My, oh my - what an incredible novel. This is the kind of novel that made me brush everything aside and read voraciously, devouring every single word and dreading arriving at the end. Yes, it's that good!
Set in Bogota, Colombia, our narrator, Antonio, becomes twinned to an enigmatic and shadowy ex-pilot named Ricardo Laverde, whom he meets in a Bogota billiard hall. Ricardo has been imprisoned for many years for reasons that take time to be revealed. (The refrain is: "He must have done something.") Antonio is with Ricardo during a drive-by motorbike shooting that ends one life and destroys the other.
What follows is one of the most harrowing descriptions of PTSD I've read as Antonio lives in terror of everything. The only salvation for him is to uncover the facts behind the life of the mysterious "ghosted" Ricardo and Colombia's ignoble past.
That is only the early foundation of this book. It touches on many themes: the tentacles of the drug business in Colombia and how one person's actions can have a boomerang effect on so many others. How it feels to live with a "terrible awareness of my vulnerability" - where planes fall from the sky, where bullets fell the innocent, where memories burst out of nowhere to transform and paralyze those who live through it.
As Antonio reflects on the unsuspected intensity of his memories, which are "just now beginning to emerge like an object falling from the sky", he thinks: "My contaminated life was mine alone: my family was still safe: safe from the plague of my country, from its afflicted recent history: safe from what had hunted me down along with so many of my generation (and others, too, yes, but most of all mine, the generation that was born with planes, with the flights full of bags and the bags of marijuana, the generation that was born with the War on Drugs and later experienced the consequence)."
I must note that Mr. Vasquez does not place the drug war as front-and-center of his book; rather, his purpose is to display how things fall apart in a world that forces good people to relinquish their own feelings of control. As we fall out of the sky, only redemptive love can save us. By the end of the book, I had tears in my eyes from the sheer power of the writing. Kudos to Anne McLean for a beautiful translation of a must-read book.
Juan Gabriel Vasquez's THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING is an intriguing, if slow, look into Columbia's past and present. It begins with a story of an escaped hippo--a fugitive from a zoo belonging to drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. What fallows is an investigation into Columbia's recent, violent past, figure-headed by Antonio Yammara, who once saw an acquaintance of his get gunned down right before his eyes.
There's a lot going for THINGS FALLING: lush prose, a rich backstory, and a truly interesting subject matter. However, instead of getting lost in the prose, the reader often hits a brick wall--a points, this feels more like thinly-disguised journalism. It's as though Vasquez either couldn't decide what to write (fiction or nonfiction), or chose to create a hybrid of the two. (Most likely, the latter.) While the idea is interesting, the book may have been better if the nonfiction accents were either toned down, or enhanced (i.e., a solid work of nonfiction). As is, this is a novel for some, but not all. Those who sink their teeth into it, however, will certainly come away with something worthwhile.
on August 1, 2013
Juan Gabriel Vásquez's "The Sound of Things Falling" is epic, haunting and beautifully written. I read an article about it in "Time" magazine on July 31st, one day before the novel's English release. Within twenty-four hours, I had read the entire book.
"Falling," as some people have referred to it in English, is the story of Antonio Yammara, a 29-year-old, university law professor in Bogotá, Colombia who has always excelled intellectually. His comfortable, carefree world is soon blown away. First, a former student turned lover announces she's pregnant and carrying his child. At the same time, Antonio, who plays billiards to unwind, has sort of befriended an enigmatic older player. Ricardo Laverde has shared a few intriguing bits of his life, mostly in a woozy state over drinks. One afternoon, as the men walk along a street after leaving the billiards hall, they become the targets of a drive-by motorcycle shooting. Ricardo is killed. Antonio is seriously wounded--physically and mentally. For Antonio, several years of PTSD follow and a long journey to discover the secrets of his acquaintance. The story covers some eighty years of real-life Colombian history and the personal lives of several generations of fictional families.
