The Sound of Things Falling (2013)
Juan Gabriel Vásquez (1973)Translated by Anne McLean
Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps even depends on it. … Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has.For Antonio Yammara, a young professor of law teaching at a university in Bogotá, Columbia, and the main character in Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling, his “disillusion” comes suddenly and harshly. In its aftermath, his feeling of control over his life and his future are irrevocably shattered, and he struggles to make sense of how his “biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills.”
The novel opens in present day Bogotá, with news reports of a hippopotamus that has been shot dead after its escape from the abandoned zoo of former drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, a major figure in the drug trade that brought uncertainty and violence to Columbia. Watching the media coverage, Yammara is reminded of a mysterious acquaintance, Ricardo Laverde, he met some fifteen years earlier in a pool hall near the university. Though he knew Laverde for only a few weeks, it becomes a fateful meeting that alters Yammara’s life.
Over the course of the novel Yammara tells us the story of his struggle to make sense of what happened to him, and how his desperate search for answers led him to trace the path, through time and space, that brought Laverde into his life. From the late 1990’s, the story goes back to events in the 1960’s and early 70’s, when the drug trade in Columbia drifted gradually from a low level and uncoordinated activity of relative innocents to a highly centralized business of famous drug lords and cartels, with the War on Drugs organized in response against it. Yammara eventually comes to understand how apparently minor and inconsequential choices in someone else’s life led to an impact on his own that he had little hope of foreseeing.
Vásquez has written The Sound of Things Falling as a kind of mystery novel, though the questions here do not concern who done it?, but rather how did this happen?. We discover with Yammara, slowly, piece by tiny piece, the history that explains the dramatic moment that changed his life. The deliberate pace of the story reinforces Vásquez’s theme that there are “long processes that end up running into our life … [but that] tend to be hidden” from us, unseen and unexpected. When these slowly developing “processes” eventually run into our lives, they can catch us unaware, sending us spinning off into an unexpected future and, like Yammara, we have only imperfect memories and incomplete information available to help us understand what has happened to us. Finally we are left with the realization of the tenuous and uncertain path of our life, however much control over it we may like to believe we have.
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