The inheritance of fear

The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99, 320 pages

The drug-related violence that shook Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s has become fertile ground for fiction. Fernando Vallejo’s Our Lady of the Assassins (1994) and Laura Restrepo’s Delirium (2004) have already covered this troubled period.

In contrast, Juan Gabriel Vásquez – one of the country’s leading younger novelists – has previously stayed away from the subject, even though it is all-too-familiar to his generation of Colombians. His debut novel, The Informers (2004), is a tale of guilt and betrayal woven around a scarcely known episode – the internment of Germans in Colombian detention camps during the second world war. The Secret History of Costaguana (2007), set during the construction of the Panama Canal, is written with tongue firmly in cheek, with a protagonist who claims to have been the unacknowledged source for Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.

While Colombia’s recent drug wars do provide the grim backdrop to Vásquez’s new novel, The Sound of Things Falling, his bigger questions are about forgiveness and memory, about randomness, fate, and about the individual’s relationship to history.

The story begins in 2009 with the narrator, Antonio Yammara, reading about the killing of a hippopotamus. It is an escapee from the now-abandoned zoo created decades earlier by drug lord Pablo Escobar on his ranch in the Magdalena Valley. The incident triggers an old memory from the mid-1990s: “I found myself remembering a man who’d been out of my thoughts for a long while, in spite of the fact that there had been a time when nothing interested me as much as the mystery of his life.”

And so Antonio sets out to tell the story of the dead man who has become “a faithful and devoted, ever-present ghost”, beginning with the first time he meets Ricardo Laverde in a pool-hall in Bogotá. Antonio is a carefree young law lecturer, Ricardo a taciturn older man (“just turned forty-eight, but he looked much older”) who was rumoured to have spent time in prison. They become pool partners, though Ricardo is reluctant to share any confidences. When Antonio learns that Ricardo’s estranged American wife is coming to visit, he doesn’t see his friend again for months.

When they next meet, Ricardo asks Antonio if he knows someone who has a cassette player. There is a tape he has to listen to. Antonio recalls how he watched Ricardo sob uncontrollably while he listens to the recording: “I was afraid of what that sadness might contain, but my intuition didn’t go far enough to understand what had happened.” Afterwards, on the street outside, assassins on a motorcycle shoot the two men, injuring Antonio and killing Ricardo.

During his recovery, Antonio becomes obsessed with unearthing the life-story of the man whose casual acquaintance transformed his own world. He tracks down the recording his friend listened to on that fateful day. Then Maya, who claims to be Ricardo’s daughter, contacts Antonio. It is in the meeting between these two strangers, whose lives have been shaped by a man they hardly knew, that the heart of the novel lies. Antonio tells Maya about her father’s last day. Maya reciprocates by telling the story of how her parents met. Her mother, Elaine, was an American Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia; Ricardo was a brash young pilot. Both were caught up in circumstances beyond their control as the global narcotics trade gripped Colombia.

Vásquez shows how the personal is linked to the political: “Maya Laverde was born in the Palermo Clinic in Bogotá in July 1971, more or less at the same time President Nixon used the words War on Drugs for the first time in a public speech.” Nor is he coy in implying that drugs traffic in Colombia was directly linked to US Peace Corps volunteers sent overseas.

The story is compelling but through Vásquez’s vivid prose (rendered brilliantly into English by the award-winning translator Anne McLean) it also becomes haunting: “on her [Maya’s] face a girl’s skin met a mature and careworn woman’s expression: her face was like a party that everyone had left”; a particular word in Spanish becomes, for Elaine’s English-speaker’s tongue, “like a racetrack full of curves”.

Landscapes of the Magdalena Valley, memorably described by a previous generation of great Colombian authors (Gabriel García Márquez, Alvaro Mutis) are reimagined here through darker prisms. The novel is also an examination of the conflicted relationship its characters have with Bogotá. “I began to despise the city, to fear it, to be threatened by it,” Antonio says after the shooting. Fear, a doctor tells him, is the main ailment of Bogotanos of his generation.

“Colombia produces fugitives,” Antonio declares, “but one day I’d like to find out ... how many left my city feeling in one way or another that they were saving themselves, and how many felt that by saving themselves they were betraying something, turning into proverbial rats fleeing the proverbial ship by the act of fleeing the city in flames.” This is a poignant and perturbing tale about the inheritance of fear in a country scrabbling to regain its soul.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.