Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Sound of Things Falling

The Sound of Things Falling - Juan Gabriel Vásquez

"Then I realized no one wants to hear heroic stories, but everyone likes to be told about someone else's misery."

I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of this Impac Dublin Literary Award winning novel on Twitter, just in time for #spanishlitmonth. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago but it has, like some other posts languished in my drafts folder since then. However, in a final effort to post on some Spanish Lit for #spanishlitmonth, I am returning to it, grinding through the gears of my memory.

The book opens with the shooting of one of the hippopotami that took to the Columbian countryside fro the huge outdoor zoo presided over by Pablo Escobar before his death in 1993. This reminds the narrator, Antonio Yammara, of his own memories that are tied up with the zoo and the Columbia represented by it, a Columbia where the drug cartel seemed untouchable, able to bribe, intimidate or kill anyone who stood against it.
The shooting of the hippo causes controversy: "The marksmen who caught up with him shot him once in the head and again in the heart" after which "they posed with the dead body, the great dark wrinkled mass, a recently fallen meteorite." (Here we have the first reference to things falling from the sky, and in such a way that I was reminded of my recent read Yo El Supremo, which featured a 'real' meteorite.) The controversy surrounding the ultimate fate of these hippos is discussed "in the opinion columns that everybody read and on the blogs that nobody read, everyone was asking if it was necessary to kill the lost hippos" (was there any need for Mr Vásquez to take a swipe at poor bloggers such as myself who labour under the misapprehension that at least two or three people read their posts!)

The death of the hippopotamus inspires Antonio to remember some of his own life story, "just a few days of it" which becomes the book. However, he has a certain resistance to memory: "I was also surprised by the alacrity and dedication we devote to the damaging exercise of remembering, which after all brings nothing good and serves only to hinder our normal functioning, like those bags of sand athletes tie around their calves for training."

Antonio is a law lecturer who wrote his "thesis on madness as grounds for exemption from legal responsibility in Hamlet." It's no surprise that he has entered academia rather than the world of commercial law. He gets to know Ricardo Laverde at a billiard hall near the university and the first words that he hears him speak are in sympathy with the animals from Escobar's zoo - "It's not their fault, anyway." This will not be the last, or the main incident involving Escobar's zoo.

Antonio and Ricardo play pool together and become acquainted, although Ricardo has already heard that Ricardo is only recently out of prison, an experience which seems to have left its mark on him: "he was so thin that he seemed taller that he actually was, and you had to see him standing beside a cue to see that he was barely five foot seven; his thin mousy hair and his dried-out skin and his long, dirty nails gave an impression of illness or laziness, like land gone to waste.' The men get close to a sort of intimacy and Laverde tells Antonio that he is expecting a visit from his estranged American wife, and that he hopes to "fix the fuck-up" that he has made of his life.

The style of the book reminded me of Javier Marias (what little I've read), a sort of deadpan realism that focuses on the particular. Antonia's world changes when a relationship with one of his students is transformed when she becomes pregnant. Then, when going to the hospital for a scan, he hears the news of an airplane crash. His thought are momentarily distracted:  "I" "felt all the sympathy I'm capable of" "But it was an ephemeral and distracted sympathy, and I'm sure it had died out by the time we entered the narrow cubicle where Aura, lying down and half undressed, and I, standing by the screen, received the news that our little girl (Aura was magically sure it was a girl), who at that moment measured 7 millimetres, was in perfect health."

Antonio has a sense that life is changing for him, that he is adequate to the challenges that life holds. "I didn't yet know that an old Polish novelist had spoken a long time before of the shadow-line, that moment when a young man becomes the proprietor of his own life" But one thing you can be sure of in this novel is that if someone is in flight, they will land, and often violently. "Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control .. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn't miss an appointment, it never has."

It briefly seems that this is becoming a different story and when Ricardo and Antonio see each other in the billiard hall Antonio hopes that Ricardo and his wife have fixed things up between them. It appears that they will not even play together but, as he leaves, Ricardo approaches Antonio and asks him if there is anywhere he could possibly listen to a cassette. Antonio brings him to "the Casa de Poesía", the former residence of the poet José Asunción Silva; "One of its rooms was a unique place in Bogotá: there, all sorts of word-struck people would go to sit on soft leather sofas, near fairly modern stereo equipment, and listen to now legendary recordings: Borges reading Borges, García Márquez reading García Márquez, León de Greiff reading León de Greiff."

