'The Sound of Things Falling" is an extraordinary novel about orphans of the Colombian drug wars attempting to see how they might fit into a world that has never made sense to them.
Juan Gabriel Vasquez's third novel is as much meditation as mystery, and to the author's credit, he leaves it open-ended. There may be understanding for some characters, but there's no resolution. There may be acceptance, but not closure.
"Sound" is a sad, luminous and cautionary tale. Beautifully crafted and layered, it is not a story of heroes. Paradoxically, it is a story of survival -- for some.
"THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING"
By Juan Gabriel Vasquez; translated from Spanish by Anne McLean
Antonio Yamarra, the Bogota lawyer whose inquiries into the hyperbolically dangerous Colombia of the 1980s and 1990s drive the plot, willingly slips into his past when he reads that a hippopotamus that escaped from Hacienda Napoles, cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar's private zoo, has been shot.
The news gets Yamarra to reminiscing about Ricardo Laverde, whom he met in a Bogota billiards hall and cautiously befriended. In 1996, three years after government forces killed the flamboyant and brutal Escobar, Laverde is murdered and Yamarra is grievously wounded -- in the same incident. The scar Yamarra bears becomes a metaphor for a life torn apart.
Learning why Laverde was fatally shot becomes Yamarra's obsession. As the plot thickens, Mr. Vasquez shows how symbiotic the sides were in the drug wars that made Colombia and the United States enemies.
Among the more provocative ideas this prodigiously gifted Colombian novelist makes plausible: the Peace Corps, a program of altruistic mission that was designed to bring American know-how to Third World countries, actually helped develop the Colombian drug trade, first in marijuana and, in the late '70s, the obscenely more lucrative coca paste.
While politics is the underpinning, Mr. Vasquez's novel is largely about Yamarra's healing. Yamarra's probe of Laverde's shadowy past leads this uneasily married man to the story of Elaine Fritts, Laverde's American wife and an early member of the Peace Corps. It also brings him close to Maya Fritts, the Laverdes' daughter.
In Mr. Vasquez's poetic hands, planes become figures of aspiration and catastrophe as they did in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince." Bogota, a capital city of such altitude it shortens one's breath, comes to embody a country trying to shed its reputation as a supremely dangerous place. Laverde, it turns out, stoked the danger -- and rode high for quite some time before he got entangled in a drug deal that went rogue.
Colombia also is the country where Yamarra can -- no, must -- find himself. His first encounter with Maya, a beekeeper who lives in a city far from Bogota, holds that promise:
"She had the palest green eyes I'd ever seen, and on her face a girl's skin met a mature and careworn woman's expression: her face was like a party that everyone had left. There were no adornments, except for two sparks of diamonds (I think they were diamonds) barely visible on her slender earlobes."
Mr. Vasquez's lean style, rendered with startling clarity in Anne McLean's translation, is meticulous and descriptive, making his ever-shifting context of equal weight as his characters. The novel easily shifts time, place and viewpoint. In fact, its pivot is a faux newspaper report about an airplane accident in the late 1930s involving Laverde's father. That story within a story, like the backstories of the Laverdes and Frittses (if not Yamarra), gives Mr. Vasquez's intricate, engrossing novel sturdiness and resonance.
A philosophical thriller about memory coming into sync with reality, "The Sound of Things Falling" blends the flat, striking palette of filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni with the political acumen of novelist Graham Greene. Mr. Vasquez, however, transmits the edgy allure of Colombia in a unique voice that speaks eloquently of a time and place only now coming into focus.
Carlo Wolff (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News. He spent six days in Colombia in fall 2012, and vividly recalls the empty narco McMansions ringing a resort area south of Cali.