December 18, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 51

Arts & Entertainment

A hippo, a man, a mystery

by: Jim Douglas , Contributing Writer

Book Review: The Sound of Things Falling, By Juan Gabriel Vasquez

In this lyrical novel, an escaped zoo animal is killed, and a Colombian man investigates the death of a secretive friend

Illustration by Angela Boyle

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In 1996, while walking on the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, with a man he barely knows, Antonio Yammara is shot and badly injured.  The other man, Ricardo Laverde, is fatally shot. As Antonio struggles to recover from his wounds, he resolves to unravel the mystery of Ricardo’s identity and learn why he was targeted by assassins on a motorbike. Told through flashbacks, the story Antonio tells in Juan Gabriel Vasquéz’s novel “The Sound of Things Falling” is an engrossing and personal look at the drug trade in Colombia.

The novel begins when a curious incident prompts Antonio to recall and recount his experience. He reads that a hippo has been shot after escaping from a decrepit zoo on the estate once owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. “I found myself remembering a man who’d been out of my thoughts for a long while,” he writes, “in spite of the fact that there had been a time when nothing interested me as much as the mystery of his life.”

In the 1990’s, Antonio was a young law professor in Bogotá. He spent his time teaching half-heartedly, playing billiards indifferently after class and trying to get female students to go to bed with him: “At that time my city was beginning to emerge from the most violent years of its recent history. I’m not talking about the violence of cheap stabbings and stray bullets, the settling of accounts between low-grade dealers, but the kind that transcends the small resentments and small revenges of little people, the violence whose actors are collectives and written with capital letters: the State, the Cartel, the Army, the Front.”

While playing billiards, Antonio meets Ricardo, an unhealthy-looking, enigmatic man rumored to have spent time in prison for obscure crimes. Ricardo describes himself as a “retired pilot,” and Antonio observes that Ricardo was “unable to have a normal conversation, let alone a relationship.” Ricardo once said, “Sometimes I think I’ve never looked anyone in the eye.”  It may have been an exaggeration, but he was not looking Antonio in the eye when he said it. Despite these qualities, the two men form something resembling a friendship. 

After being shot, Antonio’s physical and emotional wounds from the assault are very slow to heal. In an attempt to shake his malaise, he begins his investigation of Ricardo’s identity and his past. The first clue is that, moments before the fateful shooting, he had watched Ricardo weep uncontrollably while he listened to a cassette tape. 

The author slowly and adeptly peels away the layers, revealing a story set in Colombia’s drug trade and featuring the lives of the dead man’s family and associates. Antonio first visits the dead man’s scruffy apartment, where the landlady hands him a clue.  Subsequent events lead him to Ricardo’s daughter, Maya, tending bees on her idyllic farm. 

To the consternation of Antonio’s wife, left behind in Bogotá, he stays at Maya’s for several days. They become totally absorbed digging through a basket of family photos and letters, learning, among other things, that Ricardo came from a family of pilots and that he met Maya’s mother when she was in the Peace Corps. As Ricardo’s life becomes clearer, Antonio experiences the “discomfort of knowing that this story in which my name did not appear spoke of me in each and every one of its lines.” It would spoil the story to say much more. 

As a break from sorting out the mysteries surrounding Ricardo’s life and death, Antonio and Maya visit the dilapidated and deserted estate of Pablo Escobar. Some of the animals originally in the drug kingpin’s private zoo — including the hippos — still roam the extensive and deteriorating grounds. Antonio recalls that he had visited the zoo as a child. 

Vasquéz has written an engrossing story about ambition and loss, about dreams and self-destruction. But a novel written in Spanish cannot succeed without a quality translation. The work here by prize-winning translator Anne McLean is first-rate. She helps Vasquéz sweep the reader along, as Maya and Antonio uncover events that engulfed both her parents 20 years earlier and continue to affect both Maya and Antonio. 

“The Sound of Things Falling” is engrossing, and the prose is superb. This is indeed “a compelling literary work.”

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