As Antonio sits listening to Silva's Nocturne on earphones Laverde listens to his cassette on another pair, and cries. Antonio, afraid that Laverde's sadness is "full of risks" decides not to intrude and closes his eyes and immerses himself in poetry. When he opens them Laverde is gone and he runs to catch up on him. Just after he does, and Laverde tells him that his wife was on the plane that crashed and then a motorcycle with two riders on it comes towards them; one of the riders pulls out a pistol and both men are shot: "Laverde fell to the ground and I fell with him, two bodies falling without a sound.."

It is really at this point that the book begins. Antonio, who survives, suffers post traumatic stress disorder and becomes obsessed with finding out what was on the cassette and for what reason Ricardo was shot. The search leads us into the past and gradually the past separates Antonio from his present. Flying, falling, the war on drugs, the money to be made from them, the lives lost to them, the role of the Peace Corps in the cultivation of marijuana in 1960's Columbia, and the moment before death, the sound of death as recorded in an airline cockpit, the way literature can become an academic  exercise when violence tears at the fabric of life.....

It is a book designed like an echo chamber with all the little details starting to bounce off each other and take on the story of a time and a country. Planes fall from the sky; people fall from grace, into crime, or hard times; things are falling apart; the story shuttles back and forward in time and when Antonio meets Laverde's daughter he is able to satisfy his curiosity and finds that they share more than her father; they share a sense of what Bogotá was, lives similarly marked by trips to Escobar's zoo and memories of assassinations and bombings; a sense that life is always teetering on the point of coming to a swift and brutal end.

This sense is not shared by Antonio's wife, who did not live in Bogotá during the bad years and seems to have a belief in happiness, a belief that Antonio briefly seemed to share. However this belief falls apart. Indeed the book is full of abandoned or decrepit paradises, and perhaps Columbia itself can be included in them. If magic realism allows shattered histories to be reassembled in fantastical forms Vasquez is more interested in showing how lives can end up in small pieces, looking for the black box that will reveal the reason hope fell from the air.


  1. I have heard good things about this book, and it's on my list. I don't exactly have a lot of Spanish lit under my belt so I'm trying to improve that.

    1. Spanish Lit is probably definitely the Not-English-Lit I am most familiar with but that still leaves me virtually ignorant. Which I like to see as a series of opportunities.

  2. This sounds pretty great, Séamus, and I'm of course proud to include myself as one of the "at least two or three people" who read your posts. With Guy above, it's almost a full house! (Sorry, I felt I could joke with you about that since two or three comments sometimes seems like a massive response to some of my own book review posts.) I read Vásquez's The Informers a few years ago and liked it well enough, by the way, but your description makes this one seem edgier somehow. Thanks for contributing the post to Spanish Lit Month--I'm going to try and keep this book in mind for an autumnal read.

    1. It's a really good book, I felt that it was going to be really great at one point but either the book (or quite possibly me) drifted for a bit but it was convincing me again by the end. It is a satisfying read looking back on it.
      I am still reading Memory of Fire which is great and will likely be my annual contribution to Spanish Late Month...
      As for your joke, you mention a full house which is FIVE readers. Things are getting encouraging.

  3. Great review and I like your description of an echo chamber. I read this book when it appeared on last year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist and enjoyed it very much. It seems quite broad in scope, and yet there's a sense of intimacy in the detail, too. It's interesting you mention Javier Marias as the somewhat meditative, reflective nature of The Sound of Things Falling also reminded me of Marias.

    1. Thanks Jacquiwine. I have just written a long reply and it has disappeared but the gist was: that there are other parallels between The Infatuations and The Sound of Things Falling in particular, one being that the title of the Marias can be translated as being "the state of falling or being in love" (which I had seen on your blog post on The Infatuations!), another being that both concern murders on the street and the effect of finding out about those murders on the protagonists..
      This passage, from the Amazon blurb for The Infatuations could be reused for The Sound of Things Falling - "As María recounts this story, we are given a murder mystery brilliantly reimagined as metaphysical enquiry, a novel that grapples with questions of love and death, guilt and obsession, chance and coincidence, how we are haunted by our losses, and above all, the slippery essence of the truth and how it is told."

    2. How very true! Perhaps that's why I enjoyed both of these books so much. I'm quite tempted to re-read The Sound of Things Falling...