To fully appreciate "Falling," it helps to have some knowledge of Colombian history and culture and of the tremendous impact of the drug cartels over the last half century. If you don't have that, Wikipedia can pretty well fill in the gaps. In 2011, I spent a week in Bogotá. I visited bookstores and asked for current best-selling novels (in Spanish). I read two of three books I bought and the third one--most highly praised by the sales' assistant--languished in the "someday" pile. Guess what it was?
I pulled it out yesterday afternoon and cut away the cellophane wrapping, typical in Latin America. "Falling" won the 2011 Premio Alfaguara, one of the highest honors in Spanish-language literature. Some of the most prestigious writers in Latin America sit on its panel. I could relate to Elaine, the idealistic American who went off to Colombia and to change the world in her youth. I went to Mexico. My story is less dramatic. Mexico's story today is Colombia's in the 1980's and '90's.
If you want to truly understand the global impact of "recreational" drugs in the U.S. and what the future holds, "The Sound of Things Falling" is a great place to start. It may not pop up in your dreams, but it did in mine last night.
on August 19, 2013
"The day of his death, at the beginning of 1996, Ricardo Laverde had spent the morning walking the narrow sidewalks of La Candelaria, in the center of Bogota, between old houses with clay roof tiles and unread marble plaques with summaries of historic events, and around one in the afternoon he showed up at the billiards club on 14th Street, ready to play a couple of games with some of the regulars."
The final minutes of Ricardo Laverde's life are about to have a profound effect on Antonio Yammara. As a young college instructor, Antonio's life is good. Or at least it's as good as it can be in the troubled South American city. He has a job he enjoys, a pleasant apartment, and the company of women when he wants it. But in the seconds it takes for Ricardo to die, Antonio's good fortune takes a devastating tumble.
Why did this happen? Antonio realizes that he has little idea of his friend Ricardo's past. With the intimacy of death weighing him down, Antonio embarks on a journey to understand, at least a little bit, how Ricardo ended up dying as he did. He travels not only physically, from Bogota, but from the present day into a long-ago time, when Pablo Escobar ruled the drug trade. But could his friend really have been involved in that dark, twisted and violent part of society? Antonio finds it hard to believe.
Through research, talks with family members, letters --- really, everything he can dig up --- he turns Ricardo into a living, breathing soul once again. Antonio gets to know the man as he never had a chance to when he was alive. The people whose lives Ricardo touched, the people he left behind, even the people he hurt, all help Antonio work through his own personal demons. And he has many where once he had none. In one instant, so much was altered: his present, his future, maybe even his past. He must figure out how to move forward, or everything he holds dear may disappear. It is a monumental task he faces.
For years, Antonio searches for answers. What he doesn't seem to realize is that they don't matter nearly as much as grasping what he already has. If THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING does nothing else, it will teach you the value of the blessings you have and remind you never to take things for granted. Life can change in the wink of an eye or the flash of a gun barrel.
Writing with a mournful, unapologetic tone, Juan Gabriel Vásquez enmeshes his readers in a wretched period of Colombia's history. He takes an in-your-face approach and tells a story that is not pretty. You will come away uncomfortable, disturbed even, but you will have discovered an empathy for the generations that lost so much to the dawn of the drug lords. This story will touch you in ways you wouldn't believe possible and make you think. So suspend your light summer reading for this meaty hunk of a novel right now.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers
on July 21, 2013
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez examines the devastating effect the drug wars of the last decades of the 20th century had on Colombian society. The violence brought suffering not only to the immediate victims of the bloodshed, but permeated an entire country, instilling a lasting fear in its citizens. Many relocated to other parts of Latin America, the United States or Europe. Those that remained were often, if not physically, psychologically deformed by the violence. In Bogota, a curfew was established and many people favored gathering in private settings over the public spheres more commonly used in an open society.
Vasquez sets his story over the course of several decades, allowing the reader to witness the slow buildup of drug trafficking in the late 1960s to the the ascendancy of the drug lord Pablo Escobar with his immense estate appointed with smuggler runways and a private zoo. We learn how Peace Corp members helped the Colombians to develop marijuana and then cocaine in both quantity and quality.
