The Sound of Things Falling

sound of things falling

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s previous novel, The Secret History of Costaguana, involved a cameo from Joseph Conrad. It’s not hard to see why: his latest, The Sound of Things Falling, tells one characters story through the mediation of another character and seems above all concerned with the understanding of history, both personal and political. Whereas the nomadic Conrad, however, sought that understanding wherever he went (South America in Nostromo; the Congo in Heart of Darkness; London in The Secret Agent), Vasquez seeks again to reflect on his homeland of Columbia.

The novel focuses on the1990s when the Columbian government was engaged in a battle with drug lord Pablo Escobar for control of the country. The young narrator, Yammara, befriends an older man, Ricardo Laverde, in a billiard hall. Another member of the club tells him that Ricardo has recently been released after twenty years in prison, but he doesn’t know what he did to get put in there in the first place:

“But he must have done something, no? Nobody gets that many years for nothing.”

Ricardo reveals little more to Yammara, telling him not to “confuse billiards with friendship”, though he does show him a photograph he has had taken of himself in preparation for a visit from his wife who he has not seen in many years. He offers him advice that might be a mantra for the novel:

“…a person’s happy until they fuck it up somehow, then there’s no way to get back to what you used to be.”

A few weeks later Ricardo tells him he wants to play a tape and Yammara takes him to a shop where this is possible. The tape, we later find out, is from the black box of a crashed plane, the plane that his wife was travelling on. On the way home from the shop, Ricardo is fatally shot, a targeted killing, and Yammara injured.

Yammara goes on to unravel the truth about Ricardo’s life. Planes, flying and falling, form a great part of it: his grandfather a famous pilot; his father injured in a stunt at an air-show which goes wrong. Ricardo himself becomes a pilot and takes advantage of the burgeoning drug trade between Columbia and the USA. His wife is an American Peace Corp member, as is the man who introduces him to flying consignments of drugs. In exploring Ricardo’s life, we also see how the drugs trade infiltrates the country. Ricardo’s ‘big mistake’ is also Columbia’s.

As the plane crashes show, characters may make poor choices but they also have little control over their lives. A sense of isolation abounds. When Yammara goes to visit Ricardo’s daughter, he refuses the opportunity to phone his wife and tell her he will not be home that night – he becomes increasingly withdrawn from her after the shooting. The daughter, Maya, lives alone, and the connection she has with Yammara is brief, just as her parents’ marriage was. Yammara returns to find his wife and daughter have left. That togetherness may be the answer is only suggested in a question:

“…would I try to convince her, tell her that together we could defend ourselves better from the evil of the world, or that the world was too risky a place to be wandering on our own, without anyone waiting for us at home who worries about us when we don’t show up and who can go out and look for us?”

Few writers are producing such relevant and questioning novels about the places where they live.

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