Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: "The Sound of Things Falling" by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Sound of Things Falling (2013)   

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (1973)

Translated by Anne McLean

270 pages

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.

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book Review: "Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy

Before Time Could Change Them:
The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy
Translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis

354 pages

We are told that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; but the beautiful cover and striking title of this book --- Before Time Could Change Them --- immediately stood out to me as I browsed slowly through the bookstore. Although I had never heard of the poet Constantine Cavafy, and haven’t read a lot of poetry, the title struck a chord, speaking in one short phrase to both human frailty and desire. Paging through the book and stopping to read several of the poems in this collection of Cavafy’s work, his mix of personal reflections on life and references to classical European antiquity drew me in.

In his poems, Cavafy does not focus on the beauty and wonder of nature; here instead we read about the mystery and depth of the human spirit: our hopes and our fears, our desires and our vanities. A deep melancholy courses through many of Cavafy’s poems, which explore unrequited love, lost youth and the tenuousness of success.

The title poem captures well Cavafy’s style well. Reflecting on the departure of a lover to a distant city, he concludes with the devastatingly poignant realization that the pain of parting may also contain a silver lining:
It was circumstances. --- Or perhaps Fortune
came on the scene as artist, separating them now,
before their feeling could vanish, before Time could change them;
the one will seem eternally what he was to the other ---
a twenty four year old; a young, handsome man. 

Other poems look back on the struggle against declining body and mind from deep in the fall and winter of life --- after time has changed them, as it were. The poem Melancholy of Jason Kleander; Poet in Kommagini; 595 A.D. opens
The aging of my body and my features
is a wound from a savage knife.
There’s no enduring it. 

And in another poem, An Old Man sits alone in a café
And he reflects on Temperance, on how it fooled him;
and how he always believed --- what madness! ---
that lying voice which said, “Tomorrow. You have lots of time.”

He remembers passions that he checked; and how much
joy he sacrificed. His brainless wisdom,
each ruined change derides it now. 

The poems drawn from history and legend also focus on the human element of the story, the emotional context of the moment: the vanity of rulers and scholars, and their fears as well. In Nero’s Term, the Roman emperor seeks out prophets to reveal his future:
Nero did not worry when he heard
what the Delphic oracle revealed.
“Seventy-three is an age he should fear.”
He still had time to be happy.
He’s thirty years old. The god
has given him a very ample term
in which to prepare for future dangers.

Now he’ll go back to Rome a little tired,
but tired gloriously from that trip,
on which all the days were pleasure---
at theaters, in gardens, in gymnasiums …
Evenings in Achaia’s cities …
Ah the pleasure of naked bodies above all …

That is Nero’s portion. And in Spain Galba
secretly musters and drills his army,
the old man who’s reached his seventy-third year. 

But not all is lamentation and disquiet in Cavafy’s poems. He also writes of desire and love, such as in Blue Eyes, which opens
These vibrant spheres of light were not made
     for scorn, oh beautiful Circassian girl.
Not wrath’s, but joy’s and passion’s lamps,
     pleasure’s lavish donors,
     promise of sweetness in fleshly delight. 

This wonderful collection of poems includes a Forward by Gore Vidal and an Introduction by the translator, which together present a brief history of Cavafy’s life, and place his work in some historical context and literary style. Many of Cavafy’s poems, as can be seen in several of the selections I’ve included above, are almost prose-like in their structure, making his work very approachable. But the relatively simple structure can be deceiving, because his choice of just the right word and his slight turn of a phrase draw a reader effortlessly into the emotional settings he creates.

Other reviews / information:
 I’ve included the complete Cavafy poem Waiting for the Barbarians at the end of my review of the J. M. Coetzee book of the same name.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION