Thoughts on the Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s book The Sound of Things Falling
From time to time a book or author from Latin America makes waves in the United States. A piece will get translated into English and pick up steam with strong reviews in the New Yorker, or the New York Times Review of Books, or some other self-important New York publication.
It happened a couple of years ago with Roberto Bolaño—first with Savage Detectives, and subsequently with 2666. Now you can go into any bookstore and find just about everything he ever wrote (for better or for worse) translated into English.
For the record, I thought both Los detectives salvajes and 2666 were phenomenal books.
But they leaned heavily on the styles that make self-important New York publications hot and bothered: Hallucinatory dream sequences, gratuitous sex, open-ended and incomplete plot lines, Juarez prisons, aging Nazis on vacation in Southern Europe, and people falling asleep in the Maginot Line.
All of this worked for me, though I know people who found both books preposterous.
So suddenly when I saw a book by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez showing up in Washington bookstore windows and New York book reviews, I assumed it was much of the same.
Called The Sound of Things Falling, I gathered it was about Bogotá in the 1990s. I gathered that NPR loved it, that the New York Times loved it, and that it sold for US$30 at a bookstore near me.
With an overly dramatic black cover and white chalk-like letters, I assumed it was about gratuitous sex, drug dealers with goatees, and (just to enthrall the New York literati), someone falling asleep in the Maginot Line.
I figured I’d take a pass on it.
But a couple of months ago, somebody passed me a copy of the original Spanish version of the book, El Ruido de las cosas al caer. It was a paperback copy with a much more subdued cover of a shadowy man shooting pool. I had just finished reading Cien años de soledad for a second time, and I figured I would stick with the Colombians and give it a shot.
I was shocked to find a very serious book.
The NYT calls it a page turner, but I found it to be nothing of the sort. In fact, the story, which follows a man shot as collateral damage in an apparent gang / drug hit, seems like it is told on painkillers.
The plot plods along, usually in the first person from a narrator with a very observant eye but with little need to analyze what he observes, or at the least unsure of the significance of what he observes. Things “may or may not” matter.
The notion of the book as a page turner seems contingent on Vásquez convincing the reader that we care about why the shooting took place in the first place—that we should care who the original target was, and why he was targeted.
The author sets this up for at least the first half of the book and I was left feeling that it was very well written, but there had better be a payoff—that Vásquez had about 100 pages left deliver a finish worth the effort.
In the end, Vásquez delivers, but in a much different way than expected. In fact, many of the questions surrounding the shooting remain unanswered.
What Vásquez delivers is a window to a generation of Colombians that came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, and that lived through horrific violence, often in solitude.
The topic of the Colombian drug wars may be familiar, but usually this story is told from the perspective of drug dealers (we have all seen the Escobar documentaries), or maybe from the perspective of politicians or law enforcement. Vásquez tells the story through the eyes of regular folks, that more often than not, suffered the violence alone, hunkered down indoors.
The protagonists ask each other where they were the night of April 30, 1984, when hitmen gunned down Colombian Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla on the streets of Bogotá. And suddenly, one realizes the true impact of that event that millions of Bogotanos—millions of Colombians—suffered alone that night; the sensation that their country was falling apart around them, that they could not be protected and that it was best to stay inside, alone.
The cartels subsequently exploded a commercial airline that they believed Bonilla’s successor would be traveling on (he was not). “Ahí supimos que la guerra también era contra nosotros,” concludes a key figure in the book.
And that is what this book is about. It is not a page-turner about a drug hit. It is about a deep-seated fear—an emasculating fear—that gripped Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s. It is about the piece of the soul that gets knocked out by violence, and the vain effort of a man to find that missing piece and put it back, or at least the vain effort to find out why it was taken in the first place.
It is a book about the fear:
“Del miedo, o mejor, de que esta cosa que me daba en el estómago, los mareos de vez en cuando, la irritación, no eran los síntomas típicos del primípara, sino puro miedo. Y mamá también tenía miedo, claro, tal vez hasta más que yo. Y luego vino lo demás, los otros atentados, las otras bombas. Que si la del DAS con sus cien muertos. Que si la del centro comercial equis con sus quince. Que si la del centro comercial zeta con los que fuera. Una época especial, no? No saber cuándo le va a tocar a uno. Preocuparse si alguien que tenía que llegar no llega. Saber dónde está el teléfono publica más cercano para avisar que uno está bien. Si no hay teléfonos públicos, saber que en cualquier casa le prestan a uno el teléfono, que uno no tiene sino que llamar a la puerta. Vivir así, pendiente de la posibilidad de que se nos hayan muerto los otros, pendiente de tranquilizar a los toros para que no crean que uno está entre los muertos. Vivíamos en casa particulares, se acuerda? Evitábamos los lugares públicos. Casas de amigos, de amigos de amigos, casas de conocidos remotos, cualquier casa era preferible a un lugar público. Bueno, no sé si entiende lo que estoy diciendo. Igual en nuestra casa se vivió de otra manera. Éramos dos mujeres qué quiere que le diga. Igual para usted no fue así.”
“Fue exactamente así,” dije.
In this sense, the book’s “payoff” is exceptional, even if it is not the one the reader expects for the first 3/4 of the book.
And it is very well (if somberly) written. There are some juicy tidbits, like the notion that Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s and 1970s were integral in setting up delivery channels to the US, first for marijuana, and subsequently for cocaine. But generally the book is less about intrigue and more about Colombia’s downward spiral into drug violence, and a loss of a rum-soaked innocence along the way.
Unfortunately for Colombian authors, it is tough to write a book about Colombia without bonehead readers like me drawing parallels to Cien Anos de Soledad. Vásquez seems to accept this, alluding to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ masterpiece both directly and indirectly in El ruido de las cosas al caer.
And I will say that I enjoyed reading the two books consecutively. Though their styles differ immensely, they both hold up mirrors that reflect the history of Colombia, with Vásquez’s story beginning roughly where Marquez’s ends.
And as wildly different as the books are, the theme of solitude is inescapable in both texts.
From tranquil offices in Washington DC, commentators such as myself note the apparent improvements on the ground in Colombia, citing statistic and anecdotal evidence of increased economic activity and decreased violence.
But the country is still a rough place. And the tourist that makes it through a vacation in Bogotá and Medellin and then goes home and says how much Colombia has changed perhaps does not speak for Rolos that have to ride the transmilenio to and from Las Cruces every morning.
Nevertheless, Colombia has a chance to emerge as a successful country and regional leader in the coming years. Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s book El ruido de las cosas al caer (The Sounds of Things Falling) gives us sharp insight into what many Colombian have had to go through to make it this far.
Samuel George is a Latin America specialist working in Washington DC
See also: Sketches of Colombia
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