep philosophical discussions and sessions in bed 'to fix a grade in the most expeditious manner.'

But the drug cartel violence is always there. For one thing, objects fall violently from the sky,
Wreck of Avianca Flight 203, bombed by Pablo Escobar.
including an Avianca flight bombed by Pablo Escobar. El Espectador's printing plant is car-bombed and its editor Guillermo Cano assassinated outside his office in La Candelaria. And Antonio befriends Ricardo Laverde, a billiard player with a mysterious past.

Laverde, naturally, had smuggled cocaine, and just finished a long term in a U.S. prison. The friendship soon derails Antonio's life when, as the two men walk together thru La Candelaria, Laverde is shot to death and Antonio catches a 'bala perdida' in his abdomen.

The crime turns Antonio obsessive about Laverde's past, ruins Antonio's sex life and launches him on a path to an encounter with Laverde's daughter, who lives on a paradiasical tropical estate with unmistakeable parallels, in miniature, to Pablo Escobar's Hacienda Napoles.

Plaza Rosario in La Candelaria. Ricardo Laverde was
murdered near here and Antonio hung out in
the Cafe Pasaje. 
The plot shifts back decades to tell the story of Laverde, who, following the legacy of his war-hero grandfather, becomes a talented pilot. We're also introduced to Colombia's Peace Corps culture thru a young American volunteer whom Laverde will marry. Another Peace Corps volunteer, a hippie more interested in Colombian cannabis than saving the world, guides Laverde onto the path to easy money. Guess where that leads.

My general plot summary probably makes the novel sound more exciting than it is. In fact, it's weighed down with layers of detail, which give the book atmosphere and meaning, but didn't move the plot forward, at least for me. (In contrast, a NY Times reviewer called it 'gripping.')

For example, do we really need Laverde's father's detailed justification of the actuary profession - even if that profession is related to mortality? Or the details of beekeeping? Or pages about a tragic 1938 air daredevil tragedy? Fortunately, Vasquez's writing is smooth, rich and evocative, so even his long explanations provide pleasant reading.

The novel is packed with drug war themes, mortality and levels of symbolism - perhaps too many. I
A cyclist walks up Calle 14 in La Candelaria,
where much of the novel's action takes place. 
mean, can't things just happen and move the plot along without adding to the drug theme? From Ricardo's father's detailed justification of his actuary profession and Ricardo's family's tropical estate, complete with an armadillo, suggestive of Pablo Escobar's Hacienda Napoles, which is referenced multiple times in the novel, with its menagerie of hippopautamuses, giraffes and concrete dinosaurs.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the subplot about the Peace Corps - and the volunteers' participation in the development of Colombia's marijuana economy, and the cocaine economy which it gave birth to. Is this the author's critique of U.S. policy? How much of this is history? It certainly would make sense, with all of those young, ambitious folks with contacts in the U.S. and a liking for 'Colombian Gold'. Vasquez's novels, including The Informants, about Germans in Colombia during World War II - contain lots of historical research, and I'd love to know whether any of the Peace Corps material is really history.

We learn in the book that just before his murder, Antonio had apparently gotten back into the drug business. But the fullness of the characters and realism of the story prevent this novel from turning into a morality tale about drugs leading to trouble.

The Peace Corps recently returned to Colombia, and according to news reports Colombia's marijuana cultivation is now booming again - altho there's no evidence of any connection between the two phenomena.

But coca leaf cultivation and cocaine-related violence are dropping, as are the murder and kidnapping rates.

Two decades after Colombia's cocaine boom, things are falling again - but this time in a mostly positive way.

The Sound of Things Falling, which has been translated into English and is for sale at Lerner and other bookstores,, won Spain's 2011 Alfaguara Prize and the 2013 Gregor von Rezzori award for the best foreign work translated into Italian.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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