‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (2013) – 270 pages Translated by Anne McLean
A literary award that I follow closely is the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. This award is truly a world literary award, and they seem to get it right a lot of the time. Of their nineteen award winners since 1996, I’ve read eleven including ‘A Heart So White’ by Javier Marias, ‘Wide Open’ by Nicola Barker, ‘The City of Bohane’ by Kevin Barry, and ‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones. The judges so far have seemed to pick novels that will last, that people will be reading fifty years from now.
This year’s winner is ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, the first South American to win the award. Vásquez’s novel beat out seven other nominees including ‘My Struggle’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Vásquez is from Colombia, home of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ there is a playful mention of Cien años de soledad which translated is the title ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. The girlfriend of a main character says of the novel, “The only thing I have here is a book the senor gave me as a going-away present, and I’ve tried to read it, I swear I’ve tried, but the Spanish is very difficult and everybody has the same name. It’s the most tedious thing I’ve read in a long time, and there’s even a typo on the cover.” This is Vásquez having a little fun at the expense of the master.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is known, of course, as the great practitioner of magical realism. Vásquez is no great fan of magical realism.
“I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics.” – Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
‘The Sound of Things Falling’ covers a violent time in Columbia’s recent history, the years when drug lord Pablo Escobar was controlling the world cocaine trade. Yet this novel is in no way a drugged-out tale. It is more about how many Columbians on the sidelines inevitably got caught up in the turbulence.
It begins with a hippopotamus which had escaped from Escobar’s old private zoo which had “during that time of freedom destroyed crops, invaded drinking troughs, terrified fisherman, and even attacked the breeding bulls at a cattle ranch.” Marksmen shot the hippopotamus dead in 2009, thirteen year after Escobar’s reign ended. This causes the narrator Antonio Yanmara to recall his own injurious brush with the Escobar years.
Through him we get the story of the life of Ricardo Leverde. Ricardo as a young man meets the love of his life in American Peace Corps volunteer Elaine Fritts. Ricardo flies private airplanes, and why not fly some stuff if they are willing to pay a lot of money?
The writing here is a wonder of superior storytelling that will leave you enthralled from beginning to end. As I mentioned before, don’t get the impression that this is a drug novel because that is far from the case. The story of Ricardo and Elaine captures the story in part of Columbia during the Escobar years and how even people not involved were severely affected. I strongly recommend this novel.