The Sound of Things Falling

  • Juan Gabriel Vásquez
  • Riverhead Books
  • 288 pp.

Memories of brutality form a common language for the people of Bogotá, Colombia. Can these citizens build a future different from the past?

In The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vásquez captures magnificently the feel of Bogotá — its neighborhoods and rhythms, its sounds and smells and the terror of its inhabitants during the years of drug violence.

One afternoon early in 1996, a pilot and former drug runner named Ricardo Laverde is gunned down in the streets of Bogotá. Antonio Yammara, a casual friend of Laverde’s, is caught in the gunfire and seriously injured. Yammara is a young law professor who lives with one of his former students, Aura, and their new baby. His domestic bliss adds poignancy to the story by drawing the reader’s attention to the way in which drug violence can suddenly shatter the lives of average citizens. The trauma caused by Laverde’s death and his own near demise cause Yammara to sink into depression, alienating him from his young family and making it difficult for him to perform his professorial duties.

Yammara had met Laverde the previous year, and, although not intimate friends, they had spent time talking, drinking and shooting pool. He learned that Laverde had recently been released from prison and was married to a woman named Elena, whom he adored and who was coming to visit him. However, shortly before her plane was supposed to land, it crashed mysteriously into the Andes. A few days later, Laverde was murdered.

Yammara becomes so obsessed with Laverde’s story that he begins an intensive investigation into the circumstances leading to the murder. His search leads him to Laverde’s boarding house, where the landlady allows him to listen to a cassette containing the black box recording of the doomed flight. He also connects with Laverde’s daughter, Maya, who raises bees in a remote area of La Dorada.  

Without telling Aura where he is going, Yammara makes the trek to Maya’s apiary. A strange and lonely woman, Maya feels an immediate kinship with Yammara and gives him access to documents relating to her father’s life that date back to the 1960s. The Laverdes had once been an illustrious family, but were now reduced to renting out rooms to make ends meet, and Laverde met Elena — whose real name is Elaine Fritts — when she was a Peace Corps volunteer boarding at the Laverde home. The grandson of a famous aviator, Laverde also became a pilot. Once he and Elaine were married and expecting a child, he took a lucrative job running marijuana shipments to the United States. But if marijuana was profitable, cocaine was even more so. Laverde agreed to fly his first load of coke about the same time the Nixon administration declared the War on Drugs in 1971. Arrested by DEA agents, Laverde went to prison, while his wife eventually returned home to Jacksonville, but neither could be free from the past.

However, The Sound of Things Falling is not really the story of one man and his involvement with the cartels. Instead, it is an exploration of how the cartels impacted thousands of people of Laverde’s generation who in one way or another were drawn into the trafficking business — people like Laverde, who were not hardened criminals but saw drugs as a product they were supplying to an eager market, and Elaine, a do-gooder caught up in anti-Vietnam war protests and anti-establishment rhetoric. As Yammara remarks, these people were not innocent; they were innocents, naïve youngsters who never examined the moral implications or possible consequences of their actions.

Significantly, Pablo Escobar, the drug lord who headed the Medellín Cartel, is hardly mentioned in the book, although his relentlessly menacing presence looms over everything. He is behind the fear that grips the city and the plane crash that kills Elaine. By forcing readers to reconstruct the underlying story, Vásquez makes us participants in the action and thereby intensifies his novel’s impact.   

More than Laverde’s generation, Yammara’s generation — Vásquez’s own — is the book’s focus. Colombians now in their 40s have been profoundly damaged by the violence that racked their country in the 1980s and 1990s. They have grown up with “the sound of things falling” — objects, buildings, bodies and airplanes. (Escobar brought down an entire plane when he suspected an enemy politician was on board, although he turned out to be wrong.) They remember where they were when political reformers Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and Luis Carlos Galán were gunned down — memories forming a common language that unites them. Vásquez suggests that only by facing the reality of Colombia’s recent past can his generation move beyond it. But Bogotá is the real protagonist of Vásquez’s novel — a city so steeped in brutality that it, like Yammara, became dysfunctional.

The novel both begins and ends with images of hippopotamuses. Early in the story a hippopotamus escapes from Escobar’s famed private zoo and is killed by police. Laverde remarks that the animal is an innocent victim of circumstance. Much later, when Maya and Yammara visit the zoo, they spy a baby hippopotamus running loose in the grass. Does it represent the next generation of Bogatanos? Will the hippopotamus calf free itself from the terrible state of affairs that kept it caged and defeated, or will it, like Escobar’s other caged animals, succumb to circumstance?

The Sound of Things Falling is a powerful and provocative book that asks important questions about the responsibility of individuals to consider the consequences of their actions and about the possibility of building a future different from the past. This book may give you nightmares, but it’s worth the read anyhow.  

 Bárbara Mujica is a novelist and professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown University. Her latest novel isI Am Venus,based on the life of the Spanish painter Diego de Velázquez. She is also author ofFridaandSister Teresa,based on the lives of Frida Kahlo and Teresa de Ávila. 


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