The story is built upon the relationship between Ricardo Laverde, the grandson of a famous Colombian pilot and war hero, and Elaine Fritts, a Peace Corp volunteer from the United States. The couple marries and becomes increasingly involved in the burgeoning drug trade with tragic results. But the tragedy, as stated, does not simply affect those directly involved, it plays out over the generations. The novel is narrated by Antonio Yammara a young law professor who befriends Ricardo Laverde in the mid 1990s and slowly unravels the mystery of the older man's past. By relating Laverde's story to the reader, he slowly exposes his own individual suffering and that of his country.
The novel provides great insight into the way the drug wars played out in Colombia on both an individual and societal level and demonstrates that even those with the best of intentions and the greatest of efforts are often blindsided by historical fate. Although the story spans several decades, it never loses its sense of intimacy. Indeed, the story is told in such a way that the context of history helps to illuminate the individual charcters and they in turn help us to grasp the consequences of years of prolonged violence on a nation.
on August 8, 2013
Juan Gabriel Vasquez did not fulfill my expectations (I would give examples of "disappointments," but don't want to tempt prospective readers), nor did he elicit the much desired sharp intakes of breath that signify astonishment. It didn't happen -- and yet I could scarcely put this engaging book down until I was finished (and, yes, completely satisfied). This can only mean one thing -- that the author is truly a gifted storyteller. It's as if I were one of those oblivious should-be witnesses in Bruegel's "Landscape With the Fall of Icarus" who, failing to observe the winged boy's tragic and silent descent, is suddenly nudged (by Vasquez) to his finger pointing skyward, and directed to see what I would not naturally conceive of seeing. "The Sound of Things Falling" is resoundingly magnificent.
"There is a sound that I cannot or have never been able to identify: a sound that's not human or is more than human, the sound of lives being extinguished...the sound of things falling from on high...that is forever suspended in my memory, hanging in it like a towel on a hook."
In 1995, when Bogotonian Antonio Yammara was 26 and a few years out of law school, he met two significant people who would transform him, and in some ways, one would destroy him. A few years later, he met someone else that he hoped would help heal him. This is a story about the presence of the past, PTSD, grief, lives falling apart, bodies falling soundlessly. It is a story of love and hope from on high, and the crumbling and dissolution of that love and hope, the profanity of it when it runs out of fuel.
Narrated by Yammara, the story is set against the backdrop of Colombian history, from the sixties through the nineties, during the ruthless, violent years of drug trafficking and drug wars. The story focuses on Yammara and the people in his life, and one tragic event that made time stand still for him while the rest of the world moved on. He witnessed a casual friend, Ricardo Laverde, an ex-pilot and ex-convict, killed in the streets of Bogotá. Antonio was also severely injured. This event consumed him, and he was unable to focus on his family--the woman, Aura, he had met and romanced during the same year as he met Laverde, and the baby they had together shortly afterward.
What happens next is a journey to the past--Laverde's past--one that Yammara is compelled to understand. He follows a cassette tape to the Magdelena Valley, to Laverde's daughter, another walking wounded of Colombia's history, who is also stuck in time by previous events. Together, they attempt to fill in the missing pieces of Laverde's history, with the hope of liberating them both from the prison of pain and trauma.
Narrated with eloquence, intimacy, and warmth, Vasquez' story resonates with a heartbreaking lyricism and poetry that captivated me from the opening pages. I am drawn to stories about time and memory, and about the past events that damage us and paradoxically heal us through our shared connections.
My hat's off to Annie McLean, who did a superb translation of Vasquez' novel.
on August 9, 2013
I lived and worked in Colombia for many years. It is a complex, beautiful, and dangerous place situated along the northernmost cordillera of the Andes. This author is so unusual in his writing about "Su pais" and "La gente" without the nationalistic blinders and jingoism that so many of his fellow writers have in varying degrees, that it opens up the heart of the country as never before. Juan Gabriel Vasquez, from Bogota, the Athens of South America, pens his stories in an entertaining, (it looses little in the translation) clear, and analytical voice. He is a great story teller and carries the tradition of poetic expression that Colombia is famous for. His countrymen will recognize that they have produced another Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
on June 23, 2014
[For a more detailed review, visit: anafichesdelectures(dot)wordpress(dot)com]
This distinctive novel is about, on one hand, Colombia and the culture of drugs, and on the other hand, how we are authors of our messy world (micro and macro) where we lose control of the impact of the consequences of choices, whether personal or foreign.
It’s the first time I read a novel dealing with Colombia and the author did not fail to impress me. I will be reading his previous books and keep up with his work.
It’s a beautiful narrative, condensed, full of meaning that tackles many themes such as: how all of us have tragic, unexpected, unwanted moments that changes forever the course of our life; how we become prisoner, “fugitives”; how we have no control due to unforeseen consequences. Also, the author depicts the Colombian culture and how future generations are victims of the war of drugs. It’s quite unique because the author shares all of this in an introspective manner, through the main character, Antonio. It’s multilayered and the author manages to interconnected all the dots, along the different generations through time, and along the various characters.
I will not be delving too much on the plot, but suffice to say, it’s a masterpiece. If you liked “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, you definitely will enjoy this one.This profound novel is easy to be identified with since all these life lessons and observations can be easily applied at some point of our lives.
on October 3, 2013
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, born in Bogota in 1973, is a highly acclaimed Colombian writer and translator. Vásquez was educated in Barcelona and in Paris at the Sorbonne. He currently lives in Barcelona with his wife and daughters. The Sound of Things Falling is Vásquez' third novel to be translated into English and has already won major awards in Europe.
The title of the novel is exquisitely apropos for the events and the setting, adequately encapsulating the significance of the text. The title foreshadows all the action of the novel. The Sound of Things Falling is the fictional story of Antonío Yammara and Ricardo Laverde knitted within a framework full of the ignoble history of the Colombian drug violence in the last half of the twentieth century. Vásquez' setting is real, drawn from history and contains details of actual historical figures such as drug czar Pablo Escobar. Vásquez captures the manners and social conditions of the people and the times in the story, with detail and fidelity.
Antonío is a young professor of law whose life is good, he has a nice apartment, a beautiful girlfriend and a baby on the way. He becomes acquainted with Ricardo Laverde whom he meets in a Bogota pool hall. Rumor has it that Laverde has spent the last twenty years in prison. Laverde is quiet and unassuming and offers no insight into his past.
Antonío's contented life is shattered when one afternoon as he and Laverde are walking on a city street they become victims of a drive-by shooting. Laverde is killed and Antonío is gravely wounded physically, mentally and emotionally. Antonío slowly heals physically but his psyche is crushed by excruciating post-traumatic stress.
Completely consumed with his stress and fear, Antonío becomes engrossed in his search for the history of Valverde and why he was killed. Antonío discovers the chimeras and deceptions of the people of Valverde's generation when the thriving marijuana market gave way to that of cocaine and the "war on drugs" was declared by the president of the United States.
This book explores various themes such as the drug commerce in Colombia and how the actions of one person can have ramifications that effect many others for generations. The story touches on how it feels to be vulnerable, even helpless in a time when innocents are shot down in cold blood, planes fall from the sky and intense memories of the past come out of nowhere to terrorize and immobilize those who lived through the experience.
The English translation done by Anne McLean is impeccable. McLean manages to translate Vásquez' Spanish prose into beautifully written English. McLean has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize twice.
I highly recommend The Sound of Things Falling for its gripping telling of a personal aspect of the horrific events that occurred in Columbia during its most dreadful era. Juan Gabriel Vásquez surpasses expectations in this unforgettably tragic tale.
I purchased my copy of this book with my own funds and received no compensation for